The Fine Art of Writing An Excellent Subject Line

Writing An Excellent Subject Line

Pundits predict email use worldwide to top 3 billion users by 2020. With so many emails flying back and forth every day, how do you make sure yours get opened?

47% of people open an email based on its subject line. This simple line of text stands between subscribers opening or deleting your email.

But writing an excellent subject line is a fine art. It takes time to hone the right balance between urgency and tone. Get it wrong, and you risk sounding desperate. Or spammy.

And no one wants more spam.

So let’s get into the spirit of the Websand Way of using email marketing. Let’s learn how to write subject lines that’ll get your emails opened.

Option 1. Provoke Curiosity.

Humans don’t like ‘open loops’. The brain is primed to keep paying attention until a loop is ‘closed’. That’s why soap operas leave episodes on a cliffhanger. The viewer can’t rest until they know what happens. And they can only find out by tuning in to the next episode.

Your emails are no different. Pose a question or provoke some kind of curiosity with your subject line. Then answer it in your email. Meet that curiosity (or you’ll annoy the reader).

Be careful you don’t stray into clickbait territory. Using a subject line like “10 bizarre eating habits making mums lose weight faster”? Then you have to include those ten habits. Otherwise you risk alienating your subscribers.

You don’t even have to ask a question. Budget airline Ryanair sent out emails referencing Casablanca. But they personalised it to include the last destination the passenger had flown to. In this example, Stuttgart.

While the line is actually “we’ll always have Paris”, it was a neat way of personalising the email. And far more interesting than including a first name.

The references continued in the short email.

Only some passengers would use the prompt to book again. But for those who didn’t, it was still an interesting disruption of an often troubled brand.

Writing an Excellent Subject Line Content


Referencing classic movies won’t always be applicable or appropriate for your emails. Used sparingly, it’s a neat twist on the ‘curiosity’ subject line formula.

Option 2. Be Relentlessly Helpful.

For subscribers to continue opening emails, you need to be a) entertaining, b) useful, or c) relentlessly helpful.

Are you using specified actions to trigger automated emails? These emails are already helpful as they’re a response to a customer’s need. As long as the subject line communicates that benefit, then your email is good to go.

Another way to be helpful is to provide a useful resource that saves time or promises to teach something. Many solopreneurs use subject lines like ‘66-point checklist for a high-converting home page’. The resource, and the benefit to using it, are clear from the subject line.

Travel companies use this option to good effect. TripAdvisor might send emails like ‘15 places you must visit in Prague’ if you used their site to check out the city. Hotels often send similar emails to guests before their impending trip. It adds value to the stay by showing what’s on offer in the local area.

This even works for companies who send regular newsletters or email digests. Design and web blog Creative Bloq sent this recent email with the subject line ‘10 web skills that pay’. They know designers make up their audience and want to improve their skills. Here, they’ve compiled a resource for a specific audience (web) for a specific reason (to earn money).

Option 3. Solve Problems.

Most companies are in business to solve problems. Dollar Shave Club want to offer a razor subscription service. Graze want to help people find healthier snacks. We want to demystify email marketing so businesses can connect with their customers.

Does your business fall under this heading? Consider offering a pain point and a solution in the subject line.

Look at Duolingo. Their subject lines often read: “Learn a language with only 5 minutes per day”. The pain point? Not having time to learn a new language. The solution? Use Duolingo and you only need to set aside 5 minutes a day.

Copywriting guru Ray Edwards sent this email: “How to ask for the sale (without feeling weird)”. He teaches new copywriters how to work within the business. So his subject line reflects a pain felt by copywriters–closing sales with leads. The email provides the solution promised in the subject line.

Option 4. Be Obvious.

There’s nothing wrong with a simple subject line. ‘Your Order is on its Way!’ or ‘Thank you for your order’ are obvious examples.

Emails like these don’t need clever or creative subject lines. Customers need the information and they’re more likely to open the email. After all, they were the one who placed the order.

Our own Sunday Supplement says just that.  We’ve never changed the subject line since we started, it works for us, and continues to do so.

Being simple, obvious, or straightforward is a good way to use a clear tone of voice in a cluttered inbox.

And everyone likes to know what they’ve bought is winging its way to them at that moment.

You’ve Chosen Your Format… Now What?

Deciding which approach to take is your first step. Crafting a subject line is the second.

How long should it be?

At least 50% of emails are opened on mobile devices. More of the subject line cuts off due to the narrower screen. That’s another reason the Ryanair example works so well.

6-10 words seems to be the sweet spot, earning a 21% open rate. There’s an old copywriting adage that if you can say something in ten words, say it in six. So this is the perfect opportunity to practice writing shorter subject lines.

Make the point of opening the email crystal clear for the subscriber. And make sure the email is worth opening. Once subscribers know the value you provide, the subject line becomes less crucial.

The other important factor is originality. Plenty of websites offer tried-and-tested formulas for ‘click worthy’ subject lines. They work… for a while. Until subscribers see similar subject lines from several brands.

These formula subject lines aren’t in your voice. Which undermines your brand-building efforts. Being original is more likely to stand out (see the Ryanair example). That’s vital for building relationships with your customers.

Our Top Tips

Draft several versions of your subject line before you decide on the best one. At least ten is a good start.

Keep it short. If it’s under 50 characters, you’re laughing. Try adding a call to action if you have space. CoSchedule’s Email Subject Line Tester is a fun tool to try while you’re learning the ropes.

Experiment with literary techniques like alliteration. But don’t use caps lock all the time. It looks like you’re shouting and no one wants to look like a used car salesman.

Choose the right tone for your audience. You know what they need to hear so say it in a way that suits them.

Play with subject lines and keep an eye on your open rate. When they rise, you know you’re getting the subject lines right.

Once you nail the subject lines, you’ll want to get your email marketing up to scratch. If you want a partner that’ll help you every step of the way, get in touch. We’ve got GDPR compliance baked in.

We’re standing by!

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