How to Write Remarkable Email Subject Lines That Get More Opens

First impressions matter.

This is certainly true for 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 for busy marketers.

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.

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Snag Your Email Subject Line Template + Resource Bundle

This post is packed full of advice. To make it easier to implement while you’re on the job, we’ve rounded up these free templates:

  • Email Subject Lines Template: 43 fill-in-the-blank templates to practice sharpening your subject line writing skills.
  • 500+ Power Words Cheat Sheet: While made with blog posts in mind, the same language works to infuse emotion into subject lines, too.
  • Power + Emotion Words Cheat Sheet: Another reference sheet loaded with emotional words to drive more engagement.
  • Email Subject Line A/B Test Spreadsheet: A simple Excel file for storing the outcomes of your email subject line A/B tests.

Download it quick now, and then we’ll move on with this post.

Why Are Subject Lines Important?

Like we stated previous, your subject line is the first thing recipients see. In that crucial make-or-break moment when users find your email in their inbox, it’s what determines whether they’ll click through, or simply ignore your message. Worse, they might even put your newsletter in the trash without even opening it up.

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

3 Email Subject Line Stats

These numbers tell us a few things:

  • Subject lines shouldn’t sound overly sales-driven. No one wants to be slapped across the face with a blunt sales pitch when opening their computer in the morning, coffee in hand, ready to start their day.
  • Send enough “spammy” sounding emails, and recipients will file you under spam based on your name alone. This is why you need to be paying attention to the bullet point above.
  • Regardless of who you are, there’s a chance a good subject line is all your reader needs to click. Sure, 35% isn’t an astronomical number. However, it’s high enough to show that subject lines carry some weight all by themselves. Enough to potentially get people to open an email even without knowing who it’s from.

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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.

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).

Which Emotions Can Email Marketers Tap Into?

So, we’ve established the need to give your emails some feeling. But, which emotions or sensations should marketers focus on eliciting? Let’s focus on the following four:

  • Urgency. Why should I act fast (and what will happen if I don’t)?
  • Curiosity. How can you include enough detail to get readers interested, but leave enough mystery that they have to click through?
  • Excitement. Can your subject line hype up your email content (and can your newsletter can back it up)?
  • Joy. What can your subject line do to promote a positive emotional result for your reader?

What Emotions Do Your Email Messages Express?

Inspiring Urgency

Let’s take a look at some easy subject line formulas and templates you can use to get readers moving.

  • Give ’em a deadline. Deadlines and “limited time” messaging can inspire immediate action.
    Example: Successful marketers will open this … before time runs out.
  • Tap into FOMO (The Fear of Missing Out). The “fear of missing out” is real, and no one wants to miss out on something good.
    Example: Limited spots available! Claim yours now.
  • Hint at a negative outcome if the reader doesn’t act. What happens if the recipient doesn’t take advantage of what’s in your email?
    Example: Don’t let your lawn suffer under the summer sun.

Inspiring Curiosity

Everyone enjoys a little bit of mystery from time to time, right? Here’s how to infuse some suspense into your emails to get more opens.

  • Try the cliffhanger approach. Leave out enough detail to stoke interest without telling the whole story.
    Example: Bob’s lawn got greener than ever using
  • Start with the end. Offer readers a conclusion that leaves them wondering how the story starts.
    Example: How did Bob’s lawn get so green?
  • Use an open-ended question. One that can only be answered by opening your email.
    Example: What’s new at Bob’s Lawn Care Emporium?

Inspiring Excitement

Get readers excited to open their email (or, well, as excited as you can get while reading email). Here’s how to infuse some hype into your subject lines.

  • Incorporate strong action verbs. Use language that encourages people to get up and do something.
    Example: Blast your abs for less at Dave’s Gym
  • Give your reader a sense of exclusivity. Email subscribers love feeling like they have the inside track on exclusive deals and information.
    Example: Can you keep a secret? Here’s some cool news coming soon …
  • Make an offer people can’t refuse. Use an accurate but hard-to-believe statistic or incredible offer to generate excitement.
    Example: Did you know 73% of clients see improvement using this tactic? 

Inspiring Joy

You know the saying, “People won’t remember what you say, but they’ll remember how you made them feel?” That absolutely applies to marketing, your brand, and your email subject lines. Make people feel good and reap the rewards.

  • Work in emojis or emoticons (intelligently). A well-placed emoji can be great for getting a chuckle.
    Example: Look your best and feel your best :) (this isn’t the best example, but pretend that smiley face is a much cooler-looking emoji)
  • Work in humor (carefully). Laughter is good for your health. Literally. Put people in a good mood, and they’ll react more positively to your content.
    Example: So three marketers walk into a bar …
  • Give people an opportunity to do good. It feels good to do good.
    Example: Make a difference with us for our local animal shelter

These are generic examples, but by now, you should kind of get the idea.

9 General Best Practices For Writing Better Email Subject Lines

So, we’ve covered the basics of infusing subject lines with emotions to make them more appealing. But, what about general best practices for writing them well?

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. Use Caution If You Reuse Subject Lines

People remember people who 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).

There’s is an exception to this, though. If you have a fairly formulaic recurring newsletter that you send, keeping the subject line the same may help respondents quickly identify your email (which may help them decide whether it’s something they want). In this case, A/B test keeping the subject line the same, versus switching it up (more on this later).

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.

To preview what your subject lines might look like to your readers, test them with our Headline Analyzer. Enter your headline:

Email subject line testing with the Headline Analyzer

Then, scroll down to get a preview of how it’ll appear in an email client:

Preview of an email subject line

Different email clients will display different amounts of subject line text. Front-loading your subject lines with relevant, action-driven language near the beginning can help ensure there’s something there to hook people’s attention (even if it gets cut off).

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.

So, avoid excessively sales-oriented sounding messaging. People are protective of their time and money and don’t want to waste either one. Show value first before going for the sale.

To do this, put your reader’s needs first. Your subject line should stress what’s in it for them, more than what’s in it for you. Let’s look at a bad example:

Buy my awesome widgets right now!

That’s pushy, uncreative, and off-putting. Here’s a better, more conversational way of saying the same thing:

The best widgets are on sale now at Widget-O-Mart

That sounds like it was written by a normal person, and it tells me what I need to know. If I want the best widgets, I’m getting in the car, and heading down to Widget-O-Mart to by … well, whatever widgets are.

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.

Here’s an example:

The tool 68% of marketers use isn’t what you think …

Reading that, I’m curious to know a couple things:

  • What tool could that possibly be?
  • What does that 68% know that the remaining 32% doesn’t (and how can I avoid being left behind).

Above all, the statistic being used is remarkable enough to be interesting, but overblown in a way that’s misleading.

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.

Let’s take a look at how to do this. Take this sentence:

The best car for the average family of four is the new Mazda 6.”

That’s a lot of “the” and “for” and other incidental words that could be cut down. So, let’s simplify this a bit:

The new Mazda 6: the perfect family car.”

This sentence says the exact same thing, except with fewer words. It’s tighter, punchier, and easier to read.

Any time you’re writing subject lines, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Are there any non-essential words I can cut out?
  2. How can I tighten up what’s left to say the same thing, more concisely?

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

IF YOU DON’T BREAK YOUR OWN ALL CAPS KEY, I’LL COME OVER THERE AND BREAK IT FOR YOU.

Not really. It’s your keyboard. Just … please, stop writing emails that scream in my face.

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.

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. We’ll work through a dozen quick fill-in-the blank examples.

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 __________?

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.

An Exercise In A/B Testing

Now, let’s try applying what you’ve learned to an actual A/B test.

  1. In your email marketing platform, create a newsletter or other type of email message.
  2. Write two different subject line options. Try to emphasize something different in each one. For example, you could target two different emotions, in order to sell people on reading the same newsletter.
  3. See which one does best. Then, move onto the next section of this post.

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!

This post was originally published on April 20, 2016. It was updated and republished on June 26, 2017.