11.30.20157 min read

Email Marketing Subject Lines: How to Write Them So They Read Like Buttah

It’s the quandary of everyone who sends marketing emails: How do you get people to actually open your emails? There’s a lot that goes into creating a clickable, compelling email. But the first thing people see may just be the most important part: the subject lines. Have you been giving your email subject lines the careful attention they deserve? Want to make them really enticing? Stop thinking of subject lines as titles, headlines or placeholders—think of them as the first step in a long seduction, slowly drawing your recipients in. 

When I say that compelling email subject lines can seduce your recipients, I’m not talking seduction in the pick-up-lines-and-hotel-rooms sense of the word—in fact, that’s exactly the wrong way to do it. I’m referring to the other definition—“tempting and attractive; enticing.” 

Headlines have long been considered seductive, and your email subject line works the same way as a headline. So let’s get that temptation and mystery into your subject lines, as well. To get the best tips for writing email marketing subject lines that work, I talked with Jared Kimball, a marketing automation strategist and one of our resident email marketing experts.

Looking for more tips on email? Check out our free e-book, “Email Marketing For The Rest Of Us

It’s all about the relationships

As with most aspects of life and business, the best relationships begin with trust. Email recipients will more readily click on an email when they trust the source. So, you have to nurture a relationship with your recipients so that they already trust you. This relationship isn’t built by just emailing people—it’s by identifying people in your target market and delivering the stuff they really want: solutions to their problems. And maybe a little entertainment.

For this reason, treat your emails like people in a relationship would email. The first impression of an email in the inbox is the subject line and the sender’s name. The two are paired, and a sender name that looks like it’s coming from a person—not “Company Name,” but a person’s first and last name—will enforce the feeling that a relationship is in play. 

Short and shocking

Another tip for writing the best email marketing subject lines is that often brevity with a bit of mystery is the best way to draw someone in. Unsurprisingly, “Hey!”, “Hey,” and “hey” are very effective email subject lines, since they look like they’re from a friend and curiosity stands a good chance of winning out.

Other short, intriguing bits include “This just in …” and “Breaking news … “ Tickle your recipients’ curiosity, and they’ll be unable to resist opening.

Long and provocative

On the other hand, you can also just put it all out there and tell people exactly what they’re getting. Honesty and subject line length stand out in an inbox. Jared provided three formulas to get you started on the long, provocative track. 

How to + [benefit] + [timeframe]

Example: How to Generate 300 Leads in Under 10 Minutes 

[Someone famous] + Guide to + [Benefit]

Example: The Angry Cat Guide to Viral Marketing Memes

X Things You Should Know about Y

Example: 713 Things You Should Know About Good Email Subject Lines

For longer subject lines, you can use the CoSchedule headline analyzer to score the overall structure, readability and emotive power of your headline. Keep in mind, it’s actually designed for blog post headlines, but the analysis is impressive, and the principles are the same with regard to the word balance. 

Stimulating punctuation

Believe it or not, dots, lines, and swirls can do a lot for an email open rate. Ellipses (…) add extra mystery because they create an information gap, and people want to know what comes next. 

Even emoticons can help your open rate, but they should be used judiciously to avoid looking spammy. For example, a subject line like, “Hey! {winking smiley emoji}”, probably won’t get your desired outcome because it looks a bit like spam email from an online dating service. However, “Hey thought you’d like this :)” could be very effective when sent to customers who trust you and with whom you have an existing positive relationship. 

Surprisingly, hyphens and dashes can help your open rate—since they aren’t as commonly used in email subject lines, they can help visually set your email apart from the rest of an inbox. 

Be extra careful with HTML emojis in your subject lines. As with everything in the digital age, there’s no such thing as a hard and fast rule, but (unless you’re very adept with the latest trends in interactions) there’s a good chance you’ll make your message look like it’s coming from a 12-year-old. On top of that, it could very likely get your message sent to spam folders.

Jared recommends completely nixing the dollar sign—and even money amounts—from your subject lines because they also increase your emails risk of being marked as spam.

Don’t overuse your tactics

If something works, great! But don’t use those ellipses or emoticons in every email, because just like in any good relationship, you’ve got to keep things fresh. Overusing your arsenal of effective email subject line tools will inure your recipients to their powers. Instead, mix up your approach.

Keep your tone consistent 

Make sure that the tone of your email’s content matches the tone in the body of your email. For example, sending an email with the subject line “Hey!” that contains formal or corporate content will be completely dissonant with your subject line, and people will feel baited; the converse is also true. So make sure that your voice is consistent in all aspects of your emails.

Look at your competitors

We’d like to believe that we’re the only ones in our recipients’ world, but this isn’t a Disney movie; if you’re going to keep your email list engaged, you’ve got to know what others are saying to woo them, too.

You know that email account you use just for promotional emails? Use it to sign up for your competitors’ emails, then look carefully at the subject lines they use. Do you notice commonalities in their words or punctuation? Did they have a great zinger you wish you’d thought of? Take what you learn to get more creative with your subject lines. Of course, you won’t be privy to their open rates, but your judgment is valuable in assessing whether you’re keeping up with the pack.

You can also subscribe to email lists that don’t have anything to do with your business, but are known for doing the email thing really well. Jared recommends surfing clothing retailer Swell, Jon Morrows on Boost Blog Traffic and Jon Acuff

Aim out of your league 

Final tip: set your sights high. Though the average open rate is about 20 percent, Jared says he aims for 30 percent when he’s crafting his emails. That way if he falls short, with say, 25 percent open rate, he’ll still be ahead of the game.

If your rates aren’t that high, fret not; remember that it’s all about building relationships, and the better your relationship with email recipients gets, the higher your open rate should go.

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