Email Subject Lines


There are over 4 billion email accounts in the world and over 100 billion business emails are sent every day. So inboxes are already full. Emails are competing harder and harder for attention. Needless to say, the subject line is the most important part of an email.

The average email open rate is around 25%, depending on your space. And the average conversion rate from emails is around the 1% – 5% mark, on a clickthrough of between 1.3% and 5.5%. So while it’s one of the most effective channels there is, there’s also a little room for improvement. And with most email campaigns numbering in thousands, generating 1% more opens and thus maybe 0.5% more conversions could mean a massive jump in absolute numbers. Around 60% of consumers say they open emails based on the subject line alone!

How in the world, then, can we craft email subject lines that get opened? It might come as no surprise to you that the psychological tactics that have always worked for everything from cold calling to door-to-door sales still hold true. They just take on a new form in the world of email marketing. Here’s some new wine for your old bottle.


1. The Question subject line


Zillow: ‘What can you afford?’


Question subject lines play on a couple of powerful human psychological drives. First, you have the fear of missing out – something so well known that it’s a Twitter hashtag as an acronym. The answer to the question might be vital information. Can you afford to miss out? But there’s another powerful instinct at play here. A question invites a response. And the only way to respond to an email is to open it. Question subject lines point to a broader idea: you want to stimulate curiosity, though question marks aren’t the only way to do that!

Closing our psych books, though, we can see that there’s a pretty common sense reason why this is an effective technique. If you have even the vaguest interest in buying a new home (Zillow’s offering) or making any other kind of purchase, how much you can afford is a vital question that influences every other move you make. Implying that that essential information is just a click away means your email is far more likely to be opened!


2. The Personal subject line


Ticketmaster: ‘Read your review of…’


From psychology, to neurology: the effect of seeing or hearing your own name can be measured directly in the brain. And it’s not just names. Any form of reference to our identities and things we’ve done that we identify with can have similar effects.

Dale Carnegie may have been right when he declared that a person’s name is “the sweetest sound in any language,” but oddly, our names are no longer the most personal thing we can receive in an email subject line. That’s because subject lines that address you by name are so effective that they’re used by everyone, with the result that they’re losing their effectiveness in your inbox. We’re so used to seeing them that we filter them out.

Reference to content that we’ve created, though, is unusual and highly effective. Reviews we’ve written, comments we’ve made or the near-addictive alert emails from Quora that let you know someone’s commented on your comment are all strong motivators to open.


3. The Urgent subject line


Mari Smith: ‘We’re going live in 3, 2, 1…’


Urgency is one of the most effective marketing tools because it impels action. “Do something” doesn’t just carry less urgency than “do something now,” it carries less imperative – a less strong call to action. Urgency subject lines build a call to action in as the first thing you see.

There are effectively two ways to create urgency. One is product scarcity: there are only a few of these things. Another is time urgency: they’ll only be available for a short time. Add a deadline, a price reduction and a call to action in the subject line and you’re home and dry, so a subject line like “Hurry! This [product you probably like] 30% off sale ends tomorrow!” should look familiar to you.

But again, that familiarity is probably from brief dips into your spam folder after wayward correspondence. It’s too shout-y, too obvious and too likely to get picked up by the omnipresent SpamAssassin or a similar email server spam filter, which will zero in on those exclamation marks and punish your email accordingly. (That’s not to say exclamation marks shouldn’t be used: those that get through spam filters are associated with a higher open rate, so just know that it’s a tightrope and tiptoe accordingly.)

Mari’s is a great headline because it’s got scarcity, urgency, humor and a cliffhanger – all in just 30 characters, meaning it’s mobile-friendly as well. The live event is already scarce – there will be limited places – and already urgent because unlike most online content, you can’t access it when you want. That short-circuits people’s natural tendency to put things aside for later and totally forget them, which explains the state of your bookmarks folder. Then, there’s the countdown. You know that they’re not really counting down in seconds from when they send the email. But you still feel the urgency it’s meant to create, and you’re that much more likely to click through.

The key to utilizing urgency effectively is timing: email automation software such as GetResponse that let you shoot drip (in the form of triggered, autoresponder, lifecyle or series emails) or batch emails right on time is your friend here.


Over to You


Honorable mention should go to the slightly-spammy, but ever-effective, “You won’t believe what this guy did…” and Thrillist’s well-targeted, perfectly-timed and humorous entertainment-themed emails like “Let’s get fat,” as well as solid perennials like the how-to and the list.


About Author:

Tracy Vides is a content strategist who likes to keep her finger on the pulse of the latest small business products, services, and apps. Tracy is also a prolific blogger in the digital marketing space. She’s always up for a chat @TracyVides on Twitter.