6 Tips for Writing Open-Worthy Email Marketing Subject Lines

What if President Obama came up to you and just said, “Hey”? It would probably elicit a response, right? At the very least you’d be like, “Wait, why did Obama just say ‘hey’ to me? I should probably find out.” It would drive you crazy if you didn’t look into it more.

Well, right before a key fundraising deadline, Obama's administration sent an email out to his subscribers with a subject line that said just that: “Hey.” And it turned out to be one of the most successful emails of his campaign.

Why? Because it hooked people from the start with a fantastic email subject line. “Hey” is just about everything an email subject line needs to be: succinct, casual, kind of funny and intriguing. It may not be appropriate for your business's next campaign, but it’s an excellent example of the tips we’re about to talk about here (plus, if there’s anything we can learn from politicians, it’s marketing strategy!).

The thing is, I bet your company's product or service is good. In fact, I bet it’s really good. But if you think you’re going to get me hooked with “Watch this video,” then you are sorely mistaken. We’re visual, curious creatures, us humans. It doesn’t take much to catch our attention. But if your marketing email is caught between a spam email and an urgent deliverable email, you need to make yourself stand out so that you’re at least bookmarked for later.

But how? HOW?

Here’s how.  

1. Show, Then Tell

 “Show, don’t tell” is a reliable customer service strategy. It’s a phrase that asks for action, deliverables, and high-quality customer service. But in email marketing, a lot of what you’re doing is “telling.” So what are you using to guarantee some sort of deliverable? The email subject line. It’s the “show” part of email marketing. So don’t be afraid to go visual.

Now obviously you can't include an actual image in there. In this case, "visual" means:

  • Include numbers. They’re visually jarring – plus, people love lists.
  • Leverage power verbs. This may sound corny, but choosing words that stir the imagination and create strong connections in the reader's mind will likely influence whether or not they continue reading.
  • Keep it short. My god, keep it short. Like “Hey.” This is still eye-catching when compared to run-of-the-mill lines like “New Offer on X Software – today only!” and your stressed out colleague's “THIS NEEDS TO GET DONE BY THE END OF THE DAY.” Keep it to 50 characters or less. And with email marketing subject lines, less can be more. Which brings us to…

2. Less Is More

There are some great articles out there on the many different styles of email subject lines that you can construct, but some of my favorites were the ones like Obama’s ”Hey” or BuzzFeed’s "Not Cool, Guys." Subject line areas are not a space to write a literary masterpiece. It just has to be good enough to make a reader curious.

3. Do Personalize… or Don't?

There are a lot of mixed reviews on this one. On one hand, some studies conducted have demonstrated that personalizing your email marketing subject lines by including the name of the specific recipients right in the subject line can actually boost response rates up by 100s of percent. Others suggest the contrary. Regardless of what side you choose, you can't argue that personalization in emails can be overdone (and, in fact, has been overdone for a while now). So this one is up to your discretion. If you find that personalizing every email subject line is feeling disingenuous or forced, then you can use “you” or “your” so that it feels a little more personal without overdoing it.

Insider Tip: Check this out – only 35% of marketers included in this study asked their customers what kinds of emails they wanted to receive. Over 60% of them didn’t even give customers an option on the theme and feel of emails they might prefer to get! While it might not be exactly related to email subject lines, giving your customers some agency will definitely up their click count in your emails (plus, with this information, you can make your subject lines highly specific and even more intriguing).

4. Speaking of Overdoing It...

Don’t! Email subject lines are a catchy little preview for what lies ahead for the clicker. You’re not Aladdin; you can’t promise anyone a whole new world inside that email. Ensure that your email subject line aligns with the content beyond it. A catchy intro may inspire higher open rates, but the last thing you want to do is disappoint your possible customers who feel misled (and motivate them to unsubscribe).

5. Keep It Clear and Casual

Like a really straightforward first date, make your intentions clear and keep things low pressure. A good email subject line should express exactly what the email is about (or at least hint to it). On top of that, a casual tone both attracts more readers and makes things more readable. Nothing is worse than getting bored in 50 characters or less. Don’t let that happen.

And most importantly…

6. Use Your Company's Voice

Groupon can write a subject line like “Best of Groupon: The Deals That Make Us Proud (Unlike Our Nephew, Steve)” because they’ve already got funny marketing down. JetBlue can write “You’re missing out on points” because, as an airline, they understand what this kind of value proposition means for their frequent flyers. So what kind of value do you provide to your customers? What is a voice with which you feel comfortable expressing that value? And how do you think your customers will respond to that voice? Once you know that, you’ll be able to surprise them more often by thinking and writing outside the box.

So hey, it’s not rocket science. You already know the kind of rhetoric that works for your customers. You just have to make it work for you, too.

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Madeleine LaPlante-Dube | Content Marketer
About the Author
Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, Content Marketer

Madeleine LaPlante-Dube loves to write about emerging trends in content – video, podcasting and interactive webpages. When she’s not crafting compelling content and scheduling savvy social, she’s creeping on the outliers in the industry – seeing how leaders are doing things differently and figuring out how she can help readers learn from them.