The Subject Line: Are You Doing It Wrong?

By Danielle L. Karr

If you’re a professional writer in any kind of marketing or communications position, odds are you use mass emails to reach your current or potential audience. And if you’ve ever had a low open rate for an email, you know that it can hurt both your heart as well as your goals. You’ve worked hard on your content and curating a robust email list, and you want positive results! But here’s good news—you can get more people to open and read the emails you send out, and part of the answer is in your subject line. Writers often overlook the art of the subject line, thinking that a simple description of the content will satisfy. But when you are looking to put your best foot forward in a reader’s inbox, turning to solid subject line strategies can help you create effective messaging that will boost your email open rate and get people reading what you have to say.

What Is a Subject Line?

A subject line is the first thing a reader sees when they get an email in their inbox; it’s the line of text that entices them to want to open the email and read more. Unfortunately, a mistake writers sometimes make is to think of subject lines in the same way they think of headlines. A traditional headline is usually written to prepare the readers for what lies ahead in the rest of the text. It cues context and ties in to the body text. Subject lines, on the other hand, are all those things and more: they are meant to persuade readers to take action. They need to be enticing enough for readers to want to click, rather than simply setting up information. If your subject line tells your reader what’s in the email but doesn’t persuade them to open it, then your email is off to the trash bin without ever having a chance.

I work in marketing in the security and smart home automation industry, writing emails for both potential customers and our over one million current customer base, so this is a topic I deal with on a weekly basis. In our office, one of the best-performing subject lines we’ve sent out has been, “Don’t open if you hate good news!” When you click the email, it opens to the headline of “Renew today and lock in your low rate.” Notice how the headline is much more straightforward than the subject line? This type of subject line leaves readers curious to open it and read on.

Remember the Basics

When it comes to subject lines, there are some basic tricks that will serve you well every time. These tricks include keeping your subject line to a maximum of 50 characters and following grammar rules. Also, you can write your subject line in title or sentence case, but try not to overuse capitalization or punctuation when writing or you may decrease your open rate because it comes across as spam.

“Spam” is any mass email your audiences deems irrelevant, dishonest, or inappropriate to them, so make sure to style your subject line in a way that conveys you have pertinent information that is meant for them specifically. Proper grammar and punctuation—along with a good subject line—can demonstrate that your email isn’t generic or a blanket sale; rather it is tailored to their interests by a professional and is worth the click.

Play to Your Audience

One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing your subject line is your audience. Whose curiosity are you trying to spark, and how can you best achieve that? While your audience will vary depending on your topic, there will always be some fundamental traits you should keep in mind. In her book, Decoding the New Consumer Mind, Kit Yarrow explains how brands (that’s you!) used to be king, with consumers flocking to be a part of the brand. But there has been a shift over the last couple of decades, and now more and more consumers are less interested in aspirational brands and more interested in brands that admire them, know them, and serve them. She explains that the consumer wants to be the star, and brands should shift their approach to be more personal in nature, more human, so to speak. So, when consumers want to have relationships with their brands, how does that translate into subject lines?

Your subject line needs to be about your audience. It needs to be relevant to them. For example, “Write THIS to double your followers on Facebook” focuses on the reader and tells them that there is one trick in this email to help with social media marketing. On the other hand, something like “THE BIGGEST SALE!” doesn’t focus on the reader and just seems to be yelling about your brand.

Make It Personal

Personalized emails have proven to frequently have a higher open rate than nonspecific emails. Personalizing your subject line with some information about your reader, such as their name or location, is a great way to put them in the spotlight. If you choose to use this strategy, you need to be very careful when personalizing things like names so that you don’t get the information wrong. The name entered in the data system must match the name you want in the subject line because if you have a dynamic data field, it will simply pull the information on file into the text. One time, our company had a close call with an employee error where they had written a customer’s name down in the system with the identifier “poor health” next to it. Had we not taken the time to look over the name list in detail before sending it out, it would have read something like, “Jason Dawn (poor health), you have two days to watch this!” Imagine what that would have done to our reputation, as well as the negative reaction our customer would have had!

The idea of keeping it personal isn’t new to the marketing scene. Hoover Adams, a very successful newspaper publisher starting in the 1950s, had the mantra “Names, names, names!” when it came to picking content for his paper. He once said that if he could, he’d publish just the pages from the phone book to get names in his paper, and he knew that everyone in town would still read the issue to make sure their name was in it. That strategy is what kept people reading his paper; they were looking for the spotlight on themselves and the people they knew. His successful marketing strategy can be implemented in in today’s subject lines. Putting information like a reader’s name first draws their attention and makes them want to keep reading.

Clever Gets the Open

If for some reason your subject line cannot be personal, your email can still be successful if it’s clever. Subject lines with musical connections, “The Final Countdown” for a holiday email, or a well-known poem, “Oh the places you’ll go!” for a Summer graduation newsletter or travel ad, will still spike readers’ curiosity through connotation and invite them to open and read your message. Make sure, though, not to fall into the trap of thinking generic is clever. “They’re here!” can be easily overlooked, while “What the font?! Free fonts inside for you!” is clever yet still gives the reader enough information to let them know they’re going to be interested in what you have to share. Note that questions are also a clever way to get the recipient’s attention. “Are you making these teaching mistakes?” engages with readers by having them ask themselves a question—one that they hopefully want the answer to!

Worried about being clever? Just remember that an easy way to be clever is to make your emails timely. Subject lines like “Is your breath ready for that midnight kiss?” on New Years Eve helps your audience know that this email is just what they need now.

Time and Clicks Are Money

Another important thing to remember about the modern reader is that they are busy. Your audience will only give you half a second to convince them to read what you have sent, and they will always remember if you waste their time. Be sure to craft your emails with that in mind, and then tip them off to that fact in your subject line. Subject lines like, “3 reasons your prospects aren’t buying” and “The main reason this necklace gets my vote” indicate to readers that your email is focused and likely written in an easily digestible format. Examples of poor subject lines include “The CranCheese Quarterly Newsletter” and “Our product forecast” because they do not give any length or focus indicators—in other words, they sound lengthy to read. Your audience may worry that opening the email will send them down a scrolling rabbit hole—something they definitely don’t have time for. Make this benefit clear to entice readers to open. If you are sending your readers seven tips on how to improve their blog post, then let them know! Subject lines like, “7 ways to make your blog posts not suck!” help your readers quickly understand just how helpful and easy to read your email will be for them. Using lists, bullet points, and keeping paragraphs short are great ways to format content for emails, and having subject lines that let readers know what the format is inside will help increase open rates.

Only Say It’s Urgent If It’s Truly Urgent

Urgent subject lines walk a fine line between being effective and being seen as possible spam. When you say there are time-sensitive materials in the email, mean it. Subject lines like “You only have 48 hours to watch this!” and “Free shipping ends at midnight” tip off recipients that they should open your email before other, more generic ones. Your urgent subject line will encourage your reader to act now, instead of putting it off until later when there’s a very good chance they’ll forget about it.

When it comes to this trick, just remember honesty is the best policy. So unless you’re sending an April Fool’s Day email, make sure every email subject line you send out can stand the truth test. Your readers will know fast if you’re making false claims of urgency, and likely send you to the spam folder—which, in the end, will decrease your ability to reach them with future emails!

Always Test Your Subject Lines

Thorough A/B testing can be paramount to your email success. A/B testing is done when you take your email list and divide it into sections, testing a different subject line with each group. Email writing is a world of trial and error, and this new Wild West is best conquered through testing. See what works for your readers, and what doesn’t. Then build off that knowledge. There are several programs available to help you track your email open rates with A/B testing like Google Analytics, Optimizely, Visual Website Optimizer, Unbounce, and more. Do some research to see which program out there would be best for your specific email needs.

Even before you send out an email though, a good, quick way to do an initial test on your subject line is by putting yourself in the place of your recipients. Does it sound enticing? Spammy? Boring? Try to avoid sending out subject lines you don’t think even YOU would open. You can also use coworkers or friends to test your subject lines and give you honest feedback as to how it makes them feel. Does it persuade them to want to open it? Get honest feedback, and then pair your organic testing with A/B testing for well-rounded results.

Send to Be Read

The bottom line when it comes to email communications: it doesn’t matter how big your email list is if no one opens what you send! The subject line is your first—and possibly last—chance to impress your reader. Make sure you’re getting the highest open rate possible by using strategic messages that entice your readers to give you some of their very valuable time. You have great content to share with your readers, so write to ensure they understand that the information they’ve been looking for is just a click away!

DANIELLE KARR was born in California, grew up in Oregon, and put down roots in Utah. She graduated with a Bachelor’s in communications and a minor in English, interned at one of the most prestigious ad agencies in New York, and is currently earning a Master’s in technical communication from Utah State University while working full time as a senior copywriter at an international smart home company. She has worked as a copywriter, advertising consultant, and editor for the past several years, and has written for a wide variety of clients. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with family, gardening, and adventuring with her husband and two dogs.

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