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Email subject lines can be a real pain to write. More difficult: writing them well. For the most part you want to be sure to test your subject lines continually so as to see how your particular audience is responding; however, there are a few best practices that you can use.

In this post I’ll take you through some of the dos and don’t of subject lines, and provide a quick checklist for you to look over before you send your next email.

First off, the check list: Give your self a point for each item of the do list you’ve got. Now subtract 2 for each of the don’t list that you’ve got. Whats your score? Who cares, thats not the point. The point is to understand that you can get away with not having a couple of items on the do list, and you can get away with having something on the don’t list, but

The Good

What is in a word (or two?)

The first two words of your subject line matter. The first two words can decide whether some one is going to read the rest of it. Avoid using words that don’t directly drive attention to either the rest of the subject or the email itself, and especially avoid words that make your subject line sound like an ad (“Buy Now!”).

Urgency drives readers

It drives style. It’s dynamic. Urgency makes people want to keep reading, no matter how little you’re actually saying. It does so much, and can be achieved in so many ways.

The goal of urgent headlines is not to push someone into buying, urgency isn’t for pushing a sale, it is for preventing procrastination.

There are lots of techniques for creating urgency. The easiest starting point is active voice (you might know this from the annoying green squiggle that keeps popping up under your writing in MS word). If you’re not already familiar with active versus passive voice I suggest reading more about it.

Ways to develop urgency:

  • Develop urgency through short direct sentences
  • Note the pains of not buying your product
  • Use suspense. This is obvious to creative writers. The following passage from Alexandria Szeman illustrates this perfectly:”Then I saw her. There she stood, in the village store, her hair in a long braid down the center of her back, her skin white in the sunlight, and my hand went to my hip, seeking the weight of my gun. “Who is she? Why does she scare him into reaching for his gun? Is he going to shoot her? Oh god I want to keep reading!
  • Use cliffhangers and teasers.
  • And the #1 way to build urgency: Find legitimate urgencies in your topic, and exploit them. Have a class? Tell people that your seats are filling up. As a warning though, people are so used to artificial urgency that you had better be sure that your email is legitimate.

For more on urgency check out “Testing the Power of Urgency on Offer Pages”

50-60 words means more clicks… usually.

There is some debate over the length of subject lines. Generally you should keep a subject line under 50 characters. Alchemy Worx claims that under 60 characters is best for open rates. However there has been evidence that amidst highly targeted groups the increased information in a longer subject line can drive sales.

The power of Personalization and Branding

What is in a name? Well, Jupiter Research found that including your company name and/or branding in a subject line can actually improve open rates. On the other hand, mailchimp found
that including the name of who you’re sending it to… doesn’t so much. Guess we’re all used to that by now, eh?

Keywords that connect with your audience

If you can make a connection to your audience right off the bat, then do so. There are lots of ways to do this. One thing Mailchimp found was localization, such as a city name, had a positive effect on open rates. Other examples can include using words that will interest your audience. One example from the BBC today “Obama moves to curb car emissions”. This could more accurately written as “Obama announces targets for fuel-efficiency standards”, but car emissions is a keyword that will resonate with readers.

Numbers: they count.

I mean… well, they just work. The reason why is beyond my knowledge, but I would guess it’s because we associate numbers with results, and seeing them in text gives us that association. Either way, study after study shows that numbers in headlines lead to more clicks.

And just look at them. “5 great email writing tips” is a great headline. Even better (and from our blog): “Monetizing Google Website Optimizer Test Results: One A/B Test Yields $3,600,000 Revenue Boost?”. Better still “How one A/B test can yield $3,600,000.”

Tell me you wouldn’t read that.

The Bad

Spam words

There are a host of words that will get your email filtered out of some ones inbox. Avoid all of them if you can, though using them once or twice probably won’t hurt (just don’t hold me to that when you end up with a super low click through). I could list a bunch off but you’re better off just reading the following: Spam Filter Phrases

Obvious promotion

Promotional language is part of our culture. We’re used to it and we’re growing resistant to it. Most of the classic splashy promotional pages that are used are lazy writing, trigger promotion alerts, and will turn off potential readers.

The words “Help”, “Percent off” and “Reminder”, and exclamation marks!

The previously mentioned Mailchimp study found that the above three words (and one punctuation mark) had a negative effect on open rates. They are also pretty obvious promotional keywords (and excitement generating punctuation), which is likely why they result in lower clickthroughs.



The real secret to effective email headlines

These practices are all fine and dandy, but none of them compare to the power of using a proper email suite that will allow segmentation and tracking so that you can test your headlines. Your audience is going to be individual to your product, and while some techniques will work great with them, many won’t.