Your prospects’ inboxes are crowded with marketing messages — so here’s a little inspiration for crafting subject lines that disrupt patterns and really reach out and grab the reader. BONUS: our free cheat sheet will help you identify bad subject lines (and fix them).
Steve Young is the Director of Product Marketing for SmartShoot, a marketplace that connects businesses and individuals with freelance photographers and videographers from around the world. Follow Steve on Twitter.
Banafshe is a writer and creator who loves long walks on the beach (kidding?). When she’s not selling you on her puns or her pop-culture analogies, she can be found at the busiest intersection in her city with her headphones. Which are totally not falling apart.
Email subject lines are the gatekeepers of your email campaigns. They’re the first thing your recipients see in their inboxes. And we don’t know about you but when a subject catches our eye, we usually read that email right away. That’s the power of email. Social networks come and go (are we all over BeReal already?), but email marketing is always a great way to connect with, engage and convert your audience.
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 pay off.
This post will give you six tips you can use to write email subject lines that get your recipients opening and, ultimately, converting.
But first, what is an email subject line?
Before we get crazy specific with our email lingo, you might be wondering, “what is an email subject line, anyway?”
We got you.
An email subject line is like the opening line of a conversation in the digital world, but with the added pressure of needing to be intriguing enough to make you click.
It’s that snippet of text that winks at you from your inbox (that’s what you should want it to do, anyway), teasing you with a hint of what’s inside. Think of it as the trailer to the movie that is your email. It’s the make-or-break moment where your audience decides if they’ll open that message or just slide it into the abyss of their spam emails.
Why is a good subject line important?
You’re probably getting a sense of why email subject lines are important. But what makes them so important to nail, exactly?
When you’ve put hours of effort into getting your segmentation just right and even more into nailing your awesome email copy, you want to make sure your emails actually get read. And a good email subject line is that first touchpoint. It’s kinda like a first impression—if you’re not nailing it, your audience might never come to find out all that value you’re bringing to the table inside your email.
So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal, but no pressure.
The dos and don’ts of email subject line writing
Yeah, emails can be powerful, and even more powerful with the right subject line. But how do you cut through the noise and the huge amount of spam that hits your prospects’ inboxes every day?
Easy, you write a perfect email subject line.
It might seem like an overwhelming task, but there’s some simple dos and don’ts that go a long way in simplifying what we oughtta do (and don’t.)
Set your subscribers’ expectations and clearly state what’s inside the email. Being catchy and mysterious might entice an audience, but that excitement will quickly be replaced with disappointment if you’re not actually delivering on your email subject line with the content of your email.
Write your subject lines like advertisements. The folks at MailChimp say it perfectly: “When it comes to email marketing, the best subject lines tell what’s inside, and the worst subject lines sell what’s inside.”
Why do these things matter? Well, the average business person receives 121 emails a day. And let’s be real, if you’re anything like us, about 90% of those are going straight into the can.
In short, there’s a lot of crap out there (craploads of it). And despite the promise we all tell ourselves to unsubscribe from all of the emails we don’t want to receive, some companies make you jump through hoops to do this, which is discouraging at best.
So now that you know the basic dos and don’ts of this whole email subject line writing business, how do you write the perfect one? Let’s get straight into it.
6 strategies to write the perfect email subject line
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 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:
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:
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:
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 personalized sales follow-up:
…and a final example comes from Crazy Egg, who combines 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.
2. Localize,personalize and target
Basic personalization 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 personalization! 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 includes the name of your destination in the subject line, based on your booking:
LinkedIn uses people in your network and customers that have requested a connection to power their campaigns.
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:
When personalizing 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 favorite products or what features are they yet to use? The examples above all use this tip.
3. Build momentum (i.e.,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.
GetResponse takes this one further and actually includes 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.
Using series campaigns and flagging this in the subject line is a logical way to increase your email conversions. Most businesses send fewer 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 relative 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:
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 capitalization, etc. are all things you should experiment with.
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:
…and here’s a similar example from Mailbox:
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 optimizing the subject line itself but also the from field and the short preview.
Here are three things you should try:
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 recognizable 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, but this is a waste of precious space! Maximize your from address.
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).
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.
6. Be catchy
There’s nothing wrong with making your email subject line a little sexy.
We’re not thinking NSFW, but it’s okay to be a little dangerous. Play around with how you can create some sense of urgency, expectation, and even fun. Life is short, and so is your email subject line. What can you do to make the most out of it and get the most engagement?
There’s a reason TLDR, Wealthsimple’s monthly newsletter, is the most read financial newsletter in all of Canada.
Although they discuss how many Canadian banks reported lower-than-expected earnings last week, largely thanks to high mortgage rates, they’re not boring you with the details or just the hard facts in the email subject line.
Instead, they’ve found a fun and engaging way to draw you in. And once you get to reading the newsletter, you get the full information without feeling cheated.
There’s often a delicate balance between an exciting email subject line and actually delivering on it in the email. Wealthsimple achieves that here beautifully. And it’s a sight to behold. 🍑
We don’t know about you, but pumpkin lattes and utter chaos seems like an… interesting combo. Which makes us want to click on this email even more.
Wondermind refers to themselves as the first mental fitness ecosystem to democratize and destigmatize mental health for everyone, and their newsletter focuses on mental fitness tips and candid conversations.
In this newsletter, they talk about a latte frother you can use in the comfort of your own home just in time for fall, and how to survive in utter chaos and organize your thoughts. The thought of combining those two subjects together in the email subject line is smart and intriguing. *Violently clicks on email.*
Bonus tips (to really push your email subject line over the edge)
We know we’re giving you lotsaaa info here, but here are some bonus points to keep in mind to really set you up for success with your email subject line.
Don’t be afraid to use the following: ALL CAPS (not for the whole subject line, mind you, just to highlight the occasional word), the word FREE (debatable, don’t sound like spam), or an exclamation point!
Frame your subject line as a question. Target the question at the types of problems your customers/leads need answers for. This can also turn into a CTA of sorts for your audience.
Keep it short. 50 characters or less works best. According to MailChimp, subject lines with 28-39 characters had the highest click rate in a study of 200 million emails.
Identify yourself. Mention your most identifiable brand product in the subject line, or prefix the subject line with a consistent identifier.
Use timely topics that are top of mind, and use urgency occasionally to point out deadlines.
And even though you wanna be risky and snappy, you never wanna be corny. Here are some tactics to avoid, cause they probably belong in the 90s or something.
Symbols and special characters: They might get people opening them out of curiosity, but they make you look cheap.
Don’t use FW: in your subject to imply it’s come from a trusted source. That’s straight up bad marketing.
Numbers: Details of your special offers (50% off, etc.) can be useful but don’t overuse them or you’ll establish yourself as a sales merchant.
Names: Using first names in the subject line can actually reduce open rates.
7 Eye-catching email subject line examples to increase your open rates
Now that we’ve covered some solid strategies on how to write the perfect email subject line, how about we give you some more fun, out-of-the-box examples that show you what your emails can be really made of? Let’s get into ‘em.
1. “Your AMAZING photos”
The subject line above was in a cold recruitment email and received a 70% open rate along with a 25% conversion rate.
Because it was a cold email, we made sure to tell the recipient where we came across their photos in the body of the email, followed by a quick introduction to the company.
This subject line shows that flattery is a great way to get your recipient’s attention. However, you want to make sure that you are not baiting your recipients with this subject line and then trying to sell your services.
Using flattery is a good strategy when either recruiting someone or trying to interview an influential person for a podcast. Wink wink.
Use flattery to your advantage.
Do NOT bait and switch. For example, do not use the subject line “Your AMAZING website” and then try to sell your SEO services.
Flattery is best used for recruiting someone or to land an influential person for your podcast, blog or web show.
2. “Were we boring you?”
This was a subject line used by Sperry Van Ness. At the time, they were receiving an average open rate of 30%, which is above industry standard. However, the company felt that it was mostly the same people who were opening the emails.
So, in an attempt to clean their list, the company drafted an email with the subject line, “Were we boring you?“
The opening paragraph included a message about how many of the subscribers were not opening the newsletter.
Sperry Van Ness then asked subscribers if they wanted to stay on the list or if there was anything that the company could do to better communicate their message.
The open rate skyrocketed to over 50% and they surprisingly did not receive as many unsubscribes as they originally thought.
In fact, people actually apologized for not being more involved. That’s like, too much influence.
Try using a subject that is completely unexpected.
Using a question in your subject lines is a great way to get someone’s attention.
Don’t be afraid of being different.
3. “How I grew the KISSmetrics Blog from 0 to 350,000 readers a month”
Neil Patel is a master of writing catchy blog headlines, and if you’re an email subscriber to his blog, the headlines also become the subject lines of his emails.
In fact, email marketing is how he built his first business. In his blog, he goes into great detail on how you can use email marketing to gain engagement. It’s a must-read.
The reason why we love this subject line is that it tells a hero’s journey. We all start out as someone looking to build an audience. We don’t have any readers, any listeners or any viewers.
The subject line also implies that Neil will provide tactical action items that we can use to grow our respective audience.
Use a subject line that relates to your audience’s current state of business.
Inspire them with real numbers and show them how you did it so they can do it themselves.
4. “App business kit (60.34% opt-in rate)”
This is a subject line used by Trey Smith of GameAcademy promoting his free app business kit. Trey used this subject line as a follow-up email from the previous day.
The 60.34% opt-in rate immediately caught our attention.
Within the email, Trey explains that he A/B tested five different landing pages and that the one included in the email converted at a whopping rate of 60.34%. Makes you want to click on the landing page, doesn’t it?
He also goes on to state that it’s one of the highest conversions he’s ever seen.
Lastly, he talks a bit more about the free app business kit and ends with a call to action to download the kit (which we did…)
This is a great subject line to use when you’re following up on those who haven’t registered for your webinar, downloaded an ebook or signed up for a course.
You don’t necessarily need to be A/B testing your pages. You can also share the amazing results you’ve seen from the previous email.
Use mind-blowing stats in your subject lines to build intrigue.
Stats in subject lines are great to send reminders to those who have not engaged with your product or service.
5. “Pat’s super-secret way to find content to write about”
Pat Flynn of SmartPassiveIncome uses the above subject line in his first auto-responder email, and he provides AMAZING content within this email. Pat knows that to build a loyal audience you have to give them your best stuff at the very start on the relationship.
And since his audience is primarily comprised of bloggers and online marketers, he understands that at times we all go through dry spells of coming up with great content to write about.
That is why Pat shares his super-secret tip a day after you sign up for his email. He knows once you read this content that he has your attention for the full span of the auto-responder series.
Share your best content in the beginning of your auto-responder series.
Use “secret” to attract attention, but use it carefully as not to disappoint your readers.
6. “Would you like to unsubscribe?”
We know what you’re thinkin’, “The money is in the email list! Why in the world would I ask anyone to unsubscribe?”
Well, it’s simple. We want people who want to hear from us.
We often get email addresses from lead generation sources such as conferences and webinars. And while these leads may have been interested in the initial offering, they may not be interested in hearing from us ever again (but we try not to take it too personally).
What we’ve found is that these people will most likely unsubscribe the next time you send any type of email, so we make it easy for them by sending an email dedicated to unsubscribing.
By doing this, we scrub our list from those who will likely never engage with us and also earn the trust of those who open the email and didn’t unsubscribe.
As an example, think of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant. He is also famously featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
He attracts sushi lovers from all around the world who call months in advance and pay top dollar for a coveted seat at his 10-seat restaurant.
However, there’s a twist. Customers must eat whatever Jiro is serving that day and are not allowed to add anything to the sushi, which means no soy sauce and no wasabi.
He treats sushi as an art and spends hours and hours crafting the perfect piece. While he could easily expand his space and triple his revenues, he wants to make sure he attracts the right customers, so if you’re looking for a bento box Sukiyabashi Jiro is probably not the right place for you.
Scrub your lead list of those who will likely never engage with you.
Don’t be afraid to be bold, it will earn trust with those who stay on.
7. “Steve, where are you”?
The subject line above was sent as a final reminder email for a webinar. It’s the very last email in a sequence of four emails we came across promoting a webinar.
This email was able to achieve a 43% open rate and a 15% click-through rate. To give you a little perspective, the industry averages are 24% and 4% respectively (according to Mailchimp).
This subject line uses the psychological trigger (or internet slang) called FOMO (fear of missing out, you may have heard of it).
When we scroll through photos and status updates, the worry that tugs at our minds is set off by the fear of regret, according to Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational” and a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He says we become afraid that we’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend our time. (You’re wrong, Dan, we’re totally not spending hours looking at cute dogs on TikTok).
While the subject line will gain your recipient’s attention, you must make sure your content is also worth the attention.
Personalize the subject line with the recipient’s first name to amplify the fear of missing out.
Provide valuable subject matter within the body of the email.
Common questions around how to perfect your email subject lines
Look, we know there’s a lot to consider about email subject lines. Which is a bit ironic, considering how short they gotta be.
But if you’re looking for the perfect email subject line, there are some common questions you should know the answers to.
What is the ideal length of an email subject line?
You may come across different exact character limits upon research. A good rule of thumb is to keep it short ‘n sweet. Anywhere between 30 to 50 characters is usually the optimal length for a subject line. However, the length of the email subject line depends on what you’re writing about, and what kind of email subject lines your audience tends to respond to.
What subject lines get the most open?
Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to email subject lines, but there are a few things to keep in mind that can raise more intrigue.
Curiosity killed the cat, but not the email. You never wanna be too vague, but bringing in an element of curiosity is always a good strategy to draw in more of an audience.
Just a lil’ bit of FOMO. We’ve got short attention spans, and so does your audience. Throwin’ out the occasional “You’re missing out on this deal” or “Get this now before it’s gone” never hurt anyone. But make sure there is something to miss out on, if you’re going with this strategy.
Now that you’ve nailed your subject lines, what’s next?
Sure, it all starts with the perfect email subject line. But let’s say you’ve followed all our advice and you’ve kicked your open rates into high gear. That still doesn’t guarantee a conversion.
So what’s next?
To accomplish that goal, you’ll want two more things:
Amazing content that your subscribers will actually look forward to reading whenever you appear in their inbox. This will encourage them to click the email’s call to action and visit your web properties. (Read this incredible article by our friend Chris Hexton for some big ideas on this topic.)
A tailored landing page that keeps the conversation going and further boosts your conversion rates. This is how you close that gap between the inbox and your website and prevent people from falling through.
Make sure your landing page is fast and mobile-responsive too because a lot of people check their emails on their phone.
You should also run A/B tests on your landing pages, your emails, and your subject lines to ensure you’re always hitting the right pressure points. These things all work together to ensure your success.
Like creating an effective subject line, it’s easy to get started but hard to perfect.
Don’t miss out on the latest industry trends, best practices, and insider tips for your marketing campaigns
Boosting open and click-through rates? Amazing!
But what about your overall conversion rate? If you’re sending recipients to a generic webpage (like a product page or home page) then you risk losing their attention yet again.
Capitalize on those killer open rates by creating tailored landing pages for your email campaigns. With Unbounce, you can drag-and-drop your way to a compelling, on-message page in a matter of hours.
And mobile-optimization means they pair extremely well with emails. Read more about how Unbounce works with your email campaigns here.
Even with the proliferation of social networks, email marketing is still a powerful tool. The problem is crafting the right subject line to cut through the noise and get your readers’ attention.