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How to Write Great Email Subject Lines (and how to fix those that are not)

Subject lines for email marketing encompass strategic intent, audience targeting, tone, brand considerations and, of course, language. The purpose of a powerful, clear subject line is to convince the recipient to open the email and take whatever action your campaign is designed to achieve; and this is very much a mission-critical element of your communications strategy.

Writing great email subject lines is both a science and an art, and it deserves the same attention to detail as every other part of a campaign. One of the most common mistakes marketers make is believing they can simply copy and paste creative and messaging snippets from other advertising mediums into a mailer and expect favorable responses. But, without understanding what you want to achieve, and how to formulate your headline to attain these goals, your return on investment is always going to be below expectations.

While it is essential that continuity in the brand and messaging be maintained, you need to remain true to the nature of the medium, which requires more effort than simply replicating a look and feel.

Email has many unique traits, and some seemingly obvious best practices are often ignored. There are simple rules when creating an email subject line, such as not exceeding 50 characters and limiting punctuation and capital letters. These first few characters are the gateway to your emailing success; since it’s all you have to catch the attention of your reader. And so, every character that makes up your subject line needs to be chosen with care, avoiding words that are universally flagged as spam.

Follow these guidelines to become a supreme being of great subject line writing (you know you want to)

Lead – The subject line needs to lead the person to open the email. It needs to spark their curiosity, however, readers will distrust you and reach for the report-spam button if your subject line doesn’t reflect the actual email content. This means never misleading your prospects with the subject line in order to get them to read further.

Relevance – Relevance is the most important element of a subject line. Your subscribers must always receive information from you that they care about – period. Writing a suitable subject line that the recipient can relate to will increase open rates, and for this it needs to be applicable to the person you are reaching out to.

Objectives – Since a subject line is the essence of an email, consider writing it first. Think about what the objective or end goal of your email marketing programs is. Make sure all components of your email, especially the subject line, will highlight a clear path to your objective without straying off on a tangent.

Value – People buy value, not products. Encourage the recipient to open the email by displaying the benefits of the product or service. You can’t create a sense of curiosity and urgency about your mailer if no benefit is offered. Urgency (such as time-limited deals) is also extremely influential when combined with value, because it provokes an immediate response.

Emotion – By tying the tone of your brand together with emotion, you will build a genuine connection between your content and your audience. Personalized subject lines are also a simple way to secure the interest of your recipients and give them that warm, fuzzy someone-wrote-me-a-private-email feeling. Subject lines can be personalized with the use of the recipient’s first and last names, or based on their product preferences, interests or past purchases.

Test – Perform tests on your subject lines on small subscriber groups before sending out to your full list. A/B tests involve splitting a list into two different headlines to see which had the better result, then using the subject line which delivered the highest open rate. To consistently identify the higher-performing subject line, you will need to repeat this testing phase every time you send a message.

Even disregarding all these tips, as long as you don’t make writing the subject line the last and most hurried step in an email campaign, there should be a noticeable improvement in your marketing success.

About the Author: Wikus Engelbrecht is a writer, journalist and media liaison at GraphicMail, an international email and mobile marketing service provider. Since 2003 his professional career in language and media has spanned the film, print advertising, magazine publishing, web development and online content industries. He is a fanatic blogger and an email metric-o-holic. He can be contacted at

Scott Hardigree
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1 Comment

  • by Cindy Kelly
    Posted November 6, 2011 6:30 pm 0Likes

    Great points Wikus. I often feel that email messages are missed opportunities. Partially because of its convenience and cost. Your post makes excellent points we should all keep in mind when communicating via email.

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