How to write killer email subject lines

These guidelines will not only save your emails from the spam folder, but increase their chance for success.


For B2B and B2C marketers alike, email is one of the most productive marketing tactics.

In fact, the Direct Marketing Association puts email marketing’s ROI for 2011 at $40.56 for every $1 invested. This year, email will have accounted for $67.8 billion in sales.

This reality makes email marketing the real workhorse in the wheelhouse, especially since email and social media are such a powerful combination.

A successful email marketing campaign begins with one fundamental skill: writing effective subject lines.

Poor subject lines can kill your email campaigns. Your emails will be ignored, deleted, or worse, caught in spam filters. An unseen message is wasted effort.

The copywriting trainers at American Writers and Artists teach “The Four U’s” approach to writing headlines. An email subject line is really nothing more than a modified headline, so the same principles apply:

  1. Be useful to the reader.
  2. Provide readers with a sense of urgency.
  3. Convey that the main benefit is somehow unique.
  4. Do all of the above in an ultra-specific way.

A subject line that captures all four points should get people to open your email, although writing a great headline doesn’t guarantee the success of your email’s body content. Of course, these are just the fundamentals that lead to more opens and a higher read-rate. To help achieve them, ask yourself these four questions before you hit send:

1. Did I identify myself?

When you receive an email, what prompts you to open it? Beyond the headline, it has much to do with who is sending the message. Identify yourself (and the content of your message) from the beginning, and you’ll begin the recognition cycle off on the right foot. Usually this means using the same email address, but you can do it in a subject line as well. For instance, when our friends at MarketingProfs have a whitepaper or eBook available, they’ll include “[Download]” in the subject line.

2. Am I being clear or clever?

Spammers lean pretty heavily on the combination of unique and urgent, cramming subject lines full off words like “free,” “reminder,” “help,” “call now,” and “discount.” And you know what happens? We click delete, or the subject lines are so egregious that they get caught in spam filters, never to be seen.

Resist the temptation to be witty in your subject lines. Simple, direct headlines perform best to get your email opened and read and, if you’ve done everything right, activate some behavior like downloading a new whitepaper.

3. Is my subject line timely?

Use urgency when it’s useful, like a deadline or compelling reason to act now. Special offers and discounts can be very effective when people know exactly how much time they have to act. A good headline captures that clearly and concisely.

4. Can I shorten it?

Nobody likes to see a long, tumbling headline in their inbox, so drive the message home in as few words as possible. Remember, useful and specific rules the day. If you can say it in three words, don’t write it in five.

It takes a lot to get someone to trust you enough to volunteer his email address to your database. When you capture an email address from a form on your website, you have an opportunity to build a meaningful relationship with the person on the other end of that address. You need to stuff those emails with value-and a well-written subject headline sets expectations immediately.

What are your tips for a killer subject line?

A version of this article originally appeared on the Vocus blog.

Topics: PR

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