I often see environmental organizations falling back on fear tactics and shocking headlines to get donors to open emails.
Today, more than ever, email users are on high alert, just hoping for an excuse to delete an email without actually opening it.
This puts an enormous amount of pressure on that email subject line. After all, if your supporters aren’t even opening your emails, those fundraising dollars have been wasted. And there’s not very many environmental organizations that have the wiggle room to waste fundraising dollars.
The subject line is more than just a headline
Headlines can often reek of, gah!, marketing.
So a good headline must become more than just a split-second way to grab the attention of a donor.
There are many ways to do this, of course. My favorite method revolves around arousing curiosity. Finding out the answer to an interesting question is so innate in our little human minds, that it’s almost impossible not to open a good curiosity-themed email.
The Green Life, Daily Tips from the Sierra Club magazine, consistently has some of the best email subject lines in online environmental communications today.
The Most Littered Object in the World
This sparks instant curiosity for me. “What could this object be?” Who wouldn’t want to know that? It also ignites a tiny bit of Guilt. If this object is so prevalent, it’s likely I could have actually littered it at one time or another. Could I…? Guilt and curiosity. A strong pairing.
5 Weird Effects of California’s Drought
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know California is in serious trouble. Anyone with an interest in the environment is taking note of what is happening there right now. So, along with great curiosity (“What do they mean weird effects? I wonder what those could be…”), it tickles a little bit of Pride. “I totally want to know this. Sounds like a great pickup line…”
How Hot Sauce Can Help You Save the World
Funny! Funny doesn’t always work, but combined with curiosity (“How in the world could hot sauce save anything except this burrito?”), and Optimism (“Is it really possible we still have a shot at saving the world?”), it works like a charm.
Asking a question is also a great way to get a good open rate. It hearkens back to that curiosity emotion, but takes it to another level.
Can salamanders help fight climate change?
This one, from Conservation International, asks a question, sparks curiosity, and perhaps a little Doubt (“Salamanders? Really?”), making you want to find out the answer.
Did your side of fries come with a side of deforestation?
Inflicting a little Attitude into your question is a good way to get a donor to take notice too, especially from an unlikely source. Sure, you’d expect the Union of Concerned Scientists to ask hard questions, but snarky questions might get a little under-the-breath-chuckle that will make the donor want to read on.
Of course, offering something for free will always spark curiosity. After all, we all want to know what’s in it for us.
FREE hummingbird feeder
The Audubon Society frequently uses premiums, and to great success. If that’s your thing, a free hummingbird feeder would be super. This premium has a double impact too. It helps to self-identify the reader with the subject. “There are other people just like me who adore hummingbirds!”
A note of caution: be careful with “free” in your subject lines. It can trigger spam filters, in which case your reader will never see your free gift offer.
While shock value is by far my least favorite headline method, if you can manage the shock without dangling the fear tactics, you might get a good result. Like this one from the Center for Biological Diversity:
Spice Up the Holidays With a Box of Condoms
Umm… what!? The reason this one works so well is the unlikely pairing of the sender name and the subject line. In fact, when this landed in my inbox, my eye scooted over to the sender to see whether I’d somehow gotten on a list for… well, not something I’m usually on a list for. But seeing that it was from an environmental organization got a bunch of emotions running through my head: Humor, Shock, Curiosity, Doubt, and well, let’s face it, a little Passion. Spicing up the holidays is always a good idea.
As always, there’s exceptions to every rule, even self-imposed ones. Sometimes, fear-tactic headlines have their place.
How To Ruin a Great Hike
This one perhaps sparks a bit more Alarm than straight Fear. “Good God! Who would want to ruin a great hike!?” And… “Why is The Wilderness Society telling me to do this!?” The Horror of suggesting such a thing morphs into curiosity so quickly that it drowns out the fear, and I’m so intrigued, I open it anyway.
Congress to Gray Wolves: Drop Dead
This is another shock/fear headline that I’m not usually drawn to by Defenders of Wildlife. It works for me here though because although the words are total Shock, the meaning arouses Curiosity, Confusion, Surprise, Anger, and Worry. “Why would Congress think that? DO they really think that? What do they mean when the say Drop Dead? Is Congress issuing an actual order to kill Gray Wolves??”
Of course, there’s also the Direct subject line, which you can never go wrong with.
Now is the time to make an impact
This email subject line from Conservation International is a bit boring. And although you know exactly what they are asking for, it also brings on some other, more subtle emotions. Pride, Benevolence, and Vanity come into play. Their direct appeal makes you feel that if you do act now, perhaps you actually can make an impact on the world, something we all want.
Stay Warm. Save Wildlife.
Same with this one from the National Wildlife Federation. Direct, sure. They’re probably going to ask you for something (money!), but it’s also very donor-centric. “I do want to be warm and save wildlife.” And sparks a little curiosity. “Uh… how can I save wildlife by staying warm?”
Don’t take the easy route
As a potential donor, I don’t like to be told what to do in the subject line. Calls to action are great, but they should be reserved for later.
For example, “Donate now to meet our midnight deadline!” just doesn’t do it for me on so many levels. Its about you, not me, it’s a little bossy, and totally boring. Why would I donate now? Who will it help, your cause, or you? What’s in it for me?
The subject line is important. Obviously. I just spent over 1,000 words explaining that.
But who it’s from is even more important. If your donors know you, trust you, and understand what your organization is all about, they’re likely to open whatever you send, regardless of the subject line.