5 Steps to Improve Your Email Subject Lines

What’s it take to create the perfect subject line? My first response is usually a copywriter. Not just for the single line of poetry that is the subject line—but how it connects to your campaign and reveals the content. If writing your subject line is the last step you undertake before sending your email, that’s fine and not unlike magazine covers. But too often I think “last step” is metaphoric for harried, slapdash work.

Before jumping into the subject of subject lines with our five steps, let’s take a moment to consider the job of the subject line. You want your recipient to open your email. You might argue that open rates are not as important nor directly representative of the conversation rate–it’s an analytical debate for the metric minded. For our needs, the open rate leads to the sale. That is, you can’t have the success metrics without the recipient opening your email. But to convert viewers, your subject line needs to be straightforward and truly representative of the content. This segues nicely into our first step.

Step 1: Keep it simple and informative

Make a simple statement. You have about 50 character spaces. Explain what’s inside your email. Tell don’t sell. And that’s it folks. If the offer is bad, rewriting it to sound good is not effective. This is where open rates and conversion rates are out of whack. But if you make a simple, direct statement about a solid bit of news or offer… Of course, simplicity is sometimes not so simple.

If you try for heavy sales messaging and the ad lingo to match, you won’t discover much success. For direct mail, banks and credit card companies have mastered the art of the plain white envelope with a single statement: “Account information enclosed.” This style connected with a recognized business name has been proven effective time and time again. The same is true for your email campaigns and the “from” and “subject” lines and how they work together.

It’s instructive to consider the emails that are the most popular with the highest open rates. These would be emails forwarded from friends, family, and colleagues; and business or transactional replies, such as a Welcome to the Online Community confirmation. If the recipient knows your company, trusts you, there’s surely more impetus to keep it simple. When the “from” and “subject” lines work together, the most popular email subject lines with the highest open rates tend to be things like: “Our upcoming events schedule,” or “We’re throwing a party.”

Step 2: Write with audience and long-term marketing goals in mind

Don’t write your subject lines with sales-heavy messages. Here’s a little about email’s direct-mail heritage. It’s a cautionary tale, interesting and informative, for writers to have a little background in the art of direct sales. Traditionally for direct mail marketers, a good copywriter was analogous to a salesperson who could type. The goal was always unflinchingly direct—improve ROI with short-term sales tactics. So direct mail copywriters became the arbiters and experts of junk mail and their writing typifies a sideshow barker—”But, wait! There’s more! What would you expect to pay for these additional steak knives?”

Spam-style Email marketers followed suit, adopting tactics with FREE always capitalized and unadulterated punctuation abuse with far too many exclamation points!!!! In other words, the marketing channel became a sales channel with heavy sales messaging. The result was spam. In fact, too much capitalization and bad punctuation in the subject line can send your email directly to most spam filters.
While marketing delivery vehicles change, this fundamental question remains: Should marketing support and be subservient to sales, or vice versa? IMHO: the job of marketing is to make sales unnecessary. Nowhere does this seem truer than in an email subject line. So, my advice: don’t write your subject lines with sales-heavy messages.

Step 3: Segment and personalize your messages

Obviously knowing who the folks are on your list and knowing what they want to receive is an extraordinary bit of IQ for your marketing efforts. Ideally, you want to personalize your subject lines based on the segment. This is a powerful approach. Try including the recipient’s name and referencing things like purchasing history, previous Web visits, or products that connect to their preferences.

This is especially important when considering the type of email that your recipient signed up to receive. The email and therefore the subject line should be consistent with their subscription. Is the content of the email relevant to this member? If someone expects an email newsletter but receives a coupon offer that you’ve decided to email to your entire list, you’ll watch your open and unsubscribe rates climb together. On the other hand, if you have segmented your list properly and offer several subscription options, people who signed up for coupons should see a simple, promotional message like: 20% Off Coupon Inside. This offer connected to a “from” line that’s recognized will work well for you. For promotional emails, you can segment your list further depending on your products and services – for instance: cowboy boots and cologne are for men, or for women as a gift sales effort.

Step 4: Inject a sense of urgency

Each subject has a verb. Use a verb and call to action, especially with deadlines to impart a fast approaching date. Engage your reader with a hook. Keep in mind, the job of your subject line is just to encourage a recipient to want to open to learn more. That’s it. You don’t have to give away the entire story.

Deadlines, money, and strong verbs will help you impart that sense of urgency. “Order today for 20% off” or “Act Fast for Your Chance to Win”. As mentioned above, these promotional messages are only truly effective if the “from” line is recognized and the recipient wants to shop or consider your product or service. If you have an email newsletter, see step one: keep it simple. Just write the name of the newsletter and the issue number. Their desire to read your newsletter should provide enough urgency for successful campaigns.

Step 5. Test your subject lines

Of course, the discussion on your subject line approach and creative opinions change dramatically with testing. There’s a reason TV Guide will print as many as 24 different covers. Ideally, you should test subject lines on a segment of your list. See what works. But pay close attention to all the metrics, not just open rates. Examine what’s happening once folks open the email to truly determine the value of your subject lines and to see how the messages play for various segments from your list.

I think these five steps are a good launching pad for subject line considerations. I hope they work out for you. Drop us a comment and share your subject line success stories.

Amir Farid

Amir Farid

Creative SEO Director at Umbrella Interactive Ltd
Amir Farid is the Creative SEO Director of Umbrella Interactive Ltd. Based in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, Umbrella Interactive provides online and digital media solutions to SME's and start-up businesses. Umbrella Brands include Umbrella Host, SEO Umbrella and Umbrella Web Studio. You Can find him on Google+
Amir Farid


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