Anatomy of a Subject Line That Sticks (or Stinks)

Email app on smart phoneWhen you receive an email, how do you decide whether to open it or not? For most people, it only takes a glance.

Maybe you only open emails from people you know or companies you already do business with. Perhaps you only browse emails after 4 p.m. on Thursdays and ignore anything more than a couple of days old. Whatever the case, you almost certainly glance at the subject line.

What can 40-50 characters tell you about an email? Quite a bit. A subject line can indicate how relevant an email is to you, how important the email might be, or even if the email is junk that slipped past the spam filter.

Now, think about the emails your organization sends to subscribers, customers, and prospects. Do your subject lines pass your own glance test? Would those subject lines get you to open an email? How can you improve your subject lines to better draw in your target audiences?

If you’re not sure if your subject line will stick with your target audience or stink up the trash bin, here are some tips to help point you in the right direction.

What makes a good subject line?

Grabs attention: Want your email to be ignored? Be boring. There is something to be said for being clear and upfront about what you’re sending, but would you open an email with this subject line: “New IMN Blog – October 31”? Of course not. You might be more likely to open this one: “Check out these spooky marketing tips!” Subject lines should be interesting and grab your reader’s attention.

Provides context (but not too much): As mentioned above, being upfront in your emails matters. But there’s a way to do it without being boring. Your subject line should provide some context for why you’re sending your subscribers an email. People don’t like spam in their inbox, but they can react positively to your organization if your emails provide value. That starts with using subject lines that indicate what you’re sending them, why you’re emailing them, or points to a problem you can help them with.

Creates a sense of urgency: If your recipients haven’t opened your email within the first 24 hours after a send, it’s unlikely they’ll open it at all. Create a sense of urgency by emphasizing the need to act fast, whether that’s securing a deal or reading an important piece of content. For example: “Can you afford to miss these financial tips?” Much like a strong blog post title, that subject line will push the reader to consider the implications of not opening the mail. FOMO is a powerful tool for every marketer.

Taking note of the above best practices can help improve your subject lines, but there are also some pitfalls to avoid that will put your emails on a trajectory for the spam bin.

What makes a bad subject line?

Misleads readers: We’ve all heard of sketchy clickbait articles and malicious phishing emails. The goal for most forms of marketing — whether it’s an advertisement, an email, or a blog post — is ultimately to get people to click, but you shouldn’t do so at the expense of your integrity. Avoid misleading readers in your subject lines at all costs. An attention-grabbing subject is good, but misleading subscribers even once will quickly get you flagged as spam.

Looks like an ad: While your emails are ultimately promotional in nature, subject lines and copy that read too much like an ad will push away readers already jaded by the dozens of marketing emails they receive each day. Just as the content of your email should provide value to your reader, the subject line should communicate that same value. Do your subject lines read like you’re offering the reader something informative or useful, or like you’re just trying to move your latest product?

Is too long: Seriously. Nobody reads long subject lines.

Writing engaging and open-worthy subject lines is a balancing act between two extremes. Be descriptive without being too long. Get attention without coming across as deceiving. Create a sense of urgency without looking like an ad. It is a challenge. But, by following the above tips, or working with an email marketing content provider, you can increase your open rates and improve your email performance.

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