Fifty characters could be all that stands between
you and success in your next email campaign.
Fifty characters is all the space you have in a
typical subject line to catch your reader's eye and
entice him to open your email and take the action
How could something so small make or break an
email's success? Because many recipients use the
subject line to decide whether to open or delete an
Subject lines are tricky devils, however. A good
one can get your email opened in a flash, while a
bad one could spell oblivion in the trash or junk
Because so much is riding on your subject line,
we came up with 15 rules for crafting a good one. Be
sure to review them before you send your next email
15 Rules to Write the Subject Line Right
Rule 1: Read the newspaper.
If you want to write a better subject line, pick
up your local paper. The headline usually highlights
a story's most important fact in a limited space. A
subject line, in turn, should clearly state what
your reader can expect from your email, what's in it
for them or what you want them to do as a result of
the email. However, there isn't enough space to do
all of them all the time. Look at the newspaper
headline to see how it interplays with the story.
Rule 2: There is no sure-fire formula.
What works in one campaign might bomb with the
next. A discount offer should be worded differently
from an upsell, and both are different from a
Even if you are sending out emails to promote
similar campaigns, you shouldn't recycle a subject
line from a past campaign. You need to stand out
each time, yet be familiar to the reader, too. How
do you find out what works best? See Rule 3.
Rule 3: Test, test, test.
Test continually to determine trends and styles
that appear to work. Pretest if you can. Add a day
to your campaign-creation schedule to give you
enough time to try out different lines. See Rule 12
for more on testing.
Rule 4: Support the "from" line.
The "from" line tells the recipient who sent the
email, and the subject line sells the recipient on
opening. If your "from" line lists your company
name, you don't have to repeat it in the subject
line, which frees up space in the subject line. But
do consider branding your subject line with the name
of the newsletter, for example, so that it will
stand out in the junk folder and your recipients’
Recent research shows readers often look at the
"From" line first when deciding whether to open an
email and then the subject line. See the
Quick Tip for more information on creating the
right "from" line.
Rule 5: List key info first.
Some email clients allow more characters in a
subject line than others, but most give you at least
50, including spaces. So, load your key information
in that first 50. Also, make sure the cut-off
doesn't occur in a crucial word, such as a price or
date. Use the EmailLabs
subject-line checker see how your subject line
renders in the leading desktop and Web email
Rule 6: Open rates don't always measure
Look at the subjects associated with the highest
number of conversions, such as registrations, clicks
to view newsletter articles, sales or downloads. If
you drill down into your Web analytics, you might
find some anomalies, such as an email with a
relatively low open rate but a high sales-per-order
rate. That could mean something in the subject line
strongly appealed to a narrow segment of your list
and could point the way to a more lucrative
segmentation. Remember, your end goal is not
necessarily high open rates, but to have subscribers
take a specific action. Focus on your end goal.
Rule 7: Personalize.
Personalize subject lines based on users' product
or content preferences, interests, past purchases,
Web visits or links clicked. Be careful when
personalizing on past purchases, however, because
the purchase could have been a gift for someone else
and might not relate to your reader's real
interests. Always make it easy for readers to find
and update their data and preferences.
Rule 8: Urgency drives action.
Set a deadline: "Order by midnight tonight;"
"Last day to ensure Xmas delivery." Use urgency and
deadlines as part of a planned series of emails as
well. For example on Monday incorporate “5 Days
Left…” and then on Thursday follow it with “Only 24
Rule 9: Watch those spam filters.
There's a fine line between "catchy" and
"spammy." Run your copy through a content checker to
identify any spamlike words, phrases or
construction. The content checker will tell you
which phrases to avoid. Two tricks that could trip a
spam filter: subject lines in all capital letters,
and using more exclamation points than necessary.
(Both look unprofessional, too.) In fact, we
recommend against using exclamation points at all if
you can avoid it.
Rule 10: "Free" is not evil.
Yes, you can use "free" in a subject line. Just
don't make “free” the first word, use it in
conjunction with an exclamation point or spell it in
all caps (could get your email filtered). People
still respond to "free;" so, the increase in orders
or other actions will almost always outweigh the
messages lost from filtering.
Rule 11. Lead, but don't mislead.
Don't stretch the truth in the subject line or
promise more than the email can deliver, or make
grand claims that readers will find hard to comply
with in order to get a special offer or benefit.
Readers will distrust you (and reach for the
report-spam button) if your subject line doesn't
reflect the email content.
Rule 12. Write and test early and often.
Writing the subject line is often the last and
most hurried step in email campaign development. It
should be the other way around. As you plan the
email campaign, start thinking about what will go
into the subject line. That will help you sharpen
your campaign's focus and may even change or tweak
the offer or article focus.
Ideally, you should test subject lines on a
segment of your list, but if you're pressed for
time, run them past an informal focus group
including your marketing team, others in your
department and even folks from outside the
department to get a wider view.
Rule 13. Review subject-line performance
over your last several campaigns or newsletters.
See which subject lines delivered the action you
wanted – the most conversions, the highest average
sale per order, the highest click-through rate, etc.
Review your Web analytics reports to see which
newsletter article topics draw the most clicks or
forwards, which whitepapers get downloaded most
often, which brands or departments get the most
traffic. This analysis should drive content and
product selection strategies, but it can also show
you what information is most relevant or useful.
we reviewed two years of subject lines and
discovered that action-oriented statements that
included numbers and "tips" and similar phrases
pulled the best.
Rule 14. Continue the conversation.
Sending email more frequently than monthly or
quarterly helps you create a conversation with your
readers. Your tracking reports should show you what
their crucial or hot-button issues are, what kinds
of topics gets them opening and clicking more
vigorously. Feature those keywords or issues
prominently in the subject line where appropriate --
first or second position -- to capture readers'
Additionally, if your email frequency permits it,
continue a dialog and content direction you’ve
started in previous emails. For example, “Google
Agrees to China Censorship” followed by “Google to
Testify Before Congress.”
Rule 15. Can you pass the
The days when people opened absolutely everything
that landed in their inboxes are long gone. Now, you
have to intrigue them. Appeal to their need for
information, to be an insider "in the know."
Go back to Rule 14. If you have created a
conversation with your readers, a reference to it in
your subject will intrigue them into opening your
email to see the next instalment.
Run a simple test on yourself and others on your
team – does the subject line pass these two tests?
- The must-read test. If a subscriber doesn’t
open the email they will feel like they are out
of the loop and may have missed an offer that
they will regret not taking advantage of.
- The unbulk bulk-folder test. Simply, if for
some reason your email goes into the bulk
folder, does the combination of from and subject
line wording inspire trust and intrigue to get
the recipient to move it into their inboxes?
Conclusion: Much to Learn, Much at Stake
Yes, this seems like a lot of fuss over 50 little
characters. But those 50 characters may have the
greatest impact on your email's success. It pays to
get them right.
by Loren McDonald for