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July 27, 2016 // 8:00 AM

17 Tips & Best Practices for Writing Catchy Email Subject Lines

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No matter what they say, people do judge emails by their subject lines.

In fact, 33% of email recipients decide whether or not to open an email based on subject line alone. That's why it's so important to craft subject lines that are compelling enough to get people to click through. Click here to download our complete guide to creating email newsletters people  actually read. 

While they may seem like a small part of your message, they're one of the very first impressions you have on your email recipients. And they're a marketer's ticket for standing out in a crowded inbox.

Do you want your email content opened, read, and clicked? It all starts with the subject line. Here are 17 tips to help jazz them up and boost engagement.

How to Write Email Marketing Subject Lines People Actually Click

1) Keep it short and sweet.

Email subject lines will get cut off if they’re too long, particularly on mobile devices. And with 40% of emails being opened on mobile first, we recommend using subject lines with fewer than 50 characters to make sure the people scanning your emails read the entire subject line.

If you're struggling to keep your subject lines short, think about which words matter less and where you can remove a frivolous detail. For example, if you’re sending an order confirmation, doesn’t “Your order is being processed” look better than “Order #9435893458358 is being processed"? Same goes with your regular emails: Do you really have to include the word "update" or "newsletter" in there? (Actually, a study from Adestra found that emails including the word "newsletter" in the subject line saw an 18.7% decrease in open rates.)

2) Use a familiar sender name.

"If the from name doesn’t sound like it’s from someone you want to hear from, it doesn’t matter what the subject line is," explains Copy Hacker's Joanna Wiebe.

Thanks to the amount of spam email people get these days, most people hesitate to open email from unfamiliar senders. No one likes talking to a robot. Think about when you call a company and can’t get a hold of an actual person. It’s frustrating, right? This goes for email, as well.

Never use "noreply@company.com." I repeat: Never use this email address. Not only does it make it look less personable, it also stops people from adding your email to their address book.

Instead, avoid using a generic email address and send the email from a real person. For instance, HubSpot found that emails sent from "Maggie Georgieva, HubSpot" performed better in terms of opens and clickthrough rate than emails sent from just "HubSpot." (HubSpot customers: Learn how to personalize the "From" name and email address here.)

3) Use personalization tokens.

Using personalization tokens like name or location in the subject line adds a feeling of rapport -- especially when it's a name. Everyone loves the sound of their own name. Plus, it increases clickthrough rate: According to the Science of Email Marketing, emails that included the first name of the recipient in their subject line had higher clickthrough rates than emails that did not.

Affix it to your subject line by saying things like: "John Doe, we really wanted to share this…" Or, do what Rent the Runway did with their subject line: "Happy Birthday Lindsay - Surprise Inside!" Not only did it address the recipient by their first name, but it was also sent close to the recipient's birthday. That's great personalization and great timing.

Another personalization tactic that works is to tailor subject lines to their location. Uber does a great job with this: They send me location-specific emails, like lists of my city's best outdoor bars and restaurants. Groupon does this well, too. Location-specific offers or news could increase your open rates.

Just don't go overboard with the personalization here. That can be a little creepy. But little personalized touches here and there show that you know more about your recipients than just their email address. However, if you can't (or don’t want to) use personalization tokens in the subject line, use "you" or "your" so it still sounds like you’re addressing them directly.

4) Segment your lists. 

While email blasts that go out to your entire list might be relevant and helpful to some people, it won't be to others -- and could cause confusion or frustration. Why is this restaurant sending me a list of the best local steakhouses when I'm a vegetarian? Why is this company sending me case studies when I just signed up for their email list yesterday?

Personalize the experience using information from the actions your customer has already taken -- from which forms they've filled out, to which industries they're in, to what their personal preferences are. In email marketing, you can personalize your recipients' experience using a little thing called list segmentation.

How you segment your lists depends on your business and your goals, but you can read this blog post for 27 ideas for how to slice and dice your email lists for better segmentation.

5) Don't make false promises.

Your email subject line is making a promise to your reader about what you will deliver in your message. Make sure that you make good on that commitment -- and do not try to get your email opened by making false promises. This will irk your audience, and they'll learn not to trust your subject lines, resulting in a lower open rate and a higher unsubscribe rate.

6) Do tell them what's inside.

Speaking of making promises, if your visitor has downloaded an offer and you’re delivering it via email, it’s a great idea to use a subject line that says something like, “your new ebook inside!” or “your guide awaits!” This works better than a simple “thank you” in the subject line because it makes it clear that something is waiting inside the email.

7) Time it right.

Sending an email at the right time with the right subject line can make a huge difference in open and clickthrough rate. A prime example? Eater Boston sent an email at 6:45 P.M. on a Wednesday evening that said, "Where to Drink Beer Right Now." Just in time for happy hour. Nailed it.

Another favorite example of mine is an email from Warby Parker with the subject line, "Uh-oh, your prescription is expiring." It was sent two weeks before the recipient needed to renew his prescription. By sending an email at the right time, Warby Parker increased the chances of their email getting opened -- and included a relevant call-to-action about getting a glasses upgrade, too.

8) Use concise language.

Keep in mind that people scan their inbox very quickly -- so the more clear and concise your subject line is, the better. It's usually a lot better to be concise than it is to use complex and flowery language -- unless you’re going for an elusive subject tone to entice your recipients.

When you're going for a concise subject line, think first about how your email will benefit your recipients. You'll want to make that benefit very clear. For example, "Increase your open rates by 50% today” is more appealing than "How to increase open rates."

9) Start with action-oriented verbs.

Subject lines are similar to calls-to-action, in that you want the language to inspire people to click. Subject lines that begin with action verbs tend to be a lot more enticing, and your emails could be drastically more clickable by adding a vibrant verb at the beginning.

Actionable subject lines will inspire people to click on your email by instilling urgency and excitement. For example, in an email inviting people to a hockey legend dinner, the email subject line might read, “Dine with Bruins legend Bobby Orr,” rather than a more generic (and less actionable) “Local Boston Sports Legend Meal." The former email uses “Dine” to help the reader envision themselves at a dinner table.

10) Make people feel special.

The psychology of exclusivity is a powerful thing. When people feel like they're on the inside, it gives them a sense of belonging that could build loyalty and compel them to convert better on your emails.

The right phrasing can make your recipients feel special -- and the effect can be magical. A few ideas for phrasing include: 

  • "For our beloved customers only"
  • "An exclusive offer for you"
  • "My gift to you"
  • "You're invited!"
  • "Private invite"

11) Create a sense of urgency.

One effective subject line style that will stop readers in their tracks: urgency. Subject lines that create a sense of urgency and exclusivity can give a 22% higher open rateUsing deadlines like “today only” or “24-hour giveaway” will encourage your reader to act now instead of putting it off until later, when there’s a chance of them forgetting it.

But urgency is just one of the psychological principles that can help get people to open and click through your emails. Other principles include scarcity and social proof -- both great ways to increase your conversion rates.

12) Use numbers.

A lot of businesses send emails with vague statements in their subject lines -- which is why using data and numbers is a great way to get your emails noticed, demonstrate a clear and straightforward message about your offer, and set the right expectations.

Just like with blog titles, using numbers in your subject line is an effective email marketing best practice. You might use numbers to refer to the title of your listicle, the page length of the offer you're sending, a specific discount, or the numerical benefit of a particular resource you're providing -- like "Join more than 750 others at this event!"

13) Pose a compelling question.

Asking a question in your subject line can also draw readers in -- especially if you're asking a question you know is relevant to your recipients' buyer persona. For example, you might try the following: “Are you making these SEO mistakes?” or “Do you know what your website is doing wrong?"

Zillow sent an email with the subject line, "What Can You Afford?" that linked to a website showing apartments for rent. A subject line like this is both encouraging and a touch competitive: While it gives hope that there are apartments out there that'll fit within your budget, it also pits your cash against what the market offers. 

Another example comes from DocuSign. They sent an email late in the lead nurturing process, with the subject line, "What are your customers saying?" The body of the email contained a bunch of case studies that were meant to help the recipient move closer to actually purchasing DocuSign. This was a smart move: Folks who are further down the funnel are likely more receptive to hearing customer testimonials.

14) Don't be afraid to get punny.

Most people love a good pun. It's a great way to delight your recipients and spice up your emails. Some of the best punny email subject lines come from JetBlue, with subject lines like "Land wander-ful low fares now!" Quirky -- a community-led invention platform --worded one of their email subject lines like this: "Abra-cord-abra! Yeah, we said it." That second part is conversational and self-referential -- and exactly what most people would say after making a really cheesy joke in real life.

If you're the least bit punny, think about small ways you can slip them into your emails when it's appropriate. Just don't overdo it.

And remember the rule: When in doubt, ask a coworker.

(Get inspired by checking out these witty grammar jokes and puns.)

15) DON'T USE ALL CAPS or overuse exclamation points!!!

A subject line that says, “OPEN NOW AND RECEIVE A FREE TRIAL” or "50% off coupon today only!!!!!!!!" isn’t going to get you an email open. In fact, it’ll probably get your email ignored. People don't like to get yelled at, and using all caps and/or a lot of exclamation points can really rub people the wrong way. In fact, according to a study by the Radicati Groupmore than 85% of respondents prefer an all-lowercase subject line to one in all caps. 

Not only are these tactics disruptive, but they look spammy. When 69% of email recipients report email as spam based solely on the subject line, you'll want to stay away from triggers like this as much as you can.

Instead of using disruptive tactics like these to stand out in people's inboxes, try personalizing your emails, establishing relevancy, and using catchy and delightful language.

16) Don't forget to add preview text.

While preview text isn't technically part of your subject line, it does appear right near the subject line -- and it certainly deserves your attention. Preview text provides recipients with a peek at the content inside your email, which email clients like the iPhone Mail app, Gmail, and Outlook will display alongside the subject line. (The exact amount of text shown depends on the email client and user settings.)

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When you don't set the preview text yourself, the email client will automatically pull from the body of your email. This can look messy depending on your email content, and it's also a wasted opportunity to engage your audience. (HubSpot customers: Click here to learn how to set the preview text of your emails.)

17) A/B test your subject lines.

Although these tips and best practices are a great place to start, what works best for some companies may not work as well for others. It's all about figuring out what works best for your specific audience. That's where A/B testing comes in.

While it can be tempting to use your intuition to predict what subject line language will make people click on your emails, you should constantly be A/B testing your subject lines and tweaking wording according to your results. What works best for your audience: Long or short subject lines? Including numbers or not including numbers? Questions or statements?

Read this blog post for an A/B testing checklist you can bookmark the next time you want to run one on your emails. (HubSpot Enterprise customers: Learn how to A/B test emails in HubSpot here.)

At the end of the day, if your emails aren’t getting opened, they’re not getting seen. You have awesome content to share, you just have to prove it in your subject line.

Good luck!

What are your best tips and tricks for improving email subject lines? Share them below.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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Topics: Email Marketing Ecommerce

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