15 Tips for Improved Subject Lines

by Loren McDonald

Subject lines are one of the most important components of a successful promotional or newsletter email. This article outlines six principles and 15 tips to help you write subject lines that produce higher open and click-through rates.

Working in tandem with the from line, the content of a subject line is the key determinant for whether a recipient will open an email, delete it immediately, ignore it, file it for future access, report it and/or filter it as Spam. The subject line content is also a major component in the algorithm of many ISP and recipient-level Spam filters. In other words, a poorly written subject lead may not only go un-opened, it may not even reach the recipient’s inbox in the first place.

Keep these six principles in mind as you approach writing subject lines for your messages:

  • Inform: Subject lines should convey something important, timely or valuable, and should say to the recipient: “If you don’t open and read this email, you’ll miss out on something of real value.”
  • Intrigue: Your email is competing with 50 to 100 or more other emails for the recipients’ attention. To increase the chance of having YOUR email opened it must intrigue the recipient, the same way a well-written headline does. It must stimulate some part of the recipient’s brain, prompting them to open the email immediately.
  • Entrust: Your subject line can support or hurt your brand image. Subject lines that over promise or mislead will ultimately destroy trust with recipients, damaging your brand and driving customers away.
  • Action: Subject lines are a major driver of click-through rates, as they “direct” recipients to pay attention to specific articles, products and information. Every email you send should have an overt or implied strategy behind it. You hope that specific products are purchased over others or that recipients read a specific article and then visit your Web site seeking additional information. Subject lines should reflect your goals and help direct recipients to take the desired action
  • Empathy: While your emails may be distributed to thousands or millions of recipients, they are being received by individuals. Subject lines must recognize this and “speak” to the needs and interests of your recipients as individual customers, readers or prospects.
  • Togetherness (Subject Lines and From Lines Must Work Together): Largely because of the dramatic increase in Spam email in the last year or two, recipients increasingly look at a combination of the from and subject lines to determine whether it is from a trusted source. As a result, the job of a subject line now must not only entice someone to open an email, it must discourage the recipient from deleting it as an unwanted email.

Following are 15 tips for writing better subject lines:

  1. Segment/Personalize: Personalizing subject lines does not mean putting someone’s first name in the subject line, followed by generic information such as, “Loren, Your Personalized May Newsletter.” If you are segmenting your list in any way, then each segment should likely receive appropriate and different subject lines. Even if you are not creating separate versions of your email, if you have relevant information on segments of your subscribers, tailoring the subject line to their interests should improve open and click-through rates.
  2. “Brand” Your Subject Line – {Newsletter or Company Name}: A practice that has really taken hold in the last year or two is including the name of your company or newsletter/promotion in the subject line, usually at the beginning and enclosed in brackets. An example would be: {Intevation Report} 15 Tips for Better Subject Lines. This practice reinforces the from line, ensuring recipients that it is coming from a trusted source.
  3. Use a Consistent Style: While subject lines should obviously be different each time, from and subject lines should become immediately trusted and recognized by recipients. After testing and learning what style works best for your recipients, stick with that approach, whether humorous, provocative, incentive-based, tip oriented, etc.
  4. Have Someone Else Write, Edit or Review Subject Lines: Have someone other than the person who creates the email itself write, edit or at least review the subject line. Use this person like a newspaper headline writer and have them push your copy to another level of relevance and creativity.
  5. Send Subject Lines to Yourself: One of the best gauges of the strength of a subject line is to send sample emails with different subject lines to yourself. What kind of response do they warrant when they arrive in your inbox : “gotta open it immediately”, “delete/ignore” or “read it later”?
  6. Use Different Versions for AOL Subscribers: If you have a high number of AOL subscribers, we generally recommend that you create different versions of your emails. Use shorter and more conservative subject lines and include your company or newsletter name, as the AOL client displays the from email address in the inbox, not the from name.
  7. “Listen” – Monitor Your Inbox for Ideas: The greatest inspiration for writing subject lines may come from monitoring your own inbox. What type of subject lines intrigue your interest and motivate you to open them immediately? Which kind do you not delete or file, but generally never go back and open?
  8. Track Which Subject Line Types Work Best for You: Track and analyze the type of subject lines that produce the best open and click-through rates. Open rates are the most obvious measure of the success of subject lines, but click-through rates are also an important measure of how well the subject line drove recipients to take action and click on a specific link or links. Categorize and assess your subject lines by various approaches you may have used or tested such as long versus short, use of certain words (“$ off” versus “% off”, “tips” versus “steps”, etc.)
  9. Think Context : “Google Apologizes”: Put yourself in the mind of your subscribers. What are they thinking about, what is in the news, what events and holidays are coming up? One of the best subject lines I have seen in years was one that was appeared in the December 2003 newsletter from WebProNews. The subject line was simply “Google Apologizes.” The newsletter had been covering developments in search engine marketing and optimization, particularly the changes in Google’s search ranking algorithm that sent many Webmasters and search engine optimizers into anywhere from a tizzy to panic or outrage. In that context, the subject line “Google Apologizes” was brilliant. It was clearly at the top of readers’ minds at that moment, it was intriguing and it portended the answer to a key question ‘ what happened with Google’s search rankings?
  10. Know What Might Get Filtered: It is important to be provocative but if you cross the line your subject line may trigger a Spam filter. Always use a Spam content checker if your email technology has this feature. Additionally, send proof messages to your AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail and other test accounts to ensure that your content does not trigger a content filter.
  11. Test Length : Short Versus Long: Analysis of data from our client base suggests that subject lines of less than 50 characters achieve higher open rates than those of 50 or more characters. That being said, there is much debate about shorter versus longer subject lines that encompass more information for recipients. Test various styles and lengths and see what generates the best results with your recipients. But in general do not stress having a longer subject line, but do check to see how your subject line appears in various email clients to ensure that key information is not cut off awkwardly. A few years ago I wrote a subject line for a client that included “…by December 21” in the subject line. The email, to be distributed in early December, appeared as “…by December 2” in the AOL inbox. Fortunately I tested it in advance and changed the subject line for AOL recipients.
  12. Focus : Avoid The Generic and Boring: Do not be afraid to be very specific in subject lines. Many marketers use broad and generic subject lines, such as “May 2004 Newsletter” because they fear that a specific subject line may not resonate with all readers. First, remember that generally only 25 to 50 percent of your recipients are opening your emails to begin with. Secondly, your subject line should be targeted to each segment (if you are segmenting your list) or be relevant to the vast majority of recipients. It is your job to figure out what topics, offers or products are of most interest to majority of your recipients and then deliver that information on an on-going basis. As such, your subject line should be as narrow as possible to generate interest and action from a majority of recipients.
  13. Write It Early: Perhaps the most common mistake marketers make is waiting till the last minute to write their subject lines. Do not start thinking about the subject line shortly after your previous email goes out and the results start to pour in. While everything is still fresh, jot down potential subject lines for your next email. As you pull together your email content, continue drafting up various subject lines allowing you to just tweak or decide which version to use – rather than starting from scratch at the last minute.
  14. Push the Envelope (or Inbox as the case may be): Do not be afraid to try subject lines that are more aggressive, creative, tantalizing or specific than you are currently using. Try some new styles and test them via split tests. Monitor the results across all metrics open rates, click-through rates, Spam complaints, bounce rates and unsubscribes to make sure that a bump in your open rate did not lead to an increase in unsubscribes, bounces and Spam complaints.
  15. Test, Test and Test: Like every facet of email marketing, the most certain way to know if something is working is to test it. Subject lines are, in fact, the easiest component of email marketing to test. Split your list in half, thirds or even quarters and test a different type of subject line in each split. A key is to test types of subject lines so that you can carry the learning into future distributions. Secondly, you should test at least a few times to make sure your findings were correct.
2018-05-31T23:44:48+00:00