Reaction to WebWord report on email subject lines (long)

Subject: Reaction to WebWord report on email subject lines (long)
From: Christine -dot- Anameier -at- seagate -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2001 15:28:21 -0600

Bill Swallow offered a link the other day to a WebWord.com report on email
subject lines (http://www.webword.com/moving/subjectlines.html). I took a
look at it and had some reservations about their methodology and their
conclusions. I'm curious to know what others on this list think.

The report suggests that messages marked RE: are more likely to be read
than messages marked FW:. I'd buy that. It also says that a message's
position in a list of emails is not a factor. That makes sense to me. I
scan through every batch of emails looking for the ones I want to open
first.

But the methodology troubles me. They took 22 users and put them through
three phases-- in one, they presented email subject lines one-by-one and
asked the users whether they would (1) open it, (2) read it, or (3) delete
it. How is "open it" different from "read it," and how can one read it
without opening it? (Even if you read it in the preview pane, that's
equivalent to opening it, in my book.) In the other phases they presented
email subject lines in groups and asked the users to prioritize them. I
found that approach a little more interesting, but still, the whole
methodology seems to trust that the users normally behave the way they SAY
they do, and that they behave consistently.

There are some assumptions there that I question. I don't know about the
rest of you, but:

1. Whether I open a given email will depend on more factors than just the
subject line--e.g., time pressure; mood; and whether the email has hit my
home email account, my work email, or my all-purpose spam-bucket webmail
address.

2. All email-openings are not equal -- there is a difference between
opening it to see what the sender has to say, and opening it to verify that
it is indeed spam before deleting it. The simple fact of my opening an
email does not mean it succeeded in reaching me. And when I send an email,
my concern is not whether the recipient will open it -- it's whether the
recipient will understand it and respond appropriately.

...and...

3. The report assumes that it's worthwhile to offer a simple
one-size-fits-all approach to email subject lines. But that will never be
as effective as targeting subject lines carefully according to the
recipient's needs or quirks. I have entirely different strategies for
emailing different recipients. My best friends may get a personal note with
the subject line "Re: Life" and I know they'll open it anyway. But
colleagues who are known email-avoiders, overworked types who let their
email accumulate for weeks unread, get subject lines that will convey a
message even if the subject line is all they ever see--e.g., "Subject: I
need another week on the ferble gronkulation report" rather than the
shorter "Subject: Schedule" that this report would recommend.

I strongly disagree with the report's assertion that "the shorter the
subject line is the better it is."

The example they give for a long subject line is "RE: WinRamTurbo Memory
Organizer and Defragmenter." 50 characters: bad. But if all their "long
subject line" samples were as needlessly wordy and conceptually empty as
this one, it's no wonder their test subjects didn't open the emails. Which
of the following emails would you be most likely to pay attention to?

Subject: RE: WRT

Subject: WinRAM

Subject: WINRAM TURBO

Subject: Re: WinRam Turbo

Subject: WinRAM Turbo crashed my PC five times today - recommend
against buying it

Shorter is not necessarily better.

The report chides Jakob Nielsen for failing to back up his own subject-line
guidelines with empirical evidence in his Alertbox "Microcontent" piece
(http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980906.html). But this report relies on
empirical evidence to reach conclusions that are, IMHO, much less
compelling and helpful than Nielsen's. They tested for the wrong things:
why devote that much effort to testing the effects of sentence case vs.
upper-case, but ignore more substantial issues like the syntax and actual
content of the subject line? To my mind, the difference between "Re:
WIDGETS" and "Re: widgets" and "FWD: Widgets!" is MUCH less significant
than the difference between "RE: Widgets" and "Re: Your widget problem -
try gronkulating the widget ferbles." That, to me, is the fatal flaw in
this report--the overemphasis on simple and quantifiable variables (case,
length, and prefix) instead of the more complex content issues.

Christine Anameier
(opinions expressed here are my own, not my employer's or my cat's, etc.,
etc.)


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