Deeper Thoughts
When Good Subject Lines Go Bad

Just like everyone, I get what feels like a million marketing emails a day. I don’t begrudge those marketers—we use direct email marketing ourselves. Just like everyone else, I tend to notice only a small number of those emails. Sometimes the subject line is just beyond boring. Many times, the various products or services being hawked just aren’t something for which I have a need at that moment.

And yet, occasionally, an unexpected marketing email will catch my attention. That happened this week, and it got me thinking.

When marketing emails work…

A marketing email can grab your attention one of two ways.

The first way for an email to catch a prospect’s attention is the way every good marketer hopes it will: with a catchy subject line. Something that’s both compelling and relevant. What is it they say about having to grab your reader’s attention within 40 characters in the subject line?

In a perfect marketing world, the subject line gets the reader to read a little more. The reader consumes just enough copy to get an idea of the value proposition.  With a little luck, the reader will then click and go to a well-presented, funnel-filling landing page, another step closer to making the coveted transition from prospect to client.

…and when they don’t. 

And then, there’s the other way of getting a reader’s attention.

That’s what drew me to the particular email I’m about to discuss. As you can imagine, the vast majority of emails coming into my work email address are mortgage or real estate related. Client and partner emails, of course. Trade publications. Vendor pitches. Dozens to hundreds at a time. The subject lines, especially for the trades and marketing emails, can be a little, shall we say, homogenous.

Not this one.

Where old-school rappers cross paths with…risk management.

“In the words of Slim Shady: Guess Who’s Back, Back Again!”

Ok. That’s nothing if not at least a little interesting. A slight deviation from the norm. But the body of the email to which that catchy subject line dragged me? Not so much. 

You see, in this case, the marketer was making a tortured connection between Mr. Marshall Mathers and…risk management. 

I’m confident that Eminem and mortgage risk assessment, including the ever-popular onsite audit prep, go together about as well as peanut butter and pickles. One of these things is not like the other. Marketing mission not accomplished.

In fact, the dramatic non-sequitur compelled me to do just the opposite of what I’d assume a good marketer wants: forward said email to a few others on my team with a catty comment or two. To her credit, our own resident marketing master, Alayna, did observe that the subject line had, in the least, gotten me to pay some attention to the message. And the way she described it was perfect.

“So…it kinda’ worked.”

Interruption versus authenticity

How true! The first milestone in sending a direct marketing email is, of course, to get the reader’s attention. Mission accomplished. But small victories don’t always lead to larger victories. The main point of any marketing email, for the most part, is to turn the unaware into the aware and get people to buy more of your stuff, eventually.

That didn’t happen here. It felt a little like a bait-and-switch. 

Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Z are really, really big on authenticity and transparency when it comes to marketing messaging. Be who you are, not what you want to “spin” yourself to appear. The mortgage industry is finally coming around to this concept as well. Boomers, on the other hand, come from a time when interruption was the best way to get a prospect’s attention. Didn’t matter how. Back then, people were still polite enough to hear out a pitch or spiel, even if they hadn’t planned to.

I guess that’s why some huge supermarket chains still think that clogging the aisle with product displays and narrowing shopper foot traffic to a tiny choke point in places will force people to buy said products. That’s the interruption technique. It’s old school.

A bit like invoking a beloved musical icon to sell consulting services.

And, I guess, in a way, it kinda works. At least, it used to.


We at LodeStar are grateful to all of our clients, friends and colleagues who take the time to view Deeper Thoughts. Please consider having a look as well at some of our other great content, including our podcast, “LodeStar’s Lending Leaders,” and A Tale of Two Mortgages: an original webcomic for the mortgage industry, presented by LodeStar.”  As always, your feedback is welcomed and appreciated!