5 Email Subject Line Strategies That Will Increase Your Open Rates

By , July 7th, 2013 in Email Marketing | 56 comments
Email Subject Lines That Convert
The First Step Is Getting Someone To Open Your Email (Image source)

Email subject lines are the gatekeepers of your email campaigns. When you’ve put hours of effort into getting your segmentation just right and even more hours into nailing your awesome email copy, there is no doubt you want to make sure your emails actually get read!

Subject lines are the first thing your recipients see in their inboxes. The subject line is given pride of place and many argue that you should spend almost twice as much time reviewing your subject line compared with reviewing the body of your email. That’s a big call…but nailing your subject line really does pays off.

This post, inspired by a previous & popular Unbounce Infographic Post, How to Write the Perfect Email Subject Line will give you five tips you can use to write email subject lines that get your recipients opening and, ultimately, converting!

1. Be Specific

There are generally two types of emails businesses send to their customers: notifications and direct updates (newsletters).

It’s important to be clear about each campaign you’re working on as, just like writing any other copy, a lot of psychology is at play when it comes to the subject line. Whenever you’re working on a subject line you need to be absolutely clear about your goal.

When it comes to notifications (transactional emails) the best approach to subject lines is usually to be specific and let customers know exactly what they’re about to open. This might sound counter-productive but by letting the recipient know why you’re sending the email and what to expect is the best way to get their attention. The best way to get customers to open your emails is to get to the point. This doesn’t mean you need to reveal everything but, assuming your email is actually targeting a relevant segment, being upfront and honest will get opens.

Take this example from LinkedIn:

linkedin

They let you know exactly what the email is about, reveal a little information to entice you and then leave you with a sense there is more to learn.

Another example comes from Perfect Audience with their conversion notifications:

Perfect Audience Email Subject Line

Although this subject doesn’t have the longevity of LinkedIn’s it is effective because it is upfront, gets you excited and leaves the details of the conversion path to the body of the email. Once you’re reading the email Perfect Audience can then direct your attention as required.

When you’re not sending transactional or notification emails, you’re going to be sending newsletters or one-off campaigns, generally not triggered by any particular event. In this case the trick with subject lines is generally to be original and to pique curiosity.

Raising curiosity is no mean feat but a general rule of thumb is to ask questions.

Take this example from Kiva:

kiva email subject line

A part of their Mother’s Day campaign the subject line uses a single question to get your in head. After reading this subject line you might wonder: How good am I at what? An awesome example of how asking a question can get customers into the body of your email.

Another great email comes from Optimizely with this personalised sales follow-up:

optimizely email subject line

…and a final example comes from Crazy Egg who combine the two tips above. They are straight to the point in asking for feedback but use a question to make the ask sound both fast and friendly. A great subject line.

crazy egg email subject line

2. Localize, Personalize and Target

Basic personalisation is very common these days. Starting your subject line with ‘Hey Chris, why do…’ is pretty standard, and perhaps a little ‘same old’.

This doesn’t mean you should give up on personalisation! Personalization comes in many forms. Using customer attributes and actions to tailor the email you’re sending and your subject lines is one of the most powerful things you can do.

EasyJet include the name of your destination in the subject line, based on your booking:

easyjet email subject line

LinkedIn use people in your network and customers that have requested a connection to power their campaigns.

linkedin-invitation email subject line

Another great example is this campaign from Memrise, you use the exact details of your last course / your most complete course in their subject lines:

memrise email subject line

When personalising your subject line, here are a few things you can A/B test :

  • First and last name: it might be common but it’s always worth a try!
  • Alter the details in the subject line based on the recipient’s location: summer vs. winter and holidays in different parts of the world (Father’s Day isn’t the same date in every country) are two examples.
  • Gender: using men vs. women in the subject line of a clothing store’s newsletter or highlighting specific product names for each group are some basic examples.
  • Use details of the actions the customer has taken: what has the customer been doing on your website? What are their favourite products or what features are they yet to use? The examples above all use this tip.

3. Build Momentum (…ie don’t email out of nowhere)

Using auto-responders in order to email customers in series is an extremely powerful aspect of lifecycle email marketing. Series allow you to ensure your recipients know exactly who you are and give you the chance to build momentum, increasing your open rates dramatically.

Take Kareem Mayer, who blogs about his experience with a welcome series for his product SocialWOD. It’s evident that as his emails build he uses the power of the series combined with informative subject lines to build momentum.

kareem email stats

GetResponse take this one further and actually include the ‘position’ the recipient is at in the series. This is really useful as it clearly identifies the email and, assuming the customer has had a positive experience with earlier emails in the series, adds to the power of the subject line, increasing opens.

getresponse email subject line

Using series campaigns and flagging this in the subject line is a logical way to increase your email conversions. Most businesses send less emails than they could for fear of annoying customers. Spend time ensuring your emails are helpful and you won’t have this problem, allowing you to send emails in series that really convert.

4. Test, Test, Test

You will commonly read that shorter subject lines increase opens.

This is just one example of a quote thrown around as fact but, the truth is, you can never be sure this will hold true for your own audience. Mailchimp recently published a whole bunch of statistics on subject line length that reveal the truth: there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to subject line length: it’s completely relatively to your target audience so you need to draw your own conclusions!

If you want to really nail your subject line then you should start testing. Dan Norris at Inform.ly recently shared a little trick with his readers: when sending out blog updates he A/B tests his subject lines in order to determine which title is best.

Here are some results from a recent campaign:

a-b email subject line split test
Click for full-size image

This is a great example of the power of testing when it comes to finding out what subject lines work with your audience. Short, long, with funny characters, CAPS, first-letter capitalisation, etc. are all things you should experiment.

Creating A/B tests is easy – when was the last time you A/B tested one of your subject lines?

5. It’s Not Just About The Subject Line

These days email clients are getting pretty sexy and this means you actually have more than just the subject line to work with.

This article from MarketingSherpa shares how important it is to consider factors outside subject line length such as word choice and order. So, with this in mind, here’s the standard format of an email as your recipients will see it in Gmail:

how your email recipients will see it in gmail
Click for full-size image

…and here’s a similar example from Mailbox:

Mailbox Mobile Format Example - Email Subject Line
Click for full-size image

This format is fairly standard across desktop email clients, online clients (like Outlook and Gmail) and even mobile clients such as Mailbox.

As you can see, you should not only spend time optimising the subject line itself but also the from field and the short preview.

Here are three things you should try:

  1. Put the name of your company in the ‘from’ field: Rather than ‘Chris Hexton’, you could use ‘Chris from Vero’. Mentioning the name of your company can be good if your brand is recognisable and is always a great way of building consistency and trust. It keeps your customers from guessing. Lots of companies will email with ‘[Vero]‘ or similar in the subject line yourself but this is a waste of precious space! Maximize your from address.
  2. Move the position of ‘Open in your browser’: Lots of email marketing templates have the ‘View in your browser’ link at the top of the body. This means that it is generally the text that shows up in the ‘short preview’ section of mail clients. Bear this in mind and consider moving the link to the bottom or slightly further down the campaign (where it might actually be noticed).
  3. Use an H1 tag that has meaning: Never waste ‘headings’ in the body of your email. Make sure you include a H1 tag or bold text at the top of your email content that is relevant and will give a good idea of the body of the campaign. Use the ‘short preview’ to your advantage and, if you’re clever, you can even play the subject line of the ‘short preview’ to craft some clever content.

Over to You

Here’s what to do next:

  1. Leave a comment telling me what you think about these five tips. Do you agree or disagree with any of them?
  2. If you want more detailed, free examples tips and real world on examples on how to improve your subject lines and email marketing in general get this free course on lifecycle email marketing. It’s seven emails over 30 days and you can unsubscribe at any time: what have you got to lose :)?

Catch you in the comments!

– Chris Hexton


About The Author

Photo of Chris Hexton

Chris Hexton is a co-founder of Vero, email remarketing software that helps businesses send and optimize lifecycle emails. He loves helping businesses improve their email marketing and, in his down time, reading and playing guitar. You can get in touch with him via @chexton or check out getvero.com.
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Comments

  1. Duran Drake says:

    Hey Chris,
    Very Accurate Post I have a question to ask you that which email id you prefer to use when we need to start a campaign or for asking the information for enquirers whether to use our corporate email ids or personal ones?

    • Chris Hexton says:

      Hey Drake, do you mean to ask which email address we use to send emails FROM when we send out our emails? We do indeed use our corporate email addresses, i.e. @getvero.com – if that makes sense? Sorry if I misunderstood!

  2. I’ve always used the ‘preview’ part of the email as a sort of a continuation of the subject line.
    Given how few characters are visible (especially on mobile phone devices) from the subject line nowadays, things have changed dramatically in this respect.

    The most intriguing part of the subject line could otherwise be lost if it is not in the first few words.

    Cheers,
    Steve ✉ Master eMailSmith ✉ Lorenzo
    Chief Editor, eMail Tips Daily Newsletter

    • Hey Steve,

      Tried to visit your site from my iPhone and your pop up offer keeps blocking my view, I can’t read your posts and can’t find a way of closing the box. I thought it contextually relevant since part of this post is about ensuring people on phones can consume your content the right way. Figured you might want to know. Thanks!

      • Thanks a lot for the feedback, Noel!

        We are currently playing with a number of plugins there (testing) so it couldn’t have come at a better time, you know…
        The one you’ve noticed is a popup plugin from WPMU and I thought it was professionally developed and thoroughly tested, but it is MY bad for not testing it in mobile view myself first… :(

        I’ll try to find some options to make that window maybe smaller or else try to find a better suited plugin for mobile devices…

        Thanks again!
        Cheers,
        Steve ✉ Master eMailSmith ✉ Lorenzo
        Chief Editor, eMail Tips Daily Newsletter

    • Chris Hexton says:

      Really good point Steve and great little back-and-forth about the popup :).

      • Dan Carter says:

        Since SEO is all about manipulating mainly i agree that sometimes White Hat SEO is more of a subtle cousin of Black Hat counterpart. I agree with the article. But with the advent of content marketing it is the white hat folks who write genuine quality content who will win and not the manipulators.

  3. Rick Noel says:

    Great post Chris, Emails are like headlines in newspapers. To get someone to read your email is like getting someone to read your article. We all scan headlines (subject lines) and decide where to spend our precious attention. Fulfilling the promise of the subject line is the next critical piece, else unsubscribe rates will become the issue. Thanks for sharing.

    • Chris Hexton says:

      Spot on Rick. The subject line just gets recipients into the email and interested. There is no guarantee that will result in an open or click and, as you say, may lead to an unsubscribe if you don’t provide value. Valuable content is the *most* important thing.

  4. Amandah says:

    Hi Chris,

    I never thought about moving the position of “Open in your browser.” I’ll try out this technique the next time I send an email. Thanks for the tip!

    • Chris Hexton says:

      Would love to hear if it changes your results. Always A/B test if you can :)!

      • Amandah says:

        Hi Chris,

        The animal shelter I volunteer for uses Constant Contact, and I don’t think I can move the “Open in your browser” verbiage. I use AWeber for Savvy-Writer.com. I’ll have to see if I can move the “Open in your browser.”

        • Paul Scannell says:

          The article was helpful, but the replies were even better – Feed back. Pretty much creative writing is needed in the subject line to get it opened. I myself have to the issue as not in marketing but staff & students attention to open the email. I usually need to have the email require an open trail to verify that the email was opened and read. If it was closed without reading it, I have to make an in person visit to inform them. Much easier just to have the email read.
          Paul

  5. Darek says:

    Great post Chris!

    Totally agree with all 5 points. Especially no.5, it’s not all about the headlines, you can have the best headlines in the world but if what you’re writing in the email is just a BS then you’re definitely not going to make the reader take any action.

  6. Andy Kuiper says:

    So “Dear Sir/Madam, best wishes of the day to you” isn’t good? LOL ;-)

  7. Kelly says:

    Thanks Chris very informative post! I like the visual examples of how emails appear in two popular format and about removing ‘view in your browser’ from the top.

    I also noticed emails are getting more text based and toning down on the images so they look like less ad like and more personal. What are your thoughts on this trend?

  8. Shuki mann says:

    Perfect!!

  9. Good stuff – it took me a long time to figure those points out.

  10. David Smith says:

    Email subject line is always important to increase email open rates. Don’t use more technical word, just write subject line with simple words. Test it before send email campaigns. All are valid points. Good!

  11. kaman says:

    i like it……goodddddd

  12. asdasdg says:

    Email subject line is always important to increase email open rates. Don’t use more technical word, just write subject line with simple words. Test it before send email campaigns. All are valid points. Good!

  13. Erika says:

    Great article and very informative. I always use “call to action” words in my headers to ensure a response, I.e. (INFORMATION: Update available on xxx software) or (ACTION REQUIRED: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to…, ) this normally gets people to read the email and respond to an RSVP or fill in a form. Will definitely use the tips about preview line to make sure I get more attention. Thank you

  14. Rich Palmer says:

    I’m guilty of spending a lot of time designing my emails and then spending 30 seconds thinking of a subject line. After reading this article I will try out some of the suggestions to see if there is any improvement.

  15. Great article. Can’t agree with #4 more. Testing everything is SO important — especially subject lines. I used to work in video games and one of our highest-performing subject lines was simply a sad face emoticon :-(

  16. Great tips bro ! You are very accurate at the point ! Your article is 100% correct bro,Thanks for sharing this information with us :)

  17. Great post Chris. I think testing, testing, and testing some more is pivotal to a successful email marketing campaign. I typically test my email delivery cycle… testing from every 3-4 days, and also once per week.

  18. Agree with your last point Chris – the “from” and “preview sections” have an impact but aren’t focused on as much. This is something we’re testing more now now, thanks for highlighting it.

  19. Very informative post and will surely work on this in future. Currently I have zero knowledge in Email Marketing. So I am enriching my Knowledge and Your post helped me alot.

  20. Well it is increasingly important that social media strategies are supported by solid data that tracks outreach, engagement, and return on investments.

  21. good information.Thanks

  22. I am studding internet marketing in these days and i am very happy to find this site because Email marketing is a part of it, Thank you for these nice tips.

  23. Deepak Singh says:

    Awesome Information mate I am going to try it out,!!

  24. Really liked your post. We will be testing out email marketing to business owners… would like to touch base when you get a chance and see if you could help us out. Thanks.

    • Chris Hexton says:

      Glad you liked the post. More than happy to chat any time – Skype or my phone is best. I see you signed up to Vero so feel free to get in touch with the details in my welcome email :).

  25. Renee says:

    Great info! Thanks!

  26. Steve Petno says:

    Great article Chris on email subject lines ,,,Awesome detailed report…Than you…

  27. Hi, lovely post and am going to be working on testing as you suggested. We are new, and am doing a weekly newsletter, and i do keep subject lines short, but our open rates are going down. :(
    I absolutely do not mean to spam, but here is what we’ve sent so far – http://blog.swym.it/swym-newsletters/

    I’ll try and move the “view in browser” down, but this is frustrating :-) Will keep trying tho! So many informative articles out here :)
    Thanks!
    Rads

  28. Claire says:

    Hi Chris,

    A helpful article – thank you.

    How would you go about creating a subject line for email campaigns that announce new web app updates motivated by user feedback?

    Thank you

    • Chris says:

      Good question Claire!

      What have you used in the past? We see good rates just using “Product Update: Awesome XYZ” and being descriptive. We do try and segment who we send to though. Generally abandoned trials and current customers are a good start.

      Keen to hear what you’ve done in the past :).

      • Claire says:

        In the past, when we introduced the mobile optimized site, I made the subject line: ”timeBlend goes mobile!”. The body was written with a witty, fun tone. Making something quite banal into entertaining reading. Were not a B2B company, so we won’t bore readers with nuts and bolts that don’t make the experience better for them. At the end of the day, with the endless changes we’ve made to our web app – when looking at the front end – they just make the user experience better in the way of search, aesthetics and navigation. I feel ”Product update…”etc will not apply to our audience. I also am focused on showing in the heading, how we are responsive to feedback and the new changes benefit the user. Ie.: ”We listened to your feedback and xyz…”‘

        • Chris Hexton says:

          That’s a tricky one Claire. It depends on the situation.

          One thought I have is that if the content is not something you feel the ENTIRE audience will love then perhaps segment down into just the people who requested the features or gave feedback recently?

          Segmentation is always a win as it gives you a little more leeway when it comes to creativity.

  29. Junaid Ahmed says:

    nice and well done.
    useful info.

  30. matt-maldre says:

    Can you provide the link to the MarketingSherpa article mentioned in point 5? I’d love to read it.

  31. Great post out there (Y).. btw which theme are you using?

  32. Chris, This is a great article. We are just starting to use email direct marketing as an essential tool and have had some hit or miss results to date. I think you have opened our eyes to some good ideas. Thank you. Joe Sr.

  33. Matthew Neer says:

    Yo Chris,

    Tip #5 is a powerful one man. Once I learned about that, my email open rates shot up real fast.

    When I’m writing emails now, I often go back to my email inbox to reference the subject lines that got my attention the most, and then model them for use in my own newsletters and email promos.

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