Do Your Email Subject Lines Work?

July 24, 2011

How many emails do you delete based on the subject line?  

  • “I earn $5,000 per week working from home”
  • “Your bank details need updating”
  •  “Dear Sir/Madam, Africa Gold Mining Company”

Do you open these e-mails? Because I know I sure don’t! The subject line makes it obvious that the e-mail is spam… that it’s from someone you don’t know… or it doesn’t offer a clear benefit that makes you want to read it.

Let’s look at this from another angle.  How many of your emails and newsletters are deleted as your recipient mistakenly assumes that based on the subject line, they are either spam or not relevant.

Consider your subject line from your customer’s point of view:

  • Will they benefit from taking the time to read your e-mail?
  • What will they learn?
  • Is your product/service going to save them time?
  • Is it going to save them money?
  • Is it going to improve their lives in some way?

How many potential sales could you have saved simply by rewriting your subject lines?

Obviously I can’t answer these questions for you. However, I can teach you how to write subject lines that will compel your subscribers to open and read any e-mail you send them.

Key Information First
Some email clients allow more characters in a subject line than others, but most give you at least 50, including spaces. So, load your key information in that first 50.  Also, make sure the cut-off doesn’t occur in the middle of a crucial word, such as a price or date. 

But It Worked Last Time
Your most successful email campaign last year just bombed when repeated last month.  A discount offer should be worded differently from an up-sell, and both are different from a breaking-news announcement.

Even if you are sending out email messages to promote similar campaigns, you shouldn’t recycle an email subject line from a past campaign. You need to stand out each time, yet be familiar to the reader, too.  

Test continually to determine trends and styles that appear to work. Pre-test if you can. Add a day to your campaign-creation schedule to give you enough time to try out different email subject lines.

Customise your FROM details
Recent research shows readers often look at the “From” line first when deciding whether to open an email, and then the subject line.

The “from” line tells the recipient who sent the email, and the subject line sells the recipient on opening. Customise your “from” details so that rather than readers seeing an email sent by, they will see “Justine, Your Virtual Assistant”.

Open Rates Don’t Always Measure Success
Look at the subjects associated with the highest number of conversions, such as registrations, clicks to view newsletter articles, sales or downloads. If you drill down into your web analytics, you might find some anomalies, such as an email with a relatively low open rate but a high sales-per-order rate. That could mean something in the subject line strongly appealed to a narrow segment of your email list and could point the way to a more lucrative segmentation. Remember, your end goal is not necessarily high open rates, but to have email subscribers take a specific action. Focus on your end goal.

Check Out Local Papers
If you want to write a better email subject line, pick up your local paper. The headline usually highlights a story’s most important fact in a limited space. A subject line, in turn, should clearly state what your reader can expect from your email message, what’s in it for them or what you want them to do as a result of the email. However, there isn’t enough space to do all of them all the time. Look at the newspaper headline to see how it interplays with the story.

Personalise email subject lines based on users’ product or content preferences, interests, past purchases, Web visits or links clicked. Be careful when personalizing on past purchases, however, because the purchase could have been a gift for someone else and might not relate to your reader’s real interests. Always make it easy for readers to find and update their data and email preferences. 

Encourage Immediate Action
Set a deadline: “Order by midnight tonight;” “Last day to ensure Xmas delivery.” Use urgency and deadlines as part of a planned series of emails as well. For example on Monday incorporate “5 Days Left…” and then on Thursday follow it with “Only 24 Hours….”.

Danger, Spam Filters Ahead
There’s a fine line between “catchy” and “spammy.” Run your email copy through a content checker to identify any spam-like words, phrases or construction. The content checker will tell you which phrases to avoid. Avoid email subject lines with all capital letters, and using more exclamation points than necessary. In fact, try not to use exclamation points at all if you can avoid it.

Using the Term “FREE”
Yes, you can use “free” in an email subject line. Just don’t make “free” the first word, use it in conjunction with an exclamation point, or spell it in all caps (could get your email filtered). People still respond to “free;” so, the increase in orders or other actions will almost always outweigh any email messages lost from filtering.

Deliver on Your Subject Line
Don’t stretch the truth in the subject line or promise more than the email can deliver.  Readers will distrust you (and reach for the report-spam button) if your subject line doesn’t reflect the email content.  

Prioritise and Test Often
Writing the subject line is often the last and most hurried step in email campaign development. It should be the other way around. As you plan the email marketing campaign, start thinking about what will go into the subject line. That will help you sharpen your campaign’s focus and may even change or tweak the offer or article focus.

Ideally, you should test subject lines on a segment of your email list, but if you’re pressed for time, run them past an informal focus group including your marketing team, others in your department and even folks from outside the department to get a wider view. 

Review Subject Line Performance
See which email subject lines delivered the action you wanted – the most conversions, the highest average sale per order, the highest click-through rate, etc.

Review your Web analytics reports to see which email newsletter article topics draw the most clicks or forwards, which whitepapers get downloaded most often, which brands or departments get the most traffic. This analysis should drive content and product selection strategies, but it can also show you what information is most relevant or useful.

Personalise your Subject Line
“Jenna, here is the additional info you need” is far more like to be opened than “Additional Info”. Where possible, personalise both your subject line and content.

Continue the Conversation
Sending email more frequently than monthly or quarterly helps you create a conversation with your readers. Your tracking reports should show you what their crucial or hot-button issues are, what topics get them opening and clicking more vigorously. Feature those keywords or issues prominently in the email subject line where appropriate.

Additionally, if your email frequency permits it, continue a dialog and content direction you’ve started in previous emails.

Can you pass the must-open/must-read test?
The days when people opened absolutely everything that landed in their inbox’s are long gone. Now, you have to intrigue them. Appeal to their need for information, to be an insider “in the know.”

If you have created a conversation with your readers, a reference to it in your subject will intrigue them into opening your email to see the next installment. 

For more information, Hubspot have a great article worth reading called “Set Expections with Email Subject Lines“.   

What have I missed?  Please help others to communicate more effectively by commenting on what has worked (or not worked) for you.

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