How to write email subject lines your subscribers can't help but click

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Published Jun 27, 2018 | Written by Jeremy Knight

shutterstock_275603399 (1)But wait, isn’t email marketing dead?

Email was the pinnacle of nineties marketing. Transforming mass communication when it became free and available to all, email revolutionised how we reach our customers.

Nowadays, we have access to free social media, targeted banner advertising, Google ads, pay-per-click. You get the picture.

Pair that with the burning anticipation of GDPR, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the death of the email was imminent.  

But what the stats reveal is very different.

86% of professionals prefer to use email when communicating for business purposes, and 89% of marketers say email is their primary channel for lead generation.

DMA insight says that 95% of us check our emails every day, sometimes up to 20 times a day.

Meanwhile, Gmail reports over one billion users, of which 75% access their accounts on mobile devices.

So we can safely say that email marketing, when done right, is one of the most versatile and successful tools of the marketing landscape.

With smart segmentation, personalisation, interactivity and dynamic content offerings, an email marketing strategy can be an integral part of your wider inbound strategy.  

Now that we’ve established its overall effectiveness, there’s one little trick you need to master if you’re going to see any success from your email campaigns.

Subject line = key to success

47% of recipients base their decision to open an email on the subject line.

However, some marketers still pour over the messaging inside their email, proofing, tweaking and crafting until it is word perfect. And when it comes to the subject line, at the last moment, they throw a few words together that sum up the email, giving it little to no consideration. 

This is wrong.

Subject lines are the reason an email gets opened or ignored. And they demand more attention than the entire email.

Bear with me.

Master copywriter Gene Schwartz is known to spend an entire week on the first 50 words of a sales piece - the headline and the opening paragraph.

David Ogilvy famously rewrote this sales headline over 104 times before he got it right:

“At 60 miles an hour, the only thing you hear in the new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the dashboard clock…”

The most powerful copy often comes in the shortest formats. And email subject lines are no exception.

To make your email subject lines stand out, there are a few techniques you can adopt:


Be specific

Be specific with your language. Generic simply won’t cut it.

How can you stand out in an inbox among your competitors? Subject lines that are vague or fluffy won’t grab attention. Think about the recipient’s incentive for opening the email. The subject line should tell recipients what to expect. And remember, “Factual advertising outsells flatulent puffery.”

Know what your audiences want, give them what they are expecting, and get straight to the point in the subject line.

Be curious

We all have a burning desire to know. By building intrigue and ‘dangling the carrot’, you’ll leave the recipient with no choice but to click on that compelling subject line. But do be careful of giving everything away in the subject line, you want to try and pique curiosity. You should think about alluding to a ‘why?’ ‘what?’ or even a ‘why not?’, and satisfy your audience's questions with your email content.

Be urgent

Urgency and scarcity can generate a little healthy panic in users who are genuinely interested in what you have to offer. For example, if your free demo period is coming to an end, let subscribers know how long they have left.

Has your most coveted product almost sold out? Generate scarcity by declaring this in your subject line, with a link to purchase the product in the body email.

This technique will encourage click-throughs from those who are genuinely interested in your product or service.

Use ‘Fomo’

‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) was triggered by the influx of social media, resulting in a generation of addicts. But marketers can take advantage of this condition that plagues the online audiences of today. After all, who wants to be the one missing out?

Here, you could use data about existing customers already benefitting from your product or service, or about to benefit from an exclusive offer, leaving your audience wanting to be part of that community.

You want them to feel that by ignoring your email, they’ll miss out on something spectacular.

Be relevant

The key here is the be relevant and tune in with the current trends. This comes down to being aware, paying attention, and knowing your recipients. What ignites their attention? What are they talking about online?

Keep it short and sweet

Keep it brief, short and scannable, with no more than 10 words.

Subject lines with 11-15 words have been shown to generate an average open rate of 14%, whereas emails with 6-10 words have shown to generate an average of 21%.

Choose your words wisely. You may have less than 10, but every single one should have earned its place in that subject box. And if it takes up 85% of your budgeted time, you’re doing it right.

Use A/B testing

Platforms like HubSpot generally include a tool to use A/B testing on your email campaigns. This gives you the opportunity to trial different CTAs, content, and email subject lines. You can then use the results to inform your next email campaign. Then segment and test again, and keep doing this until you understand how your audiences are thinking and what makes them click.

Bonus tips to get that open rate up

Check your timing

Could your timing be better? When are your audiences opening emails? At the weekend? First thing in the morning? This factor can be critical in optimising open rates.

Segment your audiences

Segmenting and personalisation can be hugely effective in generating any of the emotions mentioned above. Not all your audiences will appreciate the same content, so by segmenting them and tailoring the content they receive, the experience will feel all the more personal and engaging.

Check the quality of your lists

1 in 5 of us have abandoned an email account, so unengaged subscribers could be skewing your benchmark data. If you haven’t already, perform a thorough review of your contacts list and remove any non-engagers.

Overall, I think it's safe to say that email marketing is still very much alive and kicking. But a tradesman is only as good as his tools, and your toolkit needs to include powerful copywriting skills to really enhance those subject lines to be compelling and engaging.

Ultimately, your email marketing strategy is only as good as your subject lines, so don't be afraid to be daring (within reason!), experiment, and dedicate a solid proportion of your time to crafting irresistible subject lines.

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Published by Jeremy Knight June 27, 2018
Jeremy Knight