Your Email Doesn’t Deserve the Junk Folder: How to Write a Subject Line that Will Inbox

By Danielle L. Karr

Digital marketing can be a vast and mysterious world, and technical communicators, when thrown into that world, often find themselves uncertain of how to best approach the different digital mediums. Writers may be excellent editors and masters in their fields, but when they have to take that expertise online they find themselves in unfamiliar territory and resort to tactics that may or may not work well digitally. I often coach other writers in our company about the importance of writing short, clear copy for digital use. A particular issue I see writers face when writing for emails is that they do not know about the copy restrictions for sending an email from a database marketing platform. In fact, I just recently had a brand manager email me a subject line from another writer in the company because she was worried the subject line may trigger a spam filter. The purpose of the email was to let customers know that if they visited our booth at a trade show they could be entered to win a $100 gift card. The subject line in question was, “Discover smart technology for your chance to win $100!” The brand manager’s instinct was right: it was very likely going to trigger a spam filter, but with a few small tweaks, it could easily inbox. If writers want to hone their digital expertise, being aware of the unique strategies in digital writing often requires is the first step in building greater success with online communications.

The Art of Inboxing

Before we get into how to make the best subject line for inboxing and what was wrong with the above subject line, let me first define a couple terms. “Subject line” is the first line of copy a reader sees when they get an email in their inbox; it is the short text that entices them to open the email and read more. Basic subject line strategies include keeping the subject line short (50 characters or less), making the subject line intriguing, and personalizing it if possible. “Inboxing” occurs when an email successfully reaches the recipient’s email inbox, passing through all the email client’s filters. All email clients (from Gmail to Outlook) have spam filters that scan each incoming email to determine whether they inbox or go to junk/spam. An email is delivered to an inbox if the filter determines the email has a quality subject line, good email content, and a high sender reputation. Sender reputation is defined by things such as the quality of the email address list, how often recipients flag the emails as junk, and the bounce rate (the percentage of undeliverable email addresses in the recipient list). While the sender reputation is something that writers do not have much control over, email content and subject line is something they definitely do have control over. So, whether a writer is trying to create a company newsletter or send out a promotional email, knowing the following about subject lines will help the email stand a better chance at reaching its recipients.

Word Choice Matters

The best way a writer can create content that will not go straight to the junk/spam folder is to have a general knowledge of what spam filters look for in regard to spam-y content. There are endless lists online of the 100+ spam-trigger words, but some of the top words I see used by writers who are, in fact, not writing spam include the words chance, win, $, giveaway, clearance, free, limited time, and dozens of other words and phrases similar to those. Often companies will offer an incentive to fill out a survey, check out their new store or booth, or take advantage of a discount, and most writers will want to put that incentive in the subject line to lead with the most exciting content. However, that is where writers who are not aware of spam triggers get hung up—they write subject lines like the one I mentioned above, and the email never makes it into the inbox. Taking another look at that proposed subject line above with spam triggers in mind reveals that “chance,” “win,” and “$” are all in the subject line, making the risk of it not inboxing high. The more spam-trigger words a subject line has the higher the odds of the email being stopped, and even one spam-trigger word in a subject line has the potential to stop an email depending on the body content, so it is important to always try to keep those words to a minimum—especially in the subject line. For example, we sent a series of emails to our employees through our Salesforce platform for a company fundraiser and had two different email subject lines—one with a spam trigger in it and one without. “Help us donate $10,000 to Autism Speaks!” had a low open rate (30.72%) for an internal email, and we realized that it was because the email had been sorted to the junk folder by several of the email clients. We sent out another email in the same campaign with the subject line: “A great reason to get away from your desk!” and saw that it inboxed without a problem and had a more usual open rate for an internal email (58.3%). Note that normal open rates can vary depending on the audience, email type, industry, and several other factors. Most companies know their average open rates for emails, so when it suddenly dips, writers should look to see if a spam trigger is the culprit.

Say It Without Saying It

Writing an interesting subject line and quality email is only part of the equation when it comes to digital writing; knowing how content is going to be processed online gives a writer power to create something that will actually make it to the audience. Writers can get creative and work around these digital limitations to craft a subject line that will pass through the spam filters and inbox. For the email subject line mentioned at the beginning of this article, I ended up trading out “Discover smart technology for your chance to win $100!” for “<Recipient name>, this gift card could be yours!” and it inboxed without a problem. The second subject line dodges the tricky spam words while still leading with the main incentive, and proves that a clever subject line can get the point of the email across without running the risk of not inboxing. While a lot of subject line writing is a trial-and-error process, knowing these guidelines on how to write a successful subject line and avoid spam filters will put any digital writer ahead of the game.

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 in New York, and recently received a Master’s in technical communication from Utah State University while working full time as a senior copywriter at one of the largest smart home companies in the nation. She has worked as a copywriter, advertising consultant, and editor for the past several years, and she has written for a wide variety of clients. When she’s not writing, Danielle enjoys spending time with family and paddle boarding with her husband and two dogs.

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