Email Marketing

Four Rules for Email Subject Lines

While there’s no one formula that guarantees top-performing email subject linesit’s a fact that your email won’t be read if it isn’t opened. That’s why your email subject line needs to grab your reader’s attention from the get-go. 

Although we can’t give a one size fits all formula to guarantee better subject lines, following these four rules with every line you craft will set you up for success. 

Length Matters 

Marketing email subject lines and landing page headlines have a lot of similaritiesThe biggest difference between the two is the importance of the length of your email subject line. Neither should be too long (or short) but missing the mark on the former could mean that everything that comes after is a wasted effort. 

The ideal length of your subject line depends on several factors like the device your audience is reading your email on (phone, iPad, laptop) and past subject line performance. I have seen some very specific info for the “perfect” length (like this study that suggests 41 characters or 7 words is the sweet spot).  

The bottom line is that you want a subject line that comes in at 50 characters or less while treating the 3 other rules as non-negotiables.  

Get to the Point 

An analysis of over 40 million marketing emails by MailChimp revealed that descriptive and straightforward email subject lines had the highest open rates.  

Admit it: when you’re scanning your inbox, you’re more likely looking for reasons to delete emails than looking for reasons to keep them. The average American receives 121 emails in their company inbox every day. For us to complete our daily tasks, we need to be able to quickly decide on the following based on who the email is sent from and what it says in the subject line. 

  • Does this email require my attention? 
  • Is this email worth opening to determine if it requires my attention? 
  • Can I delete this email without reading it? 
  • Should I delete this email and report it as spam and/or click “unsubscribe”? 

To help make these decisions easy for your audience, be specific yet concise.  

Which email subject line would you be more likely to open? 

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Be Honest 

Want to instantly lose credibility? You can do it by promising one thing in your subject line and doing another in the body of your email. Spammers and scammers use these tactics every day. In the US, the CAN-SPAM Act explicitly prohibits the use of deceptive subject headings.  

However, in the B2B world, much of the deceit we see is more subtle. A quick scan of my deleted items revealed the most frequently used tactic in the B2B world. RE: RE: Marketing Opportunity SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 

Using RE: or FW: in your subject line may provide an increase in open rates the first time you use the tactic with your audience. However, in a study completed by Adestra, the 2nd attempt using this deceptive strategy will likely send unsubscribe rates through the roof! 

Test, Test, and Test Again 

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.” 

– David Ogilvy

Email marketing reports provide a wealth of data that you can use to fine-tune your strategyFocusing on the subject line, setup A/B tests to compare any of the following: 

  • Length – Compare bare minimum subject lines to ones that provide more detail while staying under 50 characters. 
  • Topic – While we suggested keeping the subject line specific yet concise, try experimenting with other tactics like the psychological phenomenon known as the curiosity gap. “Land your dream job with this little-known tip” 
  • Personalization – Some studies show a jump in open rates when the recipient’s first name is used in the subject line. However, some recipients immediately flag this approach  

While our focus here is on the subject line, don’t stop there.  

Test variations in your pre-header text. Experiment with different days/times and vary these for different audiences. You can also test the CTA, body content, etc. Try not to test too many variables at once though unless you are well-versed in and equipped with tools for multivariate testing. 

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