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Create Subject Lines for Results

Published by Charles Brodeur

Fifty characters could be all that stands between you and the success of your next email campaign. Why? Because 50 characters is all the space you have in a typical subject line – to catch the attention of your reader, entice them to open your email and take action. With so much at stake, marketers need a quick and proven reference tool for developing subject lines that get the desired
result: opened emails.

Let these rules be your guide.

Rule 1: Read the Newspaper

If you want to develop subject lines that result in higher open rates, pick up your local paper. Headlines usually highlight a story’s most important point with brevity, while taking the audience into consideration. Use that approach to make your subject lines short and intriguing enough to compel your subscribers toread your emails.

Subject lines should clearly state what your readers can expect from your email, what’s in it for them and what you want them to do as a result of the email. And your subject line must stand out from others in your customers’ crowded inbox in the most relevant way. Emulating the headlines from newspapers can be a good starting point in the development of subject lines.

Rule 2: Focus on the Objective

What is the objective, or end goal, of your email marketing program? In most cases your end goal is not necessarily high open rates, but rather to have subscribers take a specific and measurable
action. Determine what that one action is, and make sure your subject line will achieve your objective. For instance, if your goal is for recipients to purchase from your online store, don’t use a subject line that is informational in nature. Instead, use a clear call-to-action that emphasizes their opportunity to make a “must have” purchase.

Learn from past campaigns – look at subject lines in emails that were associated with the highest number of conversions. Or if you drill down into your analytics, you might find additional clues, such as an email with a relatively low open rate but a high sales-per-order rate. That could mean something in the subject line strongly appealed to a narrow segment of your list. You could then test  variations of the same type of subject line with other audience segments.

Rule 3: Leverage the “From” Line

The “From” line tells the recipient who sent the email, and the subject line sells the recipient on opening it. So take the time to consider the best use of the “From” line, based on the goal of the email and the audience that will receive it. What name or email address gets the highest response?

Some basic guidelines:

If it’s the first time you have emailed a specific audience, use a “From” line that creates a sense of familiarity and/or credibility with your potential readers. They may not be familiar with your company or brand, so you will want to use a brief “From” line that includes your company name as well as the general purpose of the email, such as: Acme Health Experts. Coupled with a compelling subject line, this approach can generate higher open rates than a “From” line of “Acme, Inc.”

If the “From” line lists your company name, you don’t have to repeat it in the subject line, which frees up space there. But do consider branding your subject line with the name of your newsletter, for example, so that it will stand out in the inbox of your recipients. For instance, if the “From” line says Acme Health Experts, your subject line might say, Health Wise Newsletter.

Rule 4: Mention Key Information First

It sounds obvious, but it’s important to mention the most important information first when it comes to both your subject line and the email content itself. You only have one opportunity to make
a first impression and with subject lines that adage is amplified.

Some tips:

Keep your end goal, and the interest of the recipients, in mind: What is it that you want them to do after reading the email, and what would make them care enough to do that? If you can answer that question in 50 characters or less, you may have your subject line.

In many cases it doesn’t make sense to try to cram the offer and call-to-action into literally 50 characters. If that is the case, focus on mentioning something that makes your recipient care enough to open the email to learn more. Then use the top portion of the email to elaborate on the offer.

Most email preview panes allow for 50 characters worth of space in the subject line area, and anything beyond that gets cutoff. So make sure the cut-off doesn’t occur in a crucial word, such as a price or date. One of the best ways to catch this is to send a test email message to your own account and see what it looks like in your preview pane.

Rule 5: Personalize

Personalized subject lines are a simple way to secure the interest and action of your recipients. Subject lines can be personalized based on the product or content preferences of the recipient, or based on their interests, past purchases, website visits or links clicked. Where appropriate, use of the recipients’ first names can be a very effective form of personalization as well. When personalizing, be sure to consider the following:

Be careful when using past purchases to personalize because the purchase could have been a gift for someone else and might not relate to your reader’s real interests. Always make it easy for readers to find and update their data and preferences so you can personalize in a relevant and accurate manner.

If you elect to include the first name of your recipients, take the time to go through the database and make sure that you actually have the first name for every record. Also assure that the names in your database use proper capitalization, such as Alice instead of alice. If the database is not 100 percent accurate, it’s better to not use first name personalization in your email messages.

Rule 6: Urgency Drives Action

The recipients of your email messages are more likely to act on your offer if they have an urgent reason to do so. Where appropriate, drive urgency with messaging such as expiring offers, “first XX
people” or only “X days left.” You can even create a planned series of emails – each incorporating the imminent deadline. However, don’t overuse or misrepresent deadlines as it will train your recipients to wait until the last minute to act or, worse yet, sour them to your offers entirely. But do drive urgency where it’s relevant.

Rule 7: Lead, but Don’t Mislead

While it’s important to drive a sense of urgency and develop offers that compel action, it’s even more important to maintain your company’s integrity in every outbound communication. That means not misleading your prospects and customers with the subject line in order to get them to read or act on the call-to-action in the email.

Never stretch the truth in your subject line or promise more than your email delivers, make grand claims that require compliance in order to redeem an offer but make it difficult for customers to do so, or offer one thing and deliver something different than what is described.

Rule 8: “Free” is not Evil

Yes, you can use the word “free” in a subject line, contrary to the urban legends out there. People still respond to the word “free;” so, the increase in orders or other actions will almost always outweigh the messages lost to filtering. But be sure to follow the best practices listed below to minimize your email message getting caught in spam filters:

Don’t make “free” the first word every time.

Don’t use the word “free” in conjunction with an exclamation point.

Refrain from spelling “free” in all capital letters.

Test the use of the word «free» as you would any other variable – and optimize on the best test results.

Rule 9: Plan for Deliverability

There are a number of factors that affect whether your email will be delivered to the inbox or not, and most of them are within your control. More methods for improving deliverability are detailed later in this guide, but here are a few simple things you can do with subject lines to increase the deliverability of your email marketing campaigns:

There’s a fine line between “catchy” and “spammy.” Run your email subject line and body copy through a content checker to identify any spam-like words, phrases or construction. The content checker will tell you which types of phrases to avoid.

Two tricks that could trip a spam filter: subject lines in all capital letters and using more exclamation points than necessary (both look unprofessional, too). In fact, we recommend not using exclamation points at all if you can avoid it.

Rule 10: Measure, Test, Analyze – Repeat

There are numerous ways to optimize your subject lines and, in all cases, the easiest and most effective way to identify the most effective method for each of your campaigns is to measure, test, analyze and then repeat that process.

In order to use data to support better decisions, you must have meaningful data to analyze. But where do you get the data? If you want to understand which of two test subject lines results in the best conversion rate, then you need a way to track responses from Email A differently than Email B. That may mean assigning a unique source code to the landing page associated with each of the emails, or it may mean assigning some other unique identifier such as a promotional code. Then, compare the two sets of data to determine the results. Be sure to use a large enough sample size with each test group so that your results are statistically accurate – 300 or more responses per test group is generally considered viable from an analysis perspective. And be careful to change just one variable across test cells so you can definitively determine the cause of any change in results.

Some testing ideas for your subject lines include:

Negative subject lines vs. positive ones – “We hate to see you go” vs. “Newsletter subscription offer”

Challenger vs. champion offers –Test your best-performing subject line against a new challenger

Personalization vs. no personalization –Using the subscriber’s name in the subject line vs. not mentioning a name)

Mention of price or savings vs. no mention of price or savings

Once you have results, use the metrics from each segment to determine which subject line(s) delivered the action you wanted – the most conversions, the highest average sale per order, the highest click-through rate, etc. From this data you should be able to establish a “champion” subject line, then introduce a “challenger” and test again.


Yes, this seems like a lot of fuss over 50 little characters. But those 50 characters will have a significant impact on the success or failure of your email. It pays to get them right.

Charles Brodeur
eCommerce Consultant
BigTurns Professional Services Ltd 
Vancouver, BC V6E 4R1

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