How To Write Better Email Subject Lines To Get More Opens

First impressions matter.

This is doubly true when writing email subject lines. They’re the first thing recipients see in their inbox. When written well, they inspire readers to open your email newsletters and click through to read more. If they’re off target, however, they let your reader know your email is a waste of time and space.

No pressure, though.

To make matters worse, we all get too many emails. Whether they’re from a store you don’t even remember going to, or maybe your parents are wondering why you don’t write more often (you should really drop them a line), the pursuit of inbox zero is a fabled achievement (particularly amongst busy marketers).

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The odds are stacked against you here. However, you’re a fearless email marketer, right? You know that if you can nail your subject line right away, your email stands a chance at delighting your reader. That’s because you know your newsletter is awesome, right? If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have written it (or you would have re-written it).

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • The emotional elements of subject lines that drive clicks.
  • Best practices on how to write subject lines yourself.
  • The best way to run A/B tests so you can gather your own data about what works best for you.

Make yourself comfortable. We’re going to write sharp subject lines that demand the attention your email deserves.

Why Are Subject Lines Important?

Let’s start by asking exactly why paying attention to subject lines is important. Here are some sobering stats about subject lines:

3 Email Subject Line Stats

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9 Best Practices For Writing Better Email Subject Lines

Every email marketing campaign and audience is different. However, there are some basic best practices that hold true in most cases. Here are nine to remember:

9 Best Practices For Writing Email Subject Lines

1. Never Reuse Subject Lines

People remember people that waste their time. So, don’t waste people’s time reusing subject lines. This sends the message that they’ve already read your email. Even worse, they may have ignored the first time (and now they’re even more annoyed).

2. Aim For 5 To 7 Words

Different email clients display different character counts before cutting off subject lines. If you stick to roughly five to seven words (or about 50 characters), you can ensure yours will always appear in full.

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3. Avoid Sounding Sales-y

You want people to read your email. However, you don’t want to be too aggressive. Avoid excessively sales-oriented sounding messaging. People are protective with their time and money. They don’t want to waste either. Show value first before going for the sale.

4. Use Action Verbs

Sometimes directing readers with a specific action can motivate them to respond. For example, “Join Us At The Movies!”
would likely be more effective than “Going To Movies Is Fun” if you were trying to drive customers to a theater.

10 Action Verbs to Use In Subject Lines

5. Use Humor Carefully

A lot of us like to think we’re funny. Sometimes we might even succeed, at least around our friends. However, comedy writing is a difficult skill to master. Unless you moonlight as a successful sitcom writer, it’s probably better to leave the jokes to the professionals.

6. Include A Surprising Stat

Data doesn’t lie. If you have a stat that sounds unreal or counter-intuitive, use that in your subject line. Just remember it’s important to present stats in a way that isn’t misleading.

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7. Write Clearly

People have short attention spans. So, don’t make them work too hard to understand your subject line. Use clear language and keep it short while cutting out any unnecessary words.

8. Be Human

Be conversational and write like a human being. In other words, don’t sound like a robot. Use language similar to what your target audience would use.

9. DON’T YELL

SERIOUSLY JUST BREAK THE ALL CAPS KEY AND NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN.

How Do Emotional Appeals Impact Email Open Rates?

Subject lines are a lot like headlines. The more emotional, the better.

We don’t mean you need to make your readers sad. In fact, we’re talking about the complete opposite.

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People want to know how their life will be better, easier, or more enjoyable because they read your email. Those kinds of benefits aren’t necessarily easy to convey. However, they’re essential for optimal open rates.

You want to make people feel something.

This doesn’t have to mean something profound or life-changing. Just something that connects emotionally and makes them want to read your message instead of passively scrolling by (or worse, sending you to their SPAM folder).

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What Emotions Do Your Email Messages Express?

8 Ways To Write Better Email Subject Lines

You’ve got some basic best practices down. You also know you’ve got to hit your readers right in the feels (figuratively, not literally). Now, it’s time to move beyond theory and start applying practical examples. Let’s look at some actual examples of how to write subject lines.

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1. How To Include Action

Tell users to take a specific action. For example, telling someone shoes are 50% is different than telling someone to save 50%. The former simply makes a statement, while the latter encourages an actual action.

Dull Example: Shoes Now 50% Off.
Action-Driven Example: Save 50% On Your Next Pair Of Shoes.

2. How To Create Urgency

Deadlines and “limited time” messaging can inspire immediate action. The “fear of missing out” is real, and no one wants to miss out on something good.

Weak Example: Save 50% Here.
Better Example: Hurry! Save 50% Before Time Runs Out.

3. How To Get Readers Curious

Everybody loves suspense. However, no one loves clickbait. The key to leveraging curiosity successfully is to get your reader wanting to know more, without obviously overselling yourself.

Boring Example: You’ll Never Believe What’s In This Email.
Interesting Example: There’s A New Competitor In Town.

4. How To Kick Up Excitement

Enthusiasm spreads. If you’re excited about what you have to offer, then other people probably will be too.

Weak Example: Our 10th Anniversary Is On Saturday.
Good Example: It’s Almost Time To Celebrate With Us!

5. How To Inspire Happiness

People don’t just buy products; they buy experiences that make them feel good. Show recipients they’re appreciated by going above and beyond what’s expected from an otherwise routine transaction.

Poor Example: Thank You For Your Purchase.
Better Example: Thanks For Choosing Us (Here’s An Added Bonus)!

6. How To Ask A Good Question

Closed-ended questions are effective in headlines and subject lines alike. They get readers interested in the topic, and imply that your email will provide the answer.

Weak Example: What’s Your Favorite Color?
Better Example: How Big Is This Prehistoric Shark?

7. How To Sound Human

Email is an inherently conversational medium. People want to talk to other people. They don’t want to feel like another name on a mailing list, targeted by an automated system. Small touches, such as using words like “you” and “us”, can help add warmth to your messaging. Using language that’s written the way someone might talk helps too.

Robotic Example: Your Assistance Is Required.
Human Example: Could you help us out?
Pro Tip: Consider setting up your email so an actual human name appears in the Sender field. This can sound a little more personal than just using a company’s name.

8. How To Be More Concise

People don’t have a lot of time to read everything in their inbox. You don’t have a lot of space to work with as a writer here, either. Keep things short by cutting out any extraneous words that don’t need to be in your headline.

Long Example: Want to Save Big? Our Sale of The Century Is Happening Now Until Thursday.
Concise Example: Shop Our Sale Of The Century Now.
Pro Tip: Your goal is always to say as much as possible in the fewest words you can manage. If this is difficult, try rewriting your message a few times while being mindful of length. Look for ways to make the same statement with more brevity.

10 Real Subject Line Examples From My Actual Inbox

Next, let’s look at some real subject lines and see what makes them work. We’ll analyze these to see what tactics they use, and which kinds of emotions they inspire. These are real examples from my personal email inbox:

1. State Farm

Email subject line from State Farm

I don’t know how State Farm knows I have bad driving habits (I like to think that I don’t, at least). However, this message clearly tells me it’ll help me do something better. It makes a promise to help improve the reader’s life in a small way. Plus, the word “time” helps invoke a little extra urgency.

2. Humble Bundle

Email subject line from Humble Bundle

If you’re unfamiliar with Humble Bundle, they offer packages of ebooks, software, and other digital goods at pay-what-you-want prices (with a portion of the proceeds going to charity). Here, they’ve done a good job of letting me know time is running out to get this month’s offer. Since I know that once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, there’s added incentive to click.

3. Pet Smart

Email subject line from Pet Smart

This is a simple sales message from Pet Smart that lets me know three things:

  1. When I can save (like, immediately).
  2. How much I can save (10%).
  3. Where I can save (at the store).

The only thing this is missing is a verb to motivate action. However, with limited space to work with, this hits a lot of checkboxes.

4. Petco

Email subject line from Petco

Way to play on my senses of guilt and responsibility, Petco. This subject line inspires an emotional response (people love their dogs). It also tells me what problem this email will solve (helping my dog

This subject line inspires an emotional response (people love their dogs). It also tells me what problem this email will solve (helping my dog not get the flu), and shows the price right off the bat. A responsible pet owner isn’t going to put a price on their dog’s safety, right?

5. Hubspot

Email subject line from Hubspot

Hubspot is playing up the curiosity angle here. So, what happened when they sent fewer emails? There’s only one way to find out.

6. Wordstream

Email subject line from Wordsteam

Not only does this example from Wordstream tell me what I can do (spend less money), the word “lazy” suggests it’ll make my life easier too.

7. Threadless

Email subject line from Threadless

It’s tough to incorporate humor unless it really fits your brand’s voice. However, artist-driven clothing company Threadless knows how to make lighthearted irreverence work. This example succeeds at all of the following:

  1. Using subtle humor.
  2. Inspiring curiosity. Why are they embarrassed?
  3. Including a real person’s name in the Sender field (not pictured here). This helps make this message feel more personal and less corporate.

8. Wired

Email subject line from Wired

This is an emotional appeal to ego. Wired is a prestigious publication, and they’ve got an exclusive offer for me? The word “waiting” also instills some urgency to get moving.

9. Matt Cheuvront

Email subject line from Matt Cheuvront

Proof Branding owner Matt Cheuvront writes awesome motivational newsletters. This is a great example of how to write a short, simple subject line that inspires a positive emotional response in just two words.

10. Musician’s Friend

Email subject line from Musician's Friend

The day I ignore this email will probably be the day I break a guitar. There’s not much to this subject line from Musician’s Friend, but it includes a verb that motivates action and creates urgency (hurry), and implies a benefit (not breaking my guitar).

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Try Writing Some Subject Lines With These 12 Templates

Now it’s time to use what you’ve learned. Try writing some subject lines using the templates below:

Writing Subject Lines With Easy Templates

Use Your Headlines For Inspiration
How To Make __________ That Will _________
21+ Ways To Grow Your __________
Do You Think You Can __________?

Your Subscribers Want To Know What’s In It For Them
5 Reasons Why You Should __________
__________ While You Sleep
[TEMPLATE] 10 Best __________

Show Who They Could Be Like After They Open Your Email
How __________ does __________
__________ can afford any __________, he uses __________
How __________ Got __________ In __________

Make It Unique To Stand Out In A Cluttered Inbox
Real __________ use __________
Discover the __________
__________, __________, and __________?

If you’d like more templates to work with, be sure to grab the resource bundle included in this post (either located in the widget to the right, or near the beginning of this post, at the top).

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When you’re done, circle two subject line options you’ll A/B test in our next step.

Get More Opens By A/B Testing Email Subject Lines

Nearly every email service provider lets you send A/B tests for your email subject lines. Whether you use MailChimpCampaign Monitor (our platform of choice), or something similar, most provide A/B testing options when building email newsletters.

This video from MailChimp is specific to their platform, but it covers a lot of A/B testing basics that should apply to most platforms:

However, what makes a good A/B test? It’s a good question that’s key to getting the best performance.

5 Tips For Effective Email A/B Testing

The key to a good A/B test is to choose variables that really are different from one another. If you test two subject lines that sound too similar, you won’t learn much. There needs to be a substantial difference between your two options. Consider these five different approaches when you run your next A/B test:

1. Test Two Different Value Propositions

Let’s say your email content is promoting a post that both A) shows readers how to save time and B) shows them how to save money.

These are two very different value propositions. Therefore, it’d be a good idea to write two options, one that focuses on each benefit. Then, see which performs best. This could yield the added benefit of letting you know which one your audiences cares about most.

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2. Target Two Different Emotions

Your audience might respond better to curiosity than urgency. Or, maybe they’re looking for something that will brighten their day.

So, find out. Try targeting different emotions and see what drives a better response.

5 Ways To Test Email Subject Lines

3. Test Subject Line Length

You don’t have a lot of room to work with here. However, you might find different subject line lengths work best for you. Or, different lengths may work better for different types of messages.

Consider experimenting with short (one or two words) versus long (seven or eight words).

4. Test Questions Versus Definitive Statements

Questions can help get readers curious. However, definitive statements can express authority. Try both and see what happens.

5. Test Using Stats

Statistics can drive email opens, especially when they’re difficult to believe. If your email content includes an interesting stat, try working into one subject line option. Then, compare it to another stat-less option.

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Measure Your Results

Use the analytics tools built into your email platform to monitor open rates. Use this template to write down your winner and loser from the test, the difference in the results, and scrutinize the reason why your winner performed the best.

How To Measure Results

When assessing the reason one subject line outperformed the other, keep the following in mind:

  1. If you set up clear variables in your A/B test, the reason subject lines succeed or fail should be obvious. For example, if one option includes a statistic, while the other does not, then that’s a good indicator that stats resonate with your audience.
  2. Look for patterns. The more you test, the more consistent patterns should emerge.
  3. The days and times you send email can impact results as well.
  4. Remember that the actual content of your email may influence open rates (and in turn, your email conversion rates, too. If people aren’t interested in the topic of your email, then simply following best practices might not be enough to drive opens and clicks. Great content will get attention. Following proper mechanics and technique merely maximizes great content’s ability to make an impact.
  5. When it comes to email marketing, your own data trumps everyone else’s. The recipients on your email list are different from anyone else’s.

What works for one person, might not work for you. This is why it’s better to know how to gather your own data than to simply follow someone else’s.

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Now, Go Write Better Subject Lines!

It’s easy to overlook subject lines when we’re writing marketing emails.

They’re short, so they should be easy, right? Not exactly. It’s often tougher to write short, punchy messages than long, rambling pieces. When you only have about 50 characters to work with, every word counts.

We can’t tell you exactly what messaging will work best in your email. However, you’re now equipped with the knowledge you need to start experimenting with your own subject lines. By following the tips and best practices in this post, you’ll be able to dramatically increase your odds for success.

Try different things. See what works. Ditch what doesn’t. Repeat for success.

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It might not be easy, but stick with it. You’ve got this!