Email Subject Lines That Work: The Secret Sauce

Maybe you’ve dedicated this year to keeping up with your monthly email newsletter. But now after a couple of months in, you’re starting to wonder how to create email subject lines that work. Or maybe your company has had an email newsletter for years, but you want some ideas for freshening up subject lines.

Here are four strategies:

1. Think short and sweet. Email marketing specialists recommend that you keep subject lines short, usually fewer than 45-50 characters, since studies show you’ll get better open rates with shorter subject lines.

  • Example of an email subject line that works*: an acupuncture practice holding a new weight-loss clinic for the new year used this subject line on an email sent on January 2: “2,012 Reasons to Open this Email.” And then the first line of the newsletter referred to the subject line by saying, “Okay, so maybe I don’t have 2,012 reasons for you to open this email and keep on reading…but I do have one very good, BIG reason: your health.”

2. Think flirty, fun, and provocative. Yes, you need to be careful here, and we’re not suggesting you dip your toes in controversial areas or that you try to offend people. Instead, consider the other definitions of provocative, like “thought provoking.” The goal with your email subject line is to make it so enticing that people have to stop what they’re doing and open the email right then and there.

  • Example of an email subject line that works: if you’re a landscaper, what if you sent an email with a subject line like this: “Why we hate shrubs…” This certainly would get people’s attention, given your business. Then, the email could give the whammy…why you hate shrubs that look like this…and you show “before” pictures of some unhealthy or unkempt shrubbery and then show the “after” pics of how you spruced ‘em up. Or imagine you own an insurance agency and you send out an email with this subject line: “How smashing up my car was a good thing” and then you follow up with a newsletter that recounts how going through an accident yourself reminded you of how your customers want and need to be treated.

3. Think in numbers. Numbers work well since they serve as a gauge for how much time people will need to invest in the newsletter. For example, “3 Easy Ways to Increase Website Conversions Today” tells people what they’re in for…and it nudges them to open the email since the words “easy” and “today” make it sound doable right now.

4. Ask questions. Imagine you’re an IT company and you send out an email newsletter with the subject line: “Do you know who’s watching you?” And then the email newsletter can talk about malware and root kits and all the other scary silent computer “watchers” out there and how to combat them.

Some email marketing providers, like MailChimp, have a tool that allows you to test certain words (such as or “today” or “holiday gift”) so that you can see how other emails performed that used these words in their subject lines.

Here are some more great resources from some of the leaders in email marketing:

A caveat: Keep in mind that email subject lines will just get you so far. The content of your email newsletter must deliver on the subject line’s inherent promise AND the recipient must think the content is valuable. If you fail to make the grade here, people will eventually gloss over your subject lines – even the enticing ones – since you’ve failed to deliver in the past.

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*Mary reminds in the comments that “Subject line of the email has to deliver on its promise, in compliance with the CAN-SPAM act. […] If you mention there are 2,012 reasons to open the email, you have to provide those. It may seem silly, but you can’t get THAT cute with subject lines. The subject line must relate to the content of the text and it cannot be even the least bit deceptive — or its not legit.”

Chris Wallace

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2 Responses to Email Subject Lines That Work: The Secret Sauce

  1. Please remind your readers that the subject line of the email has to deliver on its promise, in compliance with the CAN-SPAM act. Actually, if you mention there are 2,012 reasons to open the email, you have to provide those. It may seem silly, but you can’t get THAT cute with subject lines. The subject line must relate to the content of the text and it cannot be even the least bit deceptive — or its not legit.

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