crafting email subject lines

Scene: The Q&A segment of an email marketing presentation.

Character: Inquisitive audience member who has just been called upon to ask a question.

Line: What’s your secret to better open rates? Can you give us some examples of the best email subject lines?

If you’ve ever watched this scene play out or experienced it as a cast member, then you know (more often than not) answers to these questions usually go a little something like this:

For better open rates, follow subject line best practices – insert an odd number, keep the message short (less than or about 50 characters), avoid salesy buzz words (like “free”), and get personal (but not too personal). Regarding the best subject lines, be unique, mysterious, hilarious, or make an irresistible offer.

In my opinion, this advice is intimidating, as the examples given are often by large organizations with large-scale marketing budgets. And since I most often work with big-hearted small businesses, here’s how I like to do things.

Forget the “Best”: Focus on Crafting Good Email Subject Lines

When you sit down to write the subject line for your email marketing campaign, do not pressure yourself to craft the best, most creative subject line the world has ever seen. Instead, put your energy into writing a good, solid sentence that is relevant:

  • Review the content of your email. Ask: What is the overall message and call to action?
  • Write down the first subject line that comes to mind. Ask: Does it clearly and concisely convey the email content?

Catchiness Can Help

Catchy email subject lines can be awesome, but not always! I hate to admit it, but I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Forcing yourself to write puns or jokes will likely discourage positive engagement and encourage some tomato throwing instead. So, if a witty title comes naturally, give it a shot. If not, keep it for your eyes only.

Test, Rinse, Repeat

Testing your subject lines is the most reliable way to determine what is working for your mailing list, as well as what is not.

I do not recommend using automated email subject line testers – they are inaccurate [example given later] and more difficult to use than they should be. In my opinion, the most effective way to get honest results-driven data is to execute an A/B subject line test.

A/B testing is commonly offered by email creation platforms (i.e. MailChimp). This function allows you to test two or more subject lines (or other email variables) based on a goal, including open rate, click rate, or revenue. I rely on A/B testing because – more often than not – I am surprised by the results. Here’s an example:

Subject Line Best Practices Versus Gut Instinct

Recently, I was getting ready to send an important, time-sensitive email to a client’s list. I wanted to knock it out of the park by writing the most impactful subject line I could. I followed all of the rules and guidelines I’d learned from various webinars and articles, ran my titles through online subject line testers, and (of course) sought advice from my JB Media teammates. After all was said and done, I ended up with two finalists for the A/B test.

Which would you choose?

A) Event Ticket Price Increases January 1st

B) 3 Days Left for Lowest-Priced Event Tickets

Before I hit “send” for the A/B campaign, I was fairly confident that B, my best-practices-based subject line (that I spent a good bit of time researching and “perfecting”), would be the winner. The results came in and I was (indeed) surprised: The winner was A, the subject line that took me no time to write; the one my instincts pointed me to.

So, What’s the Trick?

There may be general guidelines for writing email subject lines, but there is no magic potion that will guarantee great results for every email campaign you run (I think the same is true for online marketing overall). Thus, I approach subject lines like I would a game of cat and mouse: There may be a basic strategy or end-goal, but exactly how you capture your audience could change each time. Therefore, the best game plan I’ve found is to write a clear, relevant message, A/B test as often as possible, and monitor campaign results to gain an accurate perspective of do’s and don’ts. If you need any assistance managing your campaigns, feel free to contact us.