Stand out from the crowd of emails with tags. Image: toddwmac, CC

A long, long time ago in a country far away, I was part of a newsgroup: For those of you under 35 and without the nerdiest of proclivities, newsgroups were pre- and early- world wide web discussion forums about topics ranging from travel to medicine to popular culture. My newsgroup was devoted to The X-Files, so once a week in the half-hour time slot that our internet service provider had allocated us to use the network, I would sit and listen to the family’s 1200 baud modem struggle (for some minutes) to download a new batch of posts – all text – for me to eagerly read and respond to. When I did, I’d type RE: at the front of the message subject, so everyone knew it was part of a threaded conversation.

The convention of using RE: to denote reply in email goes back to the mid-1990s, when people like me were writing multipage rants under subjects like: RE: Episode 8: Is Krycek really dead?! For nearly 20 years, it was in common use to denote threaded messages – in newsgroups like mine, in the community forums they became, and most ubiquitously in email. But since Gmail has dominated the email software landscape, and especially since it introduced its conversations view that groups threaded emails together, the RE: tag and its cousin FWD: have fallen out of use. The exception, it seems, is for people using ancient email software – like maybe someone’s grandpa, who loves to forward sexist chain letter emails from his bowling buddies. FWD: FWD: FWD: RE: FWD: This Female Doesn’t Know Her Employer is Filming Her !!

A RE:al Opportunity

So where are we now? The convention of using RE: and FWD: has fallen away but we, as email readers, are still hardwired to immediately understand what they mean and react accordingly. You know that a FWD: email is content sent by someone that you know to your, because they thought you should read it. And RE: means you’re involved in this conversation already, which makes you much more likely to pay attention because you’ve already made the call that it’s important. That, my friends, is a golden opportunity for marketers.

Here’s a fun fact – despite its use, RE: doesn’t actually mean reply. Rather, it’s short for In re, which is Latin for in the matter of, or regarding.

Coupled with a message that seems to be a legitimate reply or forward, using RE: and FWD: tags can have a marked impact on your open and click-through rates. In a fake forward test by wicked smart strategic marketing firm Marketo, an email that seemed to be forwarded from a sales rep directly to the potential customer had open and click-to-open rates that were 2% higher. That seems like small potatoes but in a list of 4000 prospects, that’s 80 more opens. Not bad for three little letters and a tiny message. In my work, we have used it to great success in a two-stage email campaign to warm leads.

Here’s how we did it:

Week 1: First email sent with professional marketing language, standard from address and name, HTML formatted with clear call to action to register for an event.

Week 2: Second email sent to those who opened the first email but didn’t register. This one is from the relevant director and seems to be from his email address, with his regular email signature. It has FWD: in front of the subject, and the message is plain text and short. It speaks directly to the recipient and says: I’m just making sure you saw the event we’re running next week. I figured you’d be interested. Let me know if you have any questions.

Not only did the fake forward have a higher open, click-through and conversion rate, but it also prompted several recipients to write back to the director with questions, personal messages and feedback that would otherwise not have been forthcoming. Recipients genuinely thought the director had written to them, appreciated it, and acted accordingly.

A note of caution: I recommend you use this tool sparingly, lest you alienate your entire list by undermining the integrity of your emails (not to mention, ruining the FWD convention for everyone!) I’ve set a use cap of twice per year for my team. You should be especially careful with the RE: tag and make sure you’re only using it for really warm leads that you’re pretty sure about. Otherwise, you risk confusing and annoying your recipients – and that means unsubscribes.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this the teensiest bit duplicitous? And you’re right. Some recipient groups will have none of this, so as always, it’s important to know your audience and test all new tactics on a small group. If you come from a place that is genuine – as with the example above, we knew they were interested enough to open the first email – this can be a really powerful tool used sparingly to boost conversions. Best of luck!

Lyndal Cairns can help your organization build a successful and sustainable email marketing program. Get a quote today.