123 Reg logo Blog

The dos and don’ts of writing email subject lines

By Alexandra Gavril - October 1, 2014

These days, the chances of your email being ignored or deleted are rather high – unless you have a rockin’ sockin’ subject line.

Creating slam dunk subject lines is hard and it can take hours, or just a few minutes if you’re lucky and inspiration strikes. However long it takes, you need to make the effort as your subject line is your first (and maybe your last) impression on subscribers. It’s even more important than your email body. Why? Because no matter how amazing your newsletter is, it’s worthless if no one clicks through to read it.

This post will talk you through the biggest dos and don’ts of writing email subject lines. Plus, we’ll also provide some super-useful and effective subject lines that you can “steal” and use to increase your open rates.

The don’ts

A big no-no is writing your subject lines just like you do advertisements. So, don’t sell what’s inside, tell what’s inside.

  • Don’t use cute symbols and special characters like H3LLO or ~*Hi*~. While they may catch people’s attention, they’ll make you look cheap and desperate.
  • Don’t use RE: and FW: to imply you are a trusted source. Definitely don’t be sneaky as people aren’t stupid and you’ll lose their trust right away.
  • Try to avoid subject lines that begin with “how to”.
  • Avoid spam-trigger words like 100% free, make money fast, FREE, click here, or exclamation points and odd punctuation. Then there are also words that won’t trigger a spam filter, but will negatively affect your open rates like Help, Percent off, and Reminder, according to a MailChimp study.
  • Don’t talk explicitly about your products, services, catalogues of products etc.
  • Don’t be clever or vague – your subject lines should be clear, not mysterious.

The dos

Now that you know what you shouldn’t be doing, let’s look at what you should be doing in terms of subject line-writing:

  • Be clear and specific. Your subject line must communicate what subscribers will find inside the email so they can determine if they’re interested in its contents before actually opening it.
  • Get right to the point. Keep the length of your subject line to 50 characters (or fewer) with spaces. A study from mailermailer showed that emails with subject line length between 29-39 characters had the highest open rate and click rate.
  • Lead with an action word that tells readers what they should do in the email. For example: “Get free shipping”, “Download this e-book”, “Watch my new software in action”, “Join to win a trip to Barcelona” etc.
  • Ask a question and target that question at the type of issues your customers need answers to. For example: “Does more traffic = more sales?”
  • Place the most important words at the beginning. A whopping 51% of emails are read on mobile phones which means that you need to put your most important information at the beginning since you can’t know exactly how much of your subject line will be viewable from a smartphone and how much of it will be cut off.
  • Personalise your subject line to include not just your recipient’s name or their city, but also other details from their past actions. For example, Amazon personalises its subject lines with the titles of the books people have left in the basket or products they’ve already purchased and might have run out of (such as coffee capsules).
  • If you’re promoting a limited time offer, always put an expiry date for it in the subject line.
  • Localise messages to a particular geographic region. By using geo-targeting you can send messages to contacts within the postcode radius you specify, making your messages more relevant than ever. Read this useful article to find out how it works and why it’s such a big deal.

So basically you need to create a relevant and clear subject that sets your subscribers’ expectations and tells them exactly what they’ll find inside the email.

Examples of awesome subject lines that you can “steal”

The ultimate goal is to make your email subject line visually stand out. How you do that is up to you.

20th century headlines

XKCD’s comic, “Headlines”

Here are six very efficient email subject lines that can get you noticed in the inbox:

1. Were we boring you?

This is a subject line used by Sperry Van Ness in an attempt to clean their list of subscribers and only keep those who were interested in their services. Steve P. Young, marketing director at SmartShoot, a marketplace for photographers and videographers, pointed out that the real estate firm had an average open rate of 30% which is a bit above industry standards.

However, the email with the above subject line had an open rate of over 50%. What’s more, subscribers apologised for not being more involved. So, as you can see, being upfront and using an unexpected question in your subject line can be a fantastic way to grab your audience’s attention and inspire dialogue.

Similar subject lines would be:

Want to hear from us again?

Your thoughts on [brand name]

Can I/we ask you a favour?

Are you still there?

2. My best-kept secrets revealed

One of the best tricks you can use to grab your audience’s attention is to use “secret” or “revealed” in your subject line. However, make sure you keep your promise and do share a secret, otherwise you’ll just end up disappointing your readers.

Here are a few examples:

Salary negotiation secrets revealed — Live webcast tonight at 9pm Eastern

Revealed: how to beat jet lag & one man’s journey to success

Revealed: How to get 12 hours out of an 8 hour day

Also, if someone subscribes to your blog or email list, make sure you share your best content in the beginning of your auto-responder series. This helps you build trust and a loyal audience that knows you’ll give them your best stuff over and over again.

3. Hey, Mary, where are you?

Say you’re hosting a webinar in a week’s time and you want to send a final reminder to all those who previously joined to remind them about the webinar. The subject line can be:

John, sure you want to miss this webinar?

By personalising your subject line with the recipient’s first name, you can achieve a higher open rate because this line uses the psychological trigger also known as fear of missing out. So, what you’re doing is you’re amplifying the fear of missing out.

Here are a few other examples of subject line personalisation:

Alex – The beginner’s guide to inbound marketing

Alex, SEO doesn’t need to be hard anymore

4. Mind sharing your thoughts on this?

Asking your audience a question, as opposed to a standard statement, immediately engages them. Questions enter an instant dialogue with users, making them more likely to be opened.

Here are a few good examples:

Can I ask a favour?

What do you think about [….]?

Think you’re good with headlines?

What if you fail?

5. As promised, your free AdWords video

Making a statement like that reminds people that they know you and that they have previously interacted with you.

Other good examples:

Since you asked to be notified of our launch, here goes…

Checking in with you

You should only use this type of subject lines if you’ve previously interacted with those contacts. Definitely don’t use it so you can get your foot in the door with contacts who have never heard about or from you.

6. Would you like to unsubscribe?

I know what you’re thinking – why in the world would I ask them to unsubscribe? What if they actually do unsubscribe?

Well, if they do unsubscribe it means they’re not interested in what you have to say. And why in the world would you bother keeping them in your list? You want your subscribers list to be filled with people who want to hear from you. Don’t be afraid to be bold and pop the question as there are two main benefits: 1. It’ll clean your list of those who will likely never again engage with you and 2. It’ll earn you the trust of those who stay on.

Hopefully you find this short guide useful and if you want to dig deeper, here are some excellent resources you can look at: