Email marketing: Subject lines that generate opens

Posted By: Dave Kopf
Post Date: 02/14/2017

IN EMAIL MARKETING, your success rides on your subject line. You must write subject lines that practically grab your recipients by the shirt collar and force them to click open the message and read.

That’s no easy feat, given how much competition you have for each of your recipient’s inbox. Think of it: for every single inbox, you’re trying to rise above a sea of other marketing emails, messages from mom and dad, work-related diatribes, racing and AMA emails, and everything else. You have your work cut out for you when it comes to writing a subject line that stands out from the crowd, gets users to open, and prompts them to click through to the site you specify.

You don’t have much room. Users of desktop email software and webmail clients typically size their inboxes so that roughly 40 to 50 characters of subject line, including spaces, appear. Moreover, on an smartphone mail app, the figure is more like 25 to 30 characters, including spaces. And given that 66 percent of all U.S. email traffic is opened and read on smartphones or tablets, according to MovableInk, you want to conform to that length.

Bearing that in mind, your subject lines need to be tight and concise, while engaging enough to get your email opened. That’s a pretty tight restriction, which means you need to give this process the thought it deserves. If your subject line is the “make or break” for your message, you should easily give it the same TLC that you devoted to the content of the message itself, and perhaps twice as much.

Competition is stiff, and you have very little room to win, so let’s look at key strategies that can help you write subject lines that will get recipients’ attention and compel them to open:

Be specific…
Clearly state the content and importance of your email message. If you opt for clever wording that veers into obscurity, you might earn brownie points for clever wordplay, but you won’t do anything to increase your opens. While a subject line of “We Have a Feast for You” might be a cute and clever twist on your Thanksgiving week sale, “Thanksgiving Sale: 25% off Gear” does a lot more to get your point across.

… but don’t be afraid to get creative
While specificity is very important, there are still ways to be fun and engaging, while still also being specific and vague enough that you hint at what’s inside. Let’s say the new model year inventory arrives. That would definitely warrant a drip campaign culminating in an email with something like, “The New Bikes Are Here! The New Bikes Are Here!”

Entice the readers
At the same time, you want to give someone a reason to find out more. If you opted for a subject line such as “Save Big on Gear Next Week,” now your customers know that there is a sale, and they know when it is, but you’ve been coy enough that they know they must open the message to learn more about the sale’s details. Even if the email isn’t transactional, and is perhaps part of a content marketing campaign, enticement still works. For instance, if you were promoting an article or video your staff made on the importance of tire choice, you could run a subject line such as “Top Tire Tips for Your Ride.” This specifically states what the email is about, while enticing the reader to learn more.

Stage a drip campaign
Rather than place all your hopes on one email with one subject line, create a campaign that leads up to the email you really want to showcase. Using the example of a Thanksgiving season sale, you could send three or four emails days or weeks in advance that generate interest in the sale through the use of solid subject lines as “Big Gear Savings Coming Up,” or “Thanksgiving Deals Start Next Week.” These subject lines entice customers to open, but even if they don’t, the basic message is getting across, so that by the time you send your main email about the sale, you’ll have planted a sense of timeliness or urgency that should hopefully increase the open rate of the primary message.

Consider a geographic tie-in
Consider a subject line tie-in that bonds your business with your local market. Going back to the sale example, you could run something like “Gear Sale for Leigh Valley Riders”.

Get personal
If your email service provider can support it, you can always craft subject lines that are recipient-specific. Again, going with our example, you could run with something like, “Jane: Get Discounts on Gear” This personalization will grab the reader’s attention, the information gives a clear indication of the value, and there’s enough left to the imagination to get “Jane” to click. (Note: Review your email database. Personalizing an email to “Jane,” is great, but it can backfire if someone entered the words “Not Specified” in a customer’s first-name field.)

Create tailored subject lines
If your email contains various promotions or pieces of information, you could segment your email distribution and create subject lines that specifically appeal to each segment. So if your Thanksgiving week sale has different deals for different customers, you could tout the savings that would appeal to each: “Thanksgiving Week: Great deals on ATVs,” or “Thanksgiving Sale: Street Gear Half Off,” or “Touring Accessory Deals Thanksgiving Week”.

Don’t pull a fast one
Remember that you have a legal requirement when it comes to your subject lines. Per CAN SPAM regulations, your subject lines must not be misleading, and they must be related to the content of the emails. So, you never want to try to trick your audience into opening your emails. Instead, focus on well-crafted subject lines that have some thought put into them, and your customers will engage.

Above all, track how your subject lines work. As you play with different approaches, you will start to notice trends develop in your email reports. If you see one technique clearly generates improved open rates with your email list, then you’ll know you’re doing a better job of reaching your customers, and hopefully increased business will follow.

Editor’s Note: Below we’ve provided links to four “knowledge base” articles on subject line best practices. Here you’ll find more information on special characters and phrases that might trigger a spam filter to deploy:

Best practices for email subject lines (MailChimp)

The 5 most common email subject lines to avoid (IBM)

Optimize the subject line in a campaign email (Constant Contact)

Using emoji and symbols in your email subject line (Campaign Monitor)


“Just recently, we have started using emojis in our subject lines. We haven’t been able to track a difference in that yet, but it is in the works.” – C.J. Copley, marketing director, Killeen Power Sports, Killeen, TX

“Currently we have a monthly newsletter that goes out that doesn’t really have any creative subject lines. That being said, as we move into our 100th year, we are looking at creating designed campaigns which will rely heavily on engaging subject lines.” – Sean Wilkinson, sales and marketing manager, Trev Deeley Motorcycles, Vancouver, BC

“We do focus on subject lines, and we go with the short-and-to-the-point method.” – Andrea Tarnick, advertising manager for Star City Motor Sports, Lincoln, NE


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