Ah subject lines…

Those less than ten-word phrases that can often make or break an email marketing campaign that took weeks to put together—aren’t they a joy to create?

I wish I could tell you that somewhere out there is the perfect subject line, one that could send your open-rates skyrocketing and make opt-outs and spam reports ancient history, but I can’t.

I can tell you, however, that creating almost perfect subject lines is possible and it starts with understanding certain truths about your readers—15 truths to be exact.

1. People won’t act unless told to do so

Before sending your newsletter, stop and ask yourself: What action do I want the recipient to take?

That action won’t always be one that has an immediate impact on your business (buy now!) but it should be the first step in some path toward driving real results from your email marketing. Keep in mind your subject line will be the first impression your email has on your reader—making it your first call-to-action will improve the likelihood of that action being taken.

2. People are skeptical of most emails

The best way to overcome this skepticism is by thinking about why your subscribers signed up to receive your emails in the first place. (If you don’t know, then you may want to consider sending out a survey to your customers about the content they want to see more of or even start sending a survey as part of your initial “welcome” email.) Once you’ve figured that out, you can alter your subject lines to better suit their interests.

3. People do NOT like to have their time wasted

I don’t need to tell you how much people value their time. When it comes to your emails, you have at most, only a few minutes to get your message across. When it comes to your subject line, you have only a few seconds to capture their attention. It’s no surprise then that subject lines with less than 50 characters have open rates 12.5% higher than those with 50 or more, and click-through rates are 75% higher.

Keep in mind the typical inbox preview pane will only show 30 to 40 characters (the typical mobile device shows around 15 characters). If possible, shoot for 25 to 40 characters or 5 to 8 words.

4. People respond to numbers

Numbers help quantify any message and put the content people are receiving into terms they understand. Whether it’s a percentage (Learn how to grow your Facebook fan base by 400%) or a list (10 steps to getting more friends on Facebook) or a monetary value (How one business made $5,000 from marketing on Facebook)—numbers can take a complex problem like getting better results on Facebook and present it in a way people will respond to.

5. People are more likely to act when they feel a sense of urgency

Please do not take this as a call to add “ACT NOW!” or “LIMITED TIME OFFER!” to every one of your subject lines. But do take it as a call to consider using urgency to invigorate your customer base. This is especially true if you’re running a promotion, having a sale, or trying to drive attendance to an upcoming event. In these situations, the difference between using a subject line like: “Our annual end of summer sale is next week” or “Only 5 days until our end of summer sale begins” can be huge. One tells people you’re having a sale and the other tells people you’re having a sale and they better start getting ready.

6. People care more about the sender than the message

While the content of your email and the design of your subject line are important—nothing is more important than the relationship the recipient has with the sender (that’s you!). According to a recent Constant Contact study, 64 percent of people open emails because of the organization it is from; compared with 47 percent of people opening emails because of what is in the subject line.

Want the best results? Tell people who the email is from in the subject line.

Here are three ways to do that using my fictional business, Pinkham’s Pies:

[Pinkham’s Pies] We’re sharing our secret apple pie recipe

A secret pie recipe from Pinkham’s Pies

Pinkham’s Pies News: Our secret apple pie recipe revealed

7. People hate being misled

Even the most honest businesses can sometimes be guilty of unintentionally misleading their customers. It may not be your intention, but if your subject lines aren’t telling the whole truth or are structured in a way your customers may misunderstand—then you could be putting your reputation at risk.

If my fictional business is having a buy-one-get-one free sale, then I’m much better off using a subject line like: “Buy one pie, get a second pie FREE” than “Come in and get your free pie. It’s still going to seem like a great offer and it comes without any risk of disappointing your customers.

8. People want things to be personal, just not too personal

There is a right way and a wrong way to personalize your subject lines. The right way is to add a more personal touch by using words like “you” or “your” (10 tips to grow your Facebook fan base). It lets people know there’s an actual person sending the email and that they understand their interests as a reader.

The wrong way to personalize your emails is by including the recipient’s name in the subject line. This is a practice that is most typically used by spammers. (Check your spam or junk folder for plenty of examples of these.)

9. People want you to share your expertise

Guess who thinks you’re wicked smart? Your customers!

It’s true, and many of them signed up for your newsletter just for that reason. So don’t just tell them what you’ve read or what you’ve heard—tell them what you know.

When it comes to subject lines that start with injected yourself into them with words like “my” or “our” and ends with sharing your expertise. Consider these from Pinkham’s Pies: Our secret apple pie recipe revealed” or “10 baking tips from our kitchen”.


By far, my biggest pet peeve in email marketing or social media marketing is the abuse of capital letters and exclamation points. To me, “WE’RE HAVING A SALE!!!” doesn’t convey excitement—it conveys a feeling you’re trying too hard to get my attention. That’s not to say they should never be used. If you hit a milestone for your business, are having your biggest sale of the year, or are opening a brand new location—then by all means, show your excitement, just don’t abuse it.

11. People are starting to think much more “socially”

Businesses aren’t the only ones looking for inspiration for content to share on Facebook or ideas for things to tweet about—your customers are, too. If you have a socially-savvy audience, thinking of your subject line as status update on Facebook or a tweet, can improve your emails shareability.

For Pinkham’s Pies, a subject line like: “A secret pie recipe from Pinkham’s Pies” is much more “tweetable” than “[Pinkham’s Pies] We’re sharing our secret apple pie recipe.

12. People don’t want to be left out of the conversation

Nobody wants to be the only person that’s not “in the know.” Whether it’s a TV show everyone’s watching, a movie everyone’s talking about, or a book series that’s become the latest craze—nobody wants to be left out of the conversation. Your newsletter may never get the Twilight or Hunger Games treatment, but using your subject line to make your content a must-read will generate more opens.

13. People actually do like being teased

There’s a reason why people hate commercials but love movie trailers—commercials are all about promotion; trailers are all about getting people’s attention and leaving them wanting more.

This is a commercial-type subject line: Our fall collection is now in stock

This is a trailer-type subject line: We’ve got a new collection … we think you’re going to love it.

One tells the reader exactly what you’re selling and the other leads them to want to find out more.

14. People have needs, questions, and concerns

If any of these truths is truer than the others it is this: all people have certain needs, questions, and concerns. Understanding that can help overcome one of the biggest email marketing obstacles: relevancy. In a recent study 56% of people credited a lack of relevancy as the number one reason why they choose to unsubscribe to a newsletter.

Think about your audience’s needs or the type of questions that might be on their mind when they’re going through their inbox—if month after month you’re answering those questions, your content will always be relevant.

15. People hate being sold to

If you want to drive real business results from your email marketing, you’re going to need to learn how to sell … without selling. That starts with your subject line.

Using an overly “salesy” subject line is like hiring an overly aggressive salesperson—they may get you results sometimes but for every one sale they make—they’ve chased ten others out the door.

Next time you’re thinking of making your subject line a sales pitch, consider these 15 truths first and try to come up with something better than sell, sell, sell.

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