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How fake reply emails took over our inboxes

If you’ve ever ordered something online, donated a dollar to a political campaign, or signed up for a recurring newsletter, you know your inbox is going to be flooded with follow-up emails. A lot of them — and they’ll do anything to get your attention. Even, it seems, faking a conversation.

For example, unless you’ve been personally chatting with Urban Outfitters or presidential candidate Cory Booker, there’s a good chance these senders sent a cold email with a “RE:” in the subject line, despite no establishment of a previous email chain.

Ever since email servers established “re:” as the default subject line for a reply, marketers have utilized the prefix as a strategy to boost their click rates. This complicated and slightly confusing email marketing tactic used for years by PR firms, strategy groups, and listservs — and it raises a simple question: why? Many on the receiving end find the tactic to be deceptive.

When Morgan Crozier, a 28-year-old digital marketing strategist from Austin, Texas, sees a “RE:” subject line in his inbox, he automatically reacts with the unsubscribe button.

“I don’t only unsubscribe — I mark the email as spam,” says Crozier. “[When businesses] decide to use these sorts of subject lines, I ask that they consider the sort of relationships they want to build with people via email.”

According to Cem Hurtuk, the founder of email marketing software Sendloop, the strategy works as a quick solution for marketers who are looking for a high email open-rate, but it’s not a good way to maintain a relationship with loyal readers.

“If the recipient realizes that he's been duped, one, you will lose the trust of your recipient, [and] two, the recipient will get mad at you and he will probably opt-out or report a spam complaint,” said Hurturk.

Not everyone's trying to fool you, though. Oftentimes, “RE:” is used as a reference shortcut to a subject.

For example, in a Cory Booker email that showed up in my inbox in August, when the team from the Democratic presidential candidate wrote “re: the fall debate stage” as the subject line, it was a way to capture the eye and get to the point. The email inside was, unsurprisingly, about the fall debate stage.

In the Online Etymology Dictionary, “re-” and “re” have different definitions. For the prefix “re-” followed by a hyphen, it means “back to the original place,” (renew, return, etc), and over time, may of the older uses of “re-” from French and Latin have been “lost in secondary sense or weakened beyond recognition.”

Then, when you take “re” without the hyphen, it simply means “with reference to”, taken from 18th-century legalese. Therefore, when “re-” is used with a hyphen, it’s used to signify a reply. Without the hyphen, it's used for reference. Still with us?

From an etymology standpoint, it's easy to see why the usage in an email subject can be confusing, if not wholly misleading.

“I still find myself falling for this subject line trick,” said Maranda Doney, the corporate marketing manager of Campaign Monitor, a global technology and email marketing company. “As a society, we have been trained to feel the need to immediately open and respond to [these emails], because it denotes a conversation being had.”

Doney sided with Hemturk, stressing the email tactic, which she described as “bait-and-switch” creates a false sense of urgency and is an inefficient way to build quality readership and real engagement. She also personally unsubscribes from brands she sees doing this in her inbox.

Instead of using “re”, Doney suggested brands front-load their subject lines, putting eye-catching information at the beginning, or using the preheader space their given after a subject line to draw readers in. Really, any other tactic would be better than using “re”, Doney said.

But at a time when everyone and their brother has their own email newsletter (remember when it used to be just podcasts?), it’s a tough balance between writing attention-grabbing email subject lines and misleading readers.

“I think the thing with gimmicks, is that you have to be really careful and you have to deliver on them,” said Hayden Higgins, founder of the Washington, D.C.-area newsletter 730DC.

Currently, 730DC has approximately 20,800 subscribers and has been producing daily newsletters for nearly six years. While Higgins has never sent a 730DC newsletter using “re” in the subject line, several of the listservs most successful emails were sent using other unorthodox tactics, such as emojis and questions. For example, for International Women’s Day, Higgins used five different sassy women emojis.

“It was a bit maximal on the emojis, but it did well,” said Higgins. The most successful, unusual, email subject line Higgins shared was from 2014, asking the question “Has DC reached peak hipster?”

More than half of 730DC’s readership opened the article — and no one was misled.