Ask a group of marketers for their opinions on successful email subject lines and the responses will be as varied and voluminous as, well — a day’s worth of spam in your email inbox.

So what’s a savvy marketer to do? In the 21st century, email is an important foundation of inbound marketing, a contributor to the mix that includes blogging, social media and a great website. In other words, you can’t ignore email.

If great email marketing can be compared to great cooking, then a successful email must consider these key ingredients to properly flavor the results:

  • The sender, and the sender’s relationship to the recipient.
  • When the email is sent.
  • The recipient, and the recipient’s relationship to the sender and/or interest in the content.
  • The response the sender wants from the recipient (after opening and reading it, of course).
  • How to get the recipient’s attention (the subject line).

It’s not just the individual ingredients that determine email success – it’s the combination of flavors that makes the difference.

As an example, an email subject line with a time-limited offer for a craft beer special sent to a list of aficionados who have asked to be on an email list should get a different response than an email sent to 2,000 attendees of a B2B industrial trade show who are not expecting to get your email prior to the show.

While the other ingredients are important, the subject line is the variable in email marketing that, more than any other, will cause the recipient to say, “Hey, I want to open that!” with the same gusto as their first sight of some appetizing confection or dessert.

Rather than tell you what recipe will work best for you, I’m going to share five guidelines for great ingredients that will help you craft subject lines that lead recipients to open your email with gusto.

1) Compelling

It’ll be a cold day in some place that’s usually very hot when any of us complains that we’re not getting ENOUGH email. So the first and foremost attribute of a great email subject line is that it demands attention. This can be done quickly with the use of keywords that say, “Open me now!”

Here are some examples of keywords that work:

  • Alert — “Alert for all PRODUCT NAME subscribers”
  • Breaking — “Breaking news for all lovers of SEASONAL DISH!”
  • Don’t Miss — “Don’t miss your chance to attend this conference at half-price”
  • News — “News on product features we’re releasing today”
  • Update — “Update on CHARITY NAME hurricane relief efforts”

2) Tasty

When considering the recipients, what is the single aspect of your email that will cause them to say, “Yum,” or if the subject is more of a B2B play, “That sounds like something I need right now to help me with some aspect of my job!”

Here are some examples of tasty keywords for email subject lines:

  • Exclusive — “An exclusive preview, just for you”
  • Review — “Here’s your chance to review your experience with FAVORITE PRODUCT”
  • Special — “A special message just for you from FAVORITE CHARITY FOUNDER”
  • Video — “Just in, this video of our new product features”

3) Just a taste!

In bakeries and ice cream shops across the globe, it’s common practice to offer a taste of a confection or flavor before buying. Great email subject lines are just that, a quick taste of what’s to come. In fact – they should be ONLY 30-50 characters long.

Remember, depending on your audience, a sizable percentage – perhaps even a majority – of your recipients will be reading your email on the small screen of a smartphone or tablet. A long subject line says “delete” or “ignore” to these recipients.

Here are some great pithy examples, from CopyHackers.com:

  • When it comes to email, does size matter?
  • Heart your home page [RECIPIENT NAME]
  • How the right tone turned around this small business

4) Satisfying

Like a great dish, the email subject line has to promise a rich reward if it’s consumed. Depending upon your audience, some keywords will do this job better for you than others.

Here are some examples:

  • Download — “Download the latest PRODUCT NAME tips and tricks”
  • Gift — “Here’s a gift for your loyalty to RETAILER NAME”
  • Latest — “Want the latest news on COMPANY NAME?”
  • New — “Here’s new PRODUCT NAME guide you need”

5) Creative

Finally, us marketers like to think we’re a creative bunch. Like great chefs, we know how to add a spicy dash of the unusual, right? I saved this ingredient for last because numerous email marketing studies have revealed over and over that TOO MUCH creativity is a turn-off.

Too much creativity says “crazy!” and has recipients reaching for the electronic trash can. This can be the most difficult ingredient to get right in your email subject line – so approach it with some thought.

 That said, here are some examples, courtesy of non-profit expert Joanne Fritz:

  • Take Two Minutes to Change the World! (from grassroots.org)
  • Virus, Worms, Trojan Horses, Oh My! (from an e-marketing site)
  • Giving Back Has Never Looked So Good (from ServiceNation)

I hope this discussion of email subject line ingredients helps you craft your own recipe for email success. The email subject line is the first ingredient in email marketing. It has to catch the eye of your recipient, ring right with them, entice them to experience your email.

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Originally published Jan 3, 2014 11:00:00 AM, updated October 30 2019

Topics:

Email Marketing Content Marketing