In crowded inboxes, the subject line is your one shot to pique recipients’ interest enough to open your email. How can you be sure you don’t waste it?
As anyone who’s interviewed for a job or met a significant other’s family knows, first impressions matter because they’re often hard to shake. Disheveled hair or a breakfast-stained tie can create perceptions that stick, regardless of whether they’re warranted. That same principle holds true for email subject lines—for more than one-third of email recipients, the subject line alone determines whether they open a message.
“The subject line allows email recipients to quickly decide whether they will open a message or trash it, based on if it hints at something of interest,” says Donny Stiefel, digital marketing specialist at True North Custom. “No matter how compelling your content, you need to make sure the audience knows it’s there. That’s where the subject line can make your email shine or cause it to crash and burn.”
The Right (and Wrong) Stuff
Audiences are simply too varied for a one-size-fits-all secret to crafting effective subject lines. (Email list segmentation, anyone?) The following do’s and don’ts, however, hold true across the board—and when you combine them with your target audience knowledge, you have the ingredients for attention-grabbing subject lines:
- Do choose your words wisely. Subject lines should be brief—the optimal character count is debatable, but 50 and above is on the high side. Tease the email contents using active language that’s reminiscent of a call to action. Be sure to lead with the subject line’s most important information.
- Don’t overpromise. Your email should unequivocally deliver on your subject line pledge.
- Do get personal. A subject line that uses the recipient’s name or mentions a familiar location catches attention and creates connections.
- Don’t use excessive punctuation or capitalization—such techniques look amateurish and are more often flagged as spam.
- Do strike the right tone. Use your subject line to appeal to different aspects of human nature. An interesting question can spark recipients’ curiosity, a clever pun can make them want to read more, and an element of urgency can tap into their fear of missing out.
- Don’t waste valuable space. “If you have the ability to use preheader text, you can offload some of the subject line there,” says Tyler Hardekopf, vice president of operations at True North Custom. “You can also use preheader copy to write something that reinforces the subject line.”
- Do use emojis (in moderation). They can be fun, but it’s easy to go over the top with them. Limit yourself to occasional use and definitely not in every subject line.
- Don’t be a nameless sender. If your email appears to come from a generic account, it’s likely to go unopened. Humanize the sender by using the name of someone in your organization.
Put Your Words to the Test
No subject-line optimization effort would be complete without testing to determine which subject lines are, well, optimal. One way to go about it is A/B testing, which lets you determine which version of a subject line performs best.
“Test a minimum of three times so you can identify a trend,” Hardekopf says. “Use open rate to determine the winning version, but allow enough time—24 hours—for more of your test segment to have time to open before determining a winner. Testing is the only way to reliably improve open rates based on subject lines.”
Want More Peer Perspective?
Sign up and receive more case studies, marketing tips, and other useful content from True North Custom delivered straight to your inbox.