Standing Out in the Inbox – The Secret to Killer Email Subject Lines

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Len Stein
Len Stein



email (2)For good or bad, the bulk of media relations work today is conducted via email. Publicists need journalists and editors to open and respond to our story ideas from the hundreds they receive daily. And beyond pitches, we compete against publications’ editorial agendas and the 24/7 tide of news events.

It’s challenging to stand out amidst the volume, so we must examine every aspect of our email campaigns: What’s the best time to send emails? How much follow-up is acceptable? Is the pitch concise and on target? Is there a more appropriate journalist to pitch?

The right subject line will get your email opened and read and the more emails read the more conversions. The best email subject lines are short and descriptive enough to make the reader want to read it. Rather than try to stand out in the inbox, it’s better to focus on simplicity.

And once we hit the ‘send’ button, we know within hours who has read / not read our query and the level of interest it has generated. But how can we increase our odds of breaking through? Here are a few ideas to help develop strong subject line pitches:

Social Media is your friend

Take the time to review target journalist’s social media feeds before you pitch. Twitter / Facebook might reveal whether their favorite team just won, if they’re attending a conference, celebrating a milestone, etc. Referencing such tweets in the subject line, and echoing them in the opening sentences of your email, shows you’re talking to a human being.

Reference a recent story

Demonstrate that you’ve read their stories. You might try, “From [insert subject of recent article] to [client issue]. For example, “From real estate apps to car insurance tools.” A subject line that says, (company] founder tells how s/he manages workers’ or innovation, hiring, etc., will generally increase open rates.

Short is sweet

Shorter subject lines have higher open rates, and as ISPs often truncate long subject lines keeping them under 50 characters helps avoid the dreaded cut off. Services like ExactTarget can test subject line among different ISPs to make sure they render as written.

Show Some Style

Make your subject lines personal; infuse your brand style into the one-liner. Appeal to your recipient’s emotions with a call to action but be sure the subject tells the reader what’s inside.

Test, test, test

If you are planning a large campaign and have time and budget, it’s best to test subject line variations. A/B testing will show how subscribers respond to different subjects according to open rates.

Important Information Upfront

Always place the most compelling information right up front to grab the reader’s attention.

Avoid These Words

Certain words in subject lines doom emails to the spam box. Words email providers hate:




Act now

Limited time

A MailChimp study of 200 million emails found that seemingly innocuous words like Help, Reminder and Percent Off negatively affect open rates.

Be Straightforward

Write straightforward subjects so the reader knows what to expect. To-the-point subject lines are opened more often.

Ask Questions

Readers respond to questions in subject lines. If your email content answers an important question, a question may make the perfect subject line.

Always Identify Yourself

The ‘From’ line is as important as the subject line. Keep it simple and clearly identify yourself and your organization. Your name must be immediately recognizable.

Sense of Urgency

The subject line should clearly identify the urgency of the message. Many publicists add words like "Exclusive" or “Preview” to help convey urgency.

Winning Email Subject Lines

When writing subject lines, avoid marketing jargon. Just because you use certain abbreviations and industry terms doesn’t mean your readers will find them familiar. Google Analytics can help determine the best words to use.

Finally, the content of your emails must deliver the goods. Recipients tend to ignore emails from people they don't know and to read emails from they know. That's why you'll get a higher open rate from customers or people who've "signed up" for your emails. This is not to say that building email lists from online sources like LinkedIn doesn't work, but your emails will have a much lower open rate.

However, regardless of how you found an email address, once the recipient has received and opened your email, they will decide whether or not it's worthwhile to open any of your future emails. If your email contains great content, there's a good chance the recipient will open future sales emails, even if the subject line isn't simply fabulous. But keep practicing.

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