How to write email subject lines that get opened: 11 tips

Ask any email marketer the hardest part of any campaign they create and more often than not, they’ll say the subject line.

For some marketers, email subject lines is an afterthought. For others, it comes first. But for most, it’s the single element of any email that they spend the most time agonizing over.

After all of your hard work, you need your recipients to actually open the email, otherwise all of that hard work on the creative has been for nothing.

Fortunately, there are certain things you can and should always consider when attempting to craft compelling email subject lines.

Here are 11 essential tips to consider whenever you’re writing your email subject lines.

 

1. Know your audience

It feels like it goes without saying, but for any marketing activity to be successful, you need to know your audience. If you don’t know this much, then you don’t know how you should be approaching, addressing, and marketing to your audience.

Knowing your audience will help you to devise subject lines that will work in your favor. That really is the first step – knowing who you’re sending the email to, and why, is essential in helping you decide where to start with your subject line.

 

2. Be clear about what the reader can expect when they open the email

Time is precious, so you need to make sure that you’re front-loading your subject lines with the benefits. Make it clear what the recipient gets from opening your email.

The second benefit of being clear and upfront with recipients is that this strengthens the relationship between you and your customers and prospects. If your subject lines always deliver on their promises when the recipient opens the email, they’ll know to trust you.

So, being upfront and crystal clear about what your email contains is essential.

For example, if your email is about the new summer product line that your brand is launching, make sure you put that in the subject line! Trying to be too clever with your subject lines could lead to them tanking.

The following examples are clear and to the point:

  • Our new summer range is here, look and shop now
  • Available now: summer styles
  • Shop our new summer range today

If anyone opens these emails, they should know exactly what they’re going to see.

Unless, of course, they’ve been mislead…

 

3. Don’t lie or mislead the reader

Following on from the previous tip, you don’t want to mislead your readers, as that can be damaging to your relationship.

Don’t promise anything in your subject lines that your email doesn’t deliver on. Not only is this disingenuous, it’s also spammy and if you take this approach your email campaigns will be winging their way to spam folders in no time at all.

Either that, or your hard earned subscribers and customers will be searching for that unsubscribe link that can be found in your email.

One misleading tactic that I’m genuinely surprised to still be seeing from brands in 2018 is the classic ‘RE:’ approach, in order to make you think it’s a reply to an email that you’ve already sent or received before:

Example of a misleading email subject line

It may work for some people, but it’s not going to endear you to your subscribers.

 

4. Brevity is best, so keep it short and snappy

Email is read more on mobile devices than on desktop (Litmus, 2018), and this in itself brings another subject line issue to contend with. Smaller screens mean less space to work with when displaying your subject lines.

With most mobile email clients, you will probably only have around four or five words before your subject line trails off.

You should try hard to make your subject line pop in those first four or five words. If you can make a strong subject line in just four or five words (or less) then do it.

 

5. Stand out in the inbox

With a year-on-year increase in the total volume of emails sent every day (Radicati Group, 2017), it’s becoming increasingly harder to stand out in a crowded inbox.

Having said that, it’s important that you don’t utilize practices that can be detrimental, which could limit your chances of even getting your email into the inbox at all.

Here’s a list of some things that you shouldn’t do with your subject lines when trying to stand out among the email inbox crowd:

  • Don’t use ALL CAPS – this can be considered spammy
  • Stay away from heavy use of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!
  • Avoid overzealous use of currency signs ($$$$$ or £££££, for example)

You don’t want your hard work to be for nothing, so avoid these approaches when crafting your subject lines.

 

6. Emojis have their place

Emojis have found their way into almost every aspect of everyday life now, they’ve even got their own (awful) movie.

They’re used a lot more in email now, especially email subject lines. The early adopters certainly stood out in their recipients’ inboxes, albeit briefly, until more and more brands started using the same approach.

The good news is that, when used effectively, emojis can help your subject lines stand out. Econsultancy summed up its recent research into emoji usage in subject lines, noting that an emoji ‘makes a good subject line better’, or ‘makes a bad subject line worse’.

So again, you need to ensure that you’re using emojis in the right way for them to be effective.

It’s important to consider some pros and cons when using emojis in subject lines:

Pros:

  • 💥 They can help your subject lines stand out
  • 😍 They’re more emotive
  • 👩‍🏫 You can use them to get a point across without the need for words
  • 📱 Especially useful for mobile
  • 📧 When used properly, they can add context to your email subject lines (again, useful for mobile)

Cons:

  • 💩 Improper use can be detrimental
  • 😬 Inconsistent rendering across mobile devices, platforms, and email clients (a good resource to check the differences is EmojipediaThe ‘grimacing face’ emoji is a great example of how emojis can look very different cross-platform)
  • 😡 Some audiences won’t like them (which takes us back to my first tip – know your audience)
  • 🎷 Irrelevant use can be confusing – is it immediately obvious what the emoji is, and why it’s being used? If the answer to either is no, don’t use it
  • 🍆 Some emojis can have multiple meanings, so make sure you understand any and all meanings before you use them

 

7. Don’t be afraid to show some personality

Most of the subject lines that lead me to open emails in my inbox are either to the point, or have a bit of personality shining through them. Adding personality to your subject lines can be a powerful tool in getting recipients to open.

You have to make sure that your brand allows a bit of playfulness and personality in its marketing comms, so this tip isn’t for everyone.

However, if you’re able to, then have some fun with your subject lines. As long as you keep them relevant, it opens up a world of limitless possibilities for your subject lines.

 

8. Urgency and scarcity work wonders

If you’re promoting a time-sensitive offer, deal, or sale, then be sure to use that in the subject line.

Good use of urgency will have your recipients clicking in no time. Language like ‘buy now’ or similar can subconsciously trigger the desired reaction from the reader.

Likewise, scarcity can also help to influence the recipient to open your email and then take the desired action.

Limited time or limited quantity offers are the most commonly used approaches. If you’re not offering a product you can always consider something else – a countdown until an event, for example.

With both urgency and scarcity, you’re tapping into the recipient’s fear of missing out (FOMO).

Make the reader believe that if they don’t open your email to see what’s inside, they really will be missing out.

 

9. Ask a question

One of the best ways to get someone to do something is to pique their interest and curiosity. Asking a question in your email subject line is the perfect way to do this.

If you’re a retailer, it can be as simple as asking whether the recipient wants to see your new collection, or even better, receive a discount on their next order, like this:

  • Hi Lee, do you want 20% off your next order?

Or if you’re a B2B business, you can ask a question that is relevant to some content that you’ve produced, like we did with our new Hitting the Mark email benchmark report:

  • Who is sending the best emails in retail?

The reader’s natural curiosity is enough to make them want to click. When they do, it’s up to you to make sure you keep them curious enough to click through from the email.

 

10. Don’t overcook your personalization

The best way to explain the use of personalization in email subject lines would be ‘less is more’. While the odd usage is okay, repetitive or irrelevant usage can turn recipients off.

What we also have to remember is that consumers are far more savvy about the email marketing practices of brands than they were in the past.

Whereas in years gone by seeing your name in the subject line was intriguing, or even exciting to some, it’s now become commonplace. Most consumers expect it, or don’t even notice it any more.

And the only way to know which personalization works best? On to my final tip to find that out…

 

11. Test, test, test

Perhaps the most important tip of all is to make sure that you’re always testing your subject lines and their performance & impact.

It’s essential that you continue to tweak your email subject lines in order to get the best possible performance from your campaigns.

Here’s a handful of things that you should consider when testing your subject lines:

  • Don’t get caught up in what you think your recipients expect
    • While, to a certain extent, you do have to predict what your recipients want, that doesn’t mean you know what they’re expecting. Keep them on their toes with your campaigns, and they’ll become more inclined to open your emails.
  • Don’t be cautious
    • Playing it safe is fine, if you want to do okay. But most of us want to do more than okay. So that means throwing caution to the wind with your subject lines, and stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s okay to brainstorm some really ridiculous subject lines, before scaling them back to something that you are happy with.
  • Monitor what works and what doesn’t
    • Make sure you’re tracking any tests that you’re doing, so that it’s easy to look back and see which type of subject lines worked best. Otherwise you’ll end up not knowing which types of subject lines work best for certain types of campaigns.
  • Don’t stick with a subject line that worked once, or worked well two years ago
    • While it may be easy to stick to the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, I don’t feel this particularly works well with email subject lines. While you may want to stick to a certain formula if you’re sending regular, consistent email campaigns, what you should consider is that recipients will get used to seeing the same types of subject line. In time, they could become blind or oblivious to them.

One approach you can use is to ensure that the first part of your subject line identifies the type of email you’re sending, before specifying the content it contains.

Let’s say you send a monthly newsletter to your subscribers, but all you do is change the month. So your subject line looks like this:

  • May Newsletter

It’s not the most inspiring or eye-catching subject line that you can use here, is it?

This is where emojis can be useful. You can add context with them, and over time your recipients will begin to associate that emoji with a certain campaign.

Seeing as we’re talking about a newsletter campaign, let’s use the newspaper emoji.

Then you also add a callout to some specific content that’s included in your newsletter. This will make the subject line different every time, while still being clear about its contents.

Put these elements together, and you end up with a subject line that looks like this:

  • 📰 May newsletter: Email subject line guide, GDPR webinar, and new platform features

Sure, it’s a lot longer, and the full subject line will likely be truncated on some displays, but it’s better. By using an emoji and adding clear information about what the email contains, it’s already more appealing to the recipient.


Write Better Email Subject Lines

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