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Aug 04, 2014

Email Subject Lines: The Good, the Bad, and those Other Ones

Understand tips and tricks on how to write the best email subject lines that increase open rate.

How hard can writing an email subject line actually be? And does it even matter what you write? The answer is yes. Think about it. How many unread emails do you currently have in your inbox? 50? 1000? Or if you are like me, and are on every mailing list available, it’s in the ballpark of 3,467. And that is not including my spam folder. I am actually embarrassed to share this number as the last time I even opened this folder was during the last snowmageddon that occurred in Atlanta.
The truth is, people (your customers included) are inundated with emails every single day, and many of them never get opened. We are living in the age of information overload and the chances of an email that you invested time, money, and a few hair pulling moments of never being opened is pretty high. Unless of course, you know how to stand out from the crowd and nail it when it comes to the art of email subject line writing.
There are a few different ideas around “best practice” when it comes to creating email subject lines that avoid the dreaded spam folder and also get opened. This post covers the obvious winners, things to avoid, my personal pet peeves, and ideas that you can put into action.
Obvious Winners
Terms like ‘sale’ are obvious winners, as are ‘free delivery’ and ‘discount’ or ‘today only’ when it comes to getting your emails read in the world of eCommerce. However, it’s pretty easy to bombard your customers with these types of subjects and get lost in the crowd. And I assure you, your competition is doing the exact same thing.
To avoid this, I always encourage customers mix up their email subjects with differing offers, calls to action and just general content. This keeps your recipients on their toes and stops them from becoming apathetic to the emails you send. Some ideas include:

  • Get a $30 Gift Card for 30 Minutes of Your Time
  • Extended for a day! Get Free shipping through Friday.
  • Clearance: New styles + Buy 2, Get 1 Free

Everyone enjoys a good laugh. Well, almost everyone.
A funny subject line gest me every time. I always open them because they stick out among all the emails about sales, new products, and offers of free shipping. Humor, however, is a tricky thing and not everyone will get it. To really use humor effectively you have to know your customers, and know them well. If you are taking the batch and blast approach to email (ie emailing the masses) humorous subject lines could actually backfire. However, if you know your audience and your emails are targeted, a well-placed joke can get your email opened and earn you major street cred…not really. But your customers will open that email and see that you have a personality. And this makes them feel more connected to you, your brand, and the products you sell.

  • Don’t forget, your 20% offer is waiting patiently not so patiently.
  • Get Ready for a Summer of Bar-B-CUTE!
  • Sometimes all you need is a little vase lift

Incentivize your readers.
Don’t just say thanks when someone signs up for your newsletter. It’s boring, predictable and doesn’t make you any money. Use this as an opportunity to give incentives and turn readers into potential customers. Offer them free shipping off their next order, or give them access to exclusive products or sales for signing up.
Too short. Too long. Just right.
Our friends at MailChimp suggest that you keep your subject lines to 50 characters or less. I personally think 20 (or less) is plenty as many people won’t read past the first few words. And because of the popularity of smartphones, subject lines with too many characters will probably get cut off the screen.
While difficult to narrow down the perfect length of an email, there are some things you should take into consideration. For example, short and to the point works well for emails that offer discounts, promotions or free shipping. However, longer subject lines are encouraged (and Springbot approved) when your email is that of an article or newsletter. Regardless of the length, make sure they are targeted, relevant and to the point.
Go ahead. Be a tease.
Be clever! It is enticing and when done right, the recipient’s interest is piqued and your email gets opened. But writing a teaser-style subject line requires some creativity and a dash of finesse. The real key is to make sure that your teaser subject line is followed by a really great email that either instructs, entertains, educates, or clearly conveys the product(s) you are trying to cleverly sell. Otherwise, the reader will feel deceived. A few goodies I’ve found are:

  • Make It A Double: 30% Off Full-Price and 40% Off Sales Styles.
  • Wrap Yourself in Our Blankets of Mass Appeal.
  • A vision in white, free shipping tonight.

Suggested Words to Avoid.
Not too long ago MailChimp did an analysis of words to avoid using in email subject lines. Their findings suggest avoiding the word “free” as it can trigger spam filters. They also identified a few other words that won’t trigger a spam filter, but could negatively impact your open rates. They are: Help, Percent off, and Reminder. Remember though, these are just suggestions and we encourage you to try out what works (and doesn’t) for your emails.
Ask a question.
One of the best ways to get your email subscriber’s attention is to ask them a question. Just make sure the question you are asking in your subject line is actually relevant to your store and thus your audience. For example, an email with the subject line, “How do you lose 5 pounds in one month?” would certainly be compelling if sent from a health food store or gym. It is not so relevant (and bordering on offensive) if you sell clothes. Also worth mentioning, questions like “Can I get your opinion?” tend to perform well, while “Would You Like To Make $1000 Right Now?” tend to filter straight into the spam folder. Confused? Check out a few of my examples:

  • Do you do this on your social media profiles?
  • Did you know you have a 20% off coupon waiting on you?
  • How are you liking the new purse you bought?

Timing is everything.
Timing is everything and can play a big role in determining whether or not people open your emails. For instance, a restaurant that emails potential customers right before the dinner hour would likely see engagement from hungry members of their target market. And along the same lines, you would not want to send an email to a customer that asks them to review their recent purchase if they have not even received their new purchase yet.
Just tell it like it is.
Often what works best is to say exactly what you want your reader to know. And yes, I do realize this statement seems pretty obvious. Examples of this straightforward approach include, “Throw a Brilliant BBQ: Take 20% Off Coolers, Plates & More!” or “Wrinkle-Free Pants, from 34.95 + Free Shipping” and “Buy a Dance-Lesson Package.” This just-the-facts approach works especially well when you can appeal directly to your audience’s interests. Hint hint: This is also the best approach to use when you send a newsletter, and the approach Springbot uses for our newsletter. Other examples include:

  • We have the fast cure for Sunburn, Poison Ivy, and Bug Bites!
  • Three Ways to Improve Your Store’s Webinars
  • Get your August VIPBOX Today!

Personalization. The key to success.
Personalizing your emails will get them opened. It’s really that simple. And at the simplest level, it’s wise to at least get the gender correct when targeting products via email or using the correct name. Also a plus, using age, location and point in the purchase journey are also ways to improve the chances of email opening.
However there is nothing worse than receiving an unpersonalized ‘personalized’ email like:

  • Mary check out our latest sale! (my name is Kelly).
  • [test] check out these amazing offers! (not cool).
  • Thanks for buying our new jeans and writing a review. (To start with, I never purchased the new jeans, let alone any jeans from this site. And second, I obviously did not write a review on a product I never purchased).

How do you personalize your email subject lines? Start with understanding your store’s data and then make sure that you have 100% confidence in the data you have. Remember, personalized subject lines are just the start. For those customers that are ‘lured’ in and open your email, personalized subject lines are just the start. Only when the rest of the content is equally personalized will you reach the mecca of email success.
3 Things that annoy me. Aka things you should avoid.
1. Unnecessary punctuation. Unless you are giving me a lifetime supply of free shoes, there is no!!! need to EVER!!! punctuate an email with multiple exclamation points.
2. Shouting with words. First of all, nobody likes to be shouted at, especially in the context of you trying to sell them something. And worse, many spam filters automatically force all caps subject lines to the dark underbelly of the email world, otherwise known as spam folders. SO AVOID USING EMAILS WITH ALL CAPS. IT IS REALLY ANNOYING.
3. Unpersonalized personalized emails. There is nothing more annoying than getting an email addressed to Katie (my name is Kelly). Also on my list of pet peeves is when my name is spelled Kelli. For the record, it’s Kelly. So again, I reiterate, personalization means NOTHING!!! (I really need to drive this point home) if your data is not correct and you don’t have 100% confidence in it.
Subject Line Examples Goodies

Subject Line: Comment:
Must-Have Bags For Fall This sender clearly knows their audience. I do love  bags. And I want a must-have one for fall.
Our summer favorites are 40% off today only. This email is clear and to the point with a very obvious CTA. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a great sale?
You’re Fired! How Oprah and Others Bounced Back. First of all, I did not know Oprah had ever been fired. Plus I like the use of pop culture phrases in email subject lines.
We’ve got you covered from head to toe This retailer sells everything from hats, shirts, pants, and shoes. Thus, they can cover me in fashionable goodies from head to toe.
Party Like it’s 1999 Aged Cabernet Special First of all, I love Prince. Second of all, I love win. Enough said.
Ends Today: Take 20% off all new products. This is a really good offer email. Great call-to-action, great deal, and it’s on new products.
Sometimes all you need is a little vase lift This subject line is just so catchy.
Did you remember to get a gift? It’s ok, we did. The truth is, I ALWAYS wait to buy a gift until the last minute. This is a great subject to use around holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas and more.

Take Away
The email subject line you use is the first impression your subscribers have of you, and often the only one IF you are not active on social channels, retargeting, or other marketing channels. I would even go as far to say that your email subject line is more important than the content of your email. After all, a great email is worthless if nobody ever opens it.
About The Author
Kelly Schmalz Evans is responsible for marketing at Springbot and has dubbed herself the offical curator and creator of content. Have questions on how Springbot can help you  write a better email subject line and track the success of every email sent? Email Kelly at marketing at springbot dot com. And don’t forget to follow her on Twitter @savvyschmalz.

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