Use these strategies to write better e-mail subject lines

Here’s what you need to do to write e-mail subject lines that get your e-mails opened, read and acted on.

A woman holds onto her black smartphone

E-mail subject lines are vital to a campaign’s success

We receive numerous e-mails daily—some more enticing than others. They capture our attention, appear interesting and invite us to read more. The best part? The e-mail subject line does all that heavy lifting.

Consider this:

  1. Whether the e-mail gets opened or not, people are still going to see your subject line.
  2. Before an e-mail’s contents are read, recipients are going to judge what’s inside (and if it’s even worth clicking on) by the subject line.

Is this e-mail relevant? Does it interest me? Is it something I want to read right now?

The e-mail subject line often holds the answer—that’s why it’s incredibly important.

In other words the success of your newsletter or e-mail campaign largely depends on the quality of the e-mail subject line.

Related: Why start an e-mail list? 6 reasons you can’t ignore!

Woman holds a hot beverage in one hand and a tablet, that she is looking at, in the other.

What affects an e-mail’s open rate?

It’s important to note that for all the e-mails we receive, many never actually get opened. They simply get deleted, marked as read or, worst case scenario, as spam.

As a marketer, unopened e-mails aren’t just disappointing – they’re also a waste of valuable resources. I’m talking about your time and effort. Add to that, getting tagged as spam is bad.

All this to say: You don’t want the e-mails you send sitting around unread in recipients’ inboxes. They should be opened, read and – most importantly – acted on.

So which factors determine whether an e-mail gets opened or not? Let’s take a closer look.

Related: E-mail marketing: Tips for creating newsletters that get read

List quality

This refers to the quality of your subscriber list. You want to follow list building best practices, focus on quality over quantity and ensure e-mail list hygiene.  

Sender name

This is who the e-mail is from. It could be a brand name, company name, person’s name, or even just the e-mail address as is. Test and see which “from name” works best for your brand.

E-mail subject line

As its name suggests, it’s the subject or topic of said e-mail.

Timing

It’s been found that timing has an impact on open rates. When we say timing, we mean the time of day and day of the week that the e-mail gets sent out.

If you think about it, there’s only so much you can do in terms of sender name and very little you can do about the recipient’s behaviour upon receipt. Then there are external factors like one’s environment, weather, mood, and so on that can all affect whether an e-mail gets read or not.

That means, out of these four variables, you have the greatest flexibility with the subject line. That’s why your subject line deserves so much more attention and care than you’re probably giving it.

E-mail subject line statistics

After all the hard work you put into creating your e-mail campaign – perfecting design and layout, copywriting, and then testing across e-mail service providers and devices – you’d think that putting your subject line together would be the least of your worries. It’s not.

As you now know, that’s dangerous thinking because those few words can make or break the entire campaign.

So before we get into some e-mail subject line writing tips, let’s take a look at the statistics you need to know.

Why the e-mail subject line matters:

  • 33% of individuals open e-mails because of a catchy subject line
  • 69% will mark an e-mail as spam based solely on the subject line

E-mail open rates:

  • The average open rate is between 17.92% and 22.86%
  • From 2010 to 2015, the e-mail open rate on mobile devices increased by 30%

Click through rates:

  • The average click through rate is between 2.69% and 3.71%
  • The average click to open rate is 16.23%

Where e-mail readership is highest:

  • Canada represented 7.9% of all e-mail opens in 2015
  • Australia came in third with 7% of all e-mail opens

Common e-mail subject line lengths:

  • 14% of e-mail subject lines land at 7 words
  • 1.6% of e-mail subject lines are just 3 words long
  • It’s been found that 3-word subject lines have the highest engagement rate at 21.2%

Your choice of words matters:

  • The word “soon” performs better than “now” while “free” has a significantly lower engagement rate
  • Interestingly, the words “yesterday” and “tomorrow” result in a higher engagement rate (20.5% and 22.3% respectively) than the word “today” (11.08%)
  • The worst performing words were:
    • “journal” (-50%)
    • “forecast” (-47%)
    • “training” (-47%)
    • “whitepaper” (-40%)
    • “learn” (-36%)
    • “intelligence” (-35%)
    • “report” (-32%)
    • “industry” (-30%)
    • “early bird” (-29%)
    • “subscription” (-28%)

Sources: Optinmonster, Uplers email, Sendgrid, Salecycle

Related: Gen Z e-mail marketing: Statistics and Tips

How do I write a good e-mail subject line?

So with all that said and done, how exactly do you go about creating a successful subject line? These best practices will help you write better – more successful – e-mail subject lines.

Tip #1: Use a familiar sender name

First and foremost, make sure that the sender name is clear and one that the recipient will actually recognize. After all, how many e-mails from unknown (or unexpected) origin do you bother to open?

Takeaway: People should be able to recognize who the sender is. This is because we tend to be skeptical of obscure or unfamiliar sender names.

Tip #2: The subject line should be precise

At the end of the day you want happy subscribers—not frustrated ones. Well, their satisfaction is influenced by what you promised them in terms of e-mail content.

“If you open my e-mail, this is what you’ll find inside.” That’s why an accurate subject line will always win over clickbait, buzzwords or ambiguous headlines.

Takeaway: Don’t trick people into opening your e-mail. Inform them what’s inside and let them decide what they’ll do with your mail for themselves. That is, if they’ll open and read or if they’ll pass on it this time around.

Tip #3: Be concise

Regardless of e-mail client, there’s only so much space allocated for the subject line.

While the average inbox may show up to 60 characters, on mobile devices you might only see between 25 and 30. Exceed the character limit and the text will be truncated.

That’s why you want to be succinct. Ideally, your subject line should make sense and result in a fluid, uninterrupted experience.

Takeaway: For the best results, keep your subject line short and sweet. Research has found that the top-performing subject lines are around 40 characters.

Tip #4: Don’t forget to be descriptive

Do you like guessing what an e-mail’s contents could be? I didn’t think so. A descriptive subject line that gives you a good idea of what’s inside is much better than an obscure or uninspired one.

Takeaway: Don’t be lazy with your subject lines. You’re doing your readers a disservice if you simply state “newsletter”, the publication month and day, or even just “hello” in the subject line. Your readers will appreciate something more descriptive.

Tip #5: Everything in moderation

You can be creative. You can experiment. And you can use the type of language that will work best with your readership. But you don’t want to do damage to your reputation or come across as unprofessional.

That means you should avoid using ALL CAPS LIKE THIS or going overboard with punctuation marks like this!!!!! You might also want to be careful with symbols and special characters as they don’t always “show up” (literally) for others the way they do for you.

What about emojis? Many brands use them and, while I’m personally not a fan, emojis can work well depending on (1) your audience and (2) how you incorporate them into the subject line. At any rate, use in moderation.

Takeaway: If you want to be taken seriously, it’s best to stick to accepted and respected punctuation as well as stylistic norms.

Tip #6: Make use of keywords

It’s important that you incorporate keywords in your subject line. These keywords should be informative (that is, be of actual value to the reader), appealing, and descriptive. Put simply: No jargon, please.

Takeaway: Place important keywords towards the start of the subject line, so that there’s a higher likelihood of them being seen.

Tip #7: Stay true to your voice but get your tone right

Like all your other marketing touchpoints, your brand voice should be consistent and you will want to use the appropriate tone. In other words, when you’re writing your subject line, ask yourself: Would it be fitting to use a relaxed and casual tone? Or does the content of this e-mail require a more urgent and serious tone? What am I trying to convey with this e-mail subject line?

Takeaway: Consider the topic of your e-mail and adjust your tone accordingly. For example: The tone you use to announce an exciting giveaway won’t be the same as the tone you use for an update to your privacy policy.

Tip #8: Choose your words carefully

As you’ve seen in the statistics above, the wrong choice of words can drastically decrease your e-mail’s open rate so you’ll want to select yours wisely.

Takeaway: This ultimately comes down to trial and error. Test, look at past performance, and learn from your mistakes.

Strategies you can use to write better e-mail subject lines

E-mail subject line strategies you can use

The best e-mail subject lines give people a reason to open the e-mail and consume your content. They also don’t come across as spammy or scammy.

Here are a few strategies that have been proven to work well.

Create a sense of urgency or trigger their fear of missing out (FOMO)

Use this to tap into readers’ latent anxiety that they may be missing out on something interesting or exciting.

Examples:

  • Last chance to book reduced travel fares
  • This weekend only: Earn 2X more points!
  • Limited slots remain – have you RSVP’d?

Make readers curious

These e-mail subject lines are designed to pique the reader’s interest—and entice them to open the mail to satisfy their curiosity.

Examples:

  • Is this the best chocolate cake recipe ever?
  • Have you been doing THIS wrong all along?
  • Exclusive: Secret deals just for you!

Go for their vanity

Suffice it to say, we can be rather vane creatures. We care about our appearance, what people think of us (or how we’re perceived) and want to keep up with the Joneses. This strategy is about creating e-mail subject lines that speak to our vanity.

Examples:

  • Next season’s most fashionable finds
  • You’ll be the envy of everyone in this LBD
  • Skin perfecting anti-aging creams

Arouse their ‘greed’

This isn’t greed in the typical sense. Here, we’re talking about how no one wants to miss out on a great deal. And how we’ll do what we can to avoid losses. That’s where applying this strategy can help you increase your open rate.

Examples:

  • Get 25% off ALL your favourites
  • Brand new items you need for your home office
  • Luxurious staycations, low prices!

Appeal to their inner sloth

Who doesn’t want to make life easier, simpler, or just less work all together? For them, these types of e-mail subject lines work wonders.

Examples:

  • Sales letter templates you can use right now
  • 200 blog post ideas for hotels
  • 5 EASY steps to house train your puppy

Address readers’ pain points

When you know your audience’s pain points, you can use the e-mail subject line to offer solutions and entice them to open the mail.

Examples:

  • Your essential (pandemic) travel guide
  • How to eliminate pesky laundry stains
  • 10 proven ways to boost holiday sales

Retarget on-the-fencers

Retargeting e-mails are the e-mails you send out when subscribers / users didn’t complete an action or complete their sales journey. The idea is to get them to come back and complete it.

Retargeting subject line ideas include those that can overcome objections or concerns (which could be why they abandoned the action to begin with), remind them of what they could potentially lose if they don’t push through, or just offer them a nice little incentive to continue where they left off.

Examples:

  • Good news: Price drop for [item]
  • Almost there! You’re just one step away from [whatever]
  • Please don’t go, here’s 15% off on your next booking

Make it personal

Adding the subscriber’s name or referencing a special event like the subscriber’s birthday or sign-up anniversary are great ways to personalize an e-mail subject line.

Examples:

  • Happy birthday, Lucy! Here’s a gift voucher to celebrate
  • Cheers to 5 years! Surprise gift inside
  • John, you’re going to love these gadgets

Just be straightforward

A straightforward e-mail subject line is one that is to the point. While this strategy may not have the flair or bells and whistles of other strategies, you’ll be surprised by how effective these are. They’re also particularly suitable for serious topics.

Examples:

  • We need your help [5-min survey]
  • Your order has been shipped
  • Your subscription expires in 30 days

Sprinkle in some humour

Sometimes, the easiest way to stand out in a crowded inbox is by daring to be different. One way to achieve that is by infusing some humour into the e-mail subject line.

This is hard to get right though (you don’t want to offend anyone) so know your audience well and proceed with caution.

Examples:

  • Sweet deal! We totally mean these cupcakes.
  • We’re spilling the tea on premium teas you’ll love
  • There’s nothing basic about THESE basics