10 tips for knockout subject lines

publication date: Jul 23, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

If you’ve devoted your time and talent to crafting a brilliant email message, it makes sense to put some time and talent into the subject line. After all, those few characters are all that stands between you and a quick “Delete” reaction from your overloaded recipients. Social networking community manager Teresa Dankowski comes straight to the point: “They’ll never read what they don’t open.”

How to make them open? Here are her top tips for a high-performing subject line.

Keep it short

Dankowski recommends a subject line with 50 or fewer characters. Some email clients cut off longer subject lines. Even 50 is high, according to research by Mail Chimp suggesting that the magic number lies between 28 and 39. It’s safe to exceed that only if you’re sure you’re sending to a highly targeted audience.

Say what you’re saying

Yes, it makes your day if someone comes up with a witty, memorable subject line that takes a quirky angle on the material. The only thing it doesn’t do is get that email opened. Dankowski cites one study that found a clear subject line gets 541% more clicks than a clever one.

Appeal to your audience

Take a moment to think about what your audience has in common. Are they on your email list because they care about the well-being of children? Literacy in your community? Research into a disease? Emphasize something that speaks to that common interest in your subject line

Lay off the sales jargon

Dankowski advises not to try to sell something in your subject line. Instead, she says, convey a story or a benefit to the reader. That shows that you relate to your readers while gently steering them to the rest of your content and your call to action.

Numbers boost your numbers

“Lists are an effective way to grab someone’s attention,” Dankowski notes, citing an article that says numbered lists tell the readers how much value there is in the email and how long it will take to read. And we all fall for them, whether it’s “10 Ways to Save on Your Taxes” or “5 Movies You Won’t Want to Miss.”

Don’t deceive your readers

“If someone feels betrayed by your subject line when they read the content of your email, the relationship won’t evolve,” Dankowski warns. So don’t fool someone into reading your email by pretending you’re someone else. And because so many others have fooled people with subject lines like “Help this Nigerian prince,” she advises avoiding the word “help,” even when it’s a legitimate use.

Avoid spam filter words

“Free” still upsets a lot of spam filters. So do “percent off,” “reminder” and “clearance.” Granted, some filters have become more sophisticated, but why take the chance that all your recipients have those filters? Another advantage of avoiding those words is that you’ll end up with a more interesting subject line.

Proof, proof and proof again

Take a page from Santa’s book. Make an email and check it twice, subject line included. Then save it overnight and check it again.

Track your open rates

Every mass email took reports statistics. Use them. They give you the biggest indication of how well your open lines are working. Try to find benchmarks for your industry on MailChimp, ConstantContact or MarketingSherpa. (Incidentally, most compilers report that nonprofit organizations have substantially higher open rates than any other sector – an advantage of our self-selecting, highly targeted audience.)

Tweak and test

If your subject lines aren’t working, play with them. Divide your mailing list and test different subject lines. Remember to keep things fresh as well. High rates can drop once your emails become predictable, so Dankowski urges you to incorporate new features and hooks regularly.

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