How to Write Email Subject Lines That Get Opened


Library of Congress via Flickr

An email subject line is like the headline in an ad. It’s the first thing you notice – and the most important part of the entire message. It’s even more critical with email than with an ad.

If someone sees your ad, they may miss or ignore the headline, but be attracted by a photo or a sub-head.

With email, everything else is largely hidden.

If the subject line doesn’t say “open me!,” you’re sunk.

A writing tip from David Ogilvy

Whether in print or online, spend most of your time on your headline. To quote David Ogilvy (who never saw an email but knew a few things about headlines):

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar. -David Ogilvy

Good, bad, and ugly subject lines

Here are some sample email subject lines:

Stocks Set to Rebound After Yesterday’s Fall

The problem with this headline is that it tells you the entire story. There’s no need to click and read the entire email. I already know the market went down yesterday, and the headline tells me that they are expected to rise today.

Here’s another take on that same headline:

The Five Stocks That Survived The Market Slide

If the stock market has been sinking, knowing which stocks have retained their value is useful and important information.  Where do I click?

Or, what about this one:

Spark Business with Webinars, Podcasts, and Online Video

Looks like the email is about different ways to market your business.  All good tactics.  The trouble isn’t with the content.  The trouble is that they’ve given away the entire strategy in the subject line.  There’s really no need to read further.  OK, I can use these tools to promote myself, one, two, three, check.  Done.

What if we changed this a bit.  Make the headline say something like,

How to Spark More Business

With that headline,  you won’t know what the tools are unless you open the email.

Here’s another one:

5 Ways to Break the Rules of Email Marketing

It promises I can break some rules, but there’s absolutely no way to tell what I’ll gain by doing it. I also can’t tell whether the rules are legitimate or foolish.  What if, instead, the headline made a promise about how I can be more successful by breaking the rules.  Say something like:

Profit From Breaking Email Marketing Rules – 100% Legal!

Makes you wonder what the rules are, how you can make money, and reassures you that it’s legal (you’re not spamming anyone).  The contradiction between doing something that sounds dodgy, and knowing that it’s perfectly legal gets your attention. You now want to open that email to find out exactly what you need to do to increase your profits.

In each case, the new subject lines work because they engage emotions, tell a story, or promise one.  You can do this by arousing curiosity, creating a mystery, setting up a contradiction, or promising useful information. And that’s why emails with these subject lines get opened.

Got a favorite email subject line? Or a question about writing them?  Ask in the comments.