Email Subject Lines and the The Law of Declining Significance

Herschell Gordon Lewis
Herschell Gordon Lewis

Here’s the easiest quiz you’ll see all day:

What all-too-common a mistake do these email headings share?

(Every one is either current or recent. We don’t need to invent any. Their very commonness makes it unnecessary to concoct samples.)

Maybe you wrote one of these:

  • “Is your online payment system secure? 3 ways to earn customer trust”…
  • “An Auditor’s Point of View: 3 Insights into PCI DSS Compliance”…
  • “4 Key Benefits of the Cloud-Based Contact Center”…
  • “Hello There. Check Out 14 Dazzling Matches”…
  • “10 Signs Your Business Has a Security Problem”…
  • “6 Ways to Save Big on Data Center Cooling Costs”…
  • “Five Reasons Why Small Businesses Should Utilize VOiP”…
  • “7 Best Practices for Email Deliverability.”

Want to see fifty more? Just check your old and deleted emails. They’ll be there.

And most of them will use initial caps, just to be sure they achieve as little rapport as a keyboard can make possible. Why reveal, even before the recipient of your message recognizes the statement as a “pitch,” that what you’re sending is bulk advertising?

What each of these flat little samples ignores is a principle effective salespeople know automatically – The Law of Declining Significance:

When creating an effective sales message, choose one key element your targets are most likely to regard as significant and subordinate the rest.

Want that in more proletarian language? Laundry lists are weak selling weapons.

A more cogent way of recognizing The Law of Declining Significance may be its original description: E2= 0. Simple enough – when you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. E2=0.

We think dumping the entire contents of the benefits-basket onto a reader, viewer, or listener will outpull selective choice. Not so, because emphasis becomes diluted.

A basic rule of force-communication not only has applied for hundreds of years but has become more significant as force-communication sophisticates itself. That rule: Fire your biggest gun first.

How can we do that if the subject line denies the existence of a biggest gun? “Five reasons why…” and “7 best practices for…” spread the ammunition so widely that impact parallels a pop-gun.

You have a quick moment to seize and use a potential responder’s attention. You’re at point-blank range, as close as you ever may be. Fire! Rationalize with care an assumed friendship after you’ve established rapport.

A truism

Whenever any negotiation seems to be headed toward completion, introduction of additional elements damages or kills response. Car dealers know this very well. Human resources directors are masters of obfuscation, as are career jobhunters.

A car dealer advertises “No money down.” That’s more credible than “No Money Down” with initial caps. Now, does a batch of mice-type spring into view, adding conditions or expenses or pieces not previously related to the negotiation?

(A parenthetical point: If initial caps formalize an approach, why does The Law of Declining Significance use them? Figure it out.)

A standard recognition – an anecdote if it applies to somebody else, an annoyance if it applies to you – is the stupefying percentage of responses that disappear when a “shopping cart” is abandoned just at the point of submission. Replacing the word “Submit” with one that isn’t as severe will help, but the core of the rejection is sudden reality: Your brain slops into gear: This isn’t quite what I thought it was.

For one party to an agreement – in these cases, the party asked to finance or acquire whatever – The Law of Declining Significance may reveal the presence, real or imagined, of duplicity. That’s a deal-killer. Or it may say, “Better check this out a little closer.” That’s at least a partial deal-killer.

We as vendors of products, services, or concepts come into the arena dressed as honestly and plainly as our words make possible. That’s how we appear, openly and competitively, at first sight. What happens after that depends on how well we understand and can implement what motivates or de-motivates our targets.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Pompano Beach, Florida. Author of 32 books, including the recently-published Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics;Catalog Copy That Sizzles;On the Art of Writing Copy(fourth edition recently published); Asinine Advertising; and Creative Rules for the 21st Century, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide. Web address is

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