Get More People Opening Your Emails with These Proven Subject Line Tips

Email marketing is not dead.

It’s still the number one way to get things sold on the internet. (The numbers back me up here.)

Why? Because email marketing is so personal. When we send a marketing email, it’s landing in people’s inboxes, right alongside stuff from co-workers and notes from friends and that weird forward from your wacky Great Aunt Enid.

But your email marketing only works if people open your emails. And to make that happen, you need to get good at writing subject lines.

But your email marketing only works if people open your emails. And to make that happen, you need to get good at writing subject lines.

According to Convince & Convert, 35% of email recipients decide whether or not to open an email based on subject line alone. So you’ve got to work hard to write a subject line that makes people want to open and see what else you have to say.

Here are a few tips that will help you write subject lines that will capture the attention of your audience and get the maximum benefit out of every email you work hard on.

Keep it short

A study by MailerMailer found that emails with subject lines of 28-39 characters got better results than emails with longer subject lines.

This may be driven by mobile devices, where anything in a subject line past about 40 characters tends to get cut off.

That means you need to be economical with words when you write your subject lines. Make sure you can justify every word, and focus on a single idea that you can communicate quickly and clearly.

Here are a couple of great examples that create specific interest and tease a big idea with just a few words.

From: Crate & Barrel
Subject: An Easter table for all your peeps
From: Ray Edwards (Copywriter)
Subject: The secret to business growth

Make it useful and relevant.

Email is a personal, private space. Respect it. Write subject lines that are useful and that show how the email will help the person who gets it.

subject lines create a brand impression, even if someone never opens your emails

Remember, open and click rates really don’t tell the whole story of how “effective” a subject line is. That’s because subject lines create a brand impression, even if someone never opens your emails. With that in mind, be tasteful and make sure they are serving your customer well.

Both of these examples keep the customer front and center while still underscoring the business objective behind the email.

From: Columbia Sportswear
Subject: 3x points on everything is back!
From: Amy Porterfield
Subject: How to use content to “fuel” your next launch

Be timely

Remember that urgency drives action. If you’ve got time-sensitive elements in your email — a deadline, a holiday, limited availability — lead with that in your subject line.

From: Thrive Market
Subject: Final hours! Get your FREE superfood gift now ($12 value)
From: Brooks Brothers:
Subject: Ends today! 25% off for preferred customers

Another way to be timely is to reference current events that you know your customers pay attention to. It gives instant relevance to your email. Here’s a great example from music platform NoiseTrade, leveraging the “FOMO” of SXSW to drive interest in their new playlist.

From: NoiseTrade
Subject: Missing SXSW this year? Download the CLIF Bar Bash Mixtape.

Open loops

Our wonderful human brains are hard-wired for resolution and closure.

In fact, you’ll notice it when you watch a movie. Within ten minutes, the movie will “open a loop” of what the character wants. Bridget Jones wants a relationship with her boss. King George wants to be able to give a speech.

Those are open loops, and the movie earns your attention because you need to see how the loop closes.

A great subject line opens a loop that can only get closed by reading the email.

A great subject line opens a loop that can only get closed by reading the email. Your customer feels drawn to open and engage with your email in order to close that loop.

Asking questions is an easy way to use this strategy. Can you see how each of these examples opens a loop?

From: Old Navy
Subject: Can this stylist trick double your closet?
From: Jeff Walker
Subject: Are you making these mistakes in your business?
From: CoSchedule
Subject: Are your best content ideas hiding on Reddit?

In some ways, opening a loop is simply making a “mini sale” of sorts. But in this case, all you’re selling is the open. You want it to convince people to take the next step of opening and clicking. From there, you can build on that engagement to get people reading, buying, or sharing.

Here’s a great open loop from nonprofit charity:water — you want to know what they say every day, don’t you?

From: charity:water
Subject: We say it every day.

Here’s another one from Michael Hyatt. The emotional word “embarrassing” just adds another layer of intrigue!

From: Michael Hyatt
Subject: What my blog looked like in 2005 (this is embarrassing)

Straightforward beats clever

It’s tempting to get cute in a subject line. And depending on your overall brand, that may be a winning strategy for connecting with your audience.

But in general, make sure your cleverness isn’t coming at the expense of clarity.

In this example from Rosetta Stone, you really have no idea what the email is about, and the cutesy subject fails to create any curiosity that might compel us to open.

From: Rosetta Stone
Subject: Aah…spring is in the air (sorta)

That’s not to say that cleverness is unilaterally a bad idea. In this example from Starbucks, the subject line delivers an unexpected laugh. But it also opens a loop. What am I not supposed to be licking, you subconsciously ask? Better open and find out. (It was frappuccinos, by the way.)

From: Starbucks
Subject: Please don’t lick this email.

Create visual interest

The average person gets about 140 emails a day. That’s a whole lotta email. And you probably know how it goes when you sit down to check your inbox. Your finger basically stays on the “delete” or “arrow” button by default. So what does it take to make sure your marketing email doesn’t get sent immediately to the trash?

Here, it’s helpful to think about your email alongside all the others your customer receives. How can you make your subject line stand out visually?

The answer to this question, like so many others in life, is to use emoji. Here’s an example from West Elm’s email on International Women’s Day.

From: west elm

Emoji aren’t for every brand, though, so try typographical changes to stand out. Here’s an email from Athleta, who just added extra spaces in between each letter of a key word.

From: athleta

Set a timer for 6 minutes

We work so hard on our emails, don’t we? We compile content. We write and proofread. We pull together graphics, and then we format and test it all. It’s a lot of effort. And by the time we’re done with all that, we just slap the first subject line we can think of on there and hit send.

Here’s the irony of that approach — you’ve invested all this time and effort in perfecting your email, but fewer people see it because your subject line was an afterthought.

So here’s my challenge to you: next time you’re ready to send an email, set your phone’s timer for 6 minutes and brainstorm subject line ideas. It’s going to feel like an eternity. But I promise you’ll have aha moments you’d never had otherwise, and I know the extra time and effort will help you find a breakthrough idea for your subject line.

Of course, these are all just best practices for email subject lines. That means they work most of the time for most brands, not all the time for everybody. Take this advice and think about it in light of what you know about your customers and what they value. Then, experiment and see what they respond to.

I’m curious: what subject line strategies have worked for you? Leave a comment and share what you’ve learned with all of us.

Want More Free Marketing Advice?

Discover the small-but-mighty tweaks that will make your website dramatically more effective. Sign up for my free video course, 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

Subscribe to the Building a Story Brand Podcast