How to Sharpen Your Subject Lines for Battle

4 min read

inside every inbox, a war for attention is raging. if your subject lines are dull, your emails will end up missing in action.

To borrow from the great American poet LL Cool J: Don’t call it a comeback. Not only has email been here for years, but it is currently enjoying one of its best years yet. Consider the following nugget from the Adobe Email Survey 2016:

Time spent checking email increased 17 percent Year-over-Year (YoY) and people expect email will remain the preferred way of communicating at work in five years…Nearly 70 percent check email while watching TV and 45 percent while in the bathroom.

It is slightly unnerving, but true: No matter where people are—at work, at home, in the john—they are checking their email. Therefore, as a marketer, you can’t afford not to give email its due attention. Every marketer worth her salt already is.

A Battleground for Attention

The popularity of email marketing has turned users’ inboxes into battlegrounds where hundreds of emails are competing daily for attention. And the subject line is the tip of the spear in the war for higher open rates. If it is dull, your email will die a grisly, dishonorable death (or at least get deleted).

That is why you must study, practice, and perfect the subtle art of the email subject line.

And make no mistake: Email subject line writing is an art. There is no formula to writing good ones. You won’t always be able to predict what will work. Subject lines that you think are dumb or boring will sometimes perform surprisingly well. Ones you think are brilliant will fall flat.

Therefore, the goal is to write mostly good ones. And the first step to doing that is devoting the proper time and effort to getting them right. As you embark on that journey, here are a few steps to guide you.

Five Guidelines for Better Subject Lines

Follow these rules and before long you’ll be writing better—and maybe even occasionally fantastic—subject lines.

  1. Write 50 subject lines for every email. Too many marketers treat subject lines as an afterthought, which is crazy since it is the only copy that your audience is guaranteed to see. Treat your subject line like the headline of a print ad: Write as many as it takes—at least 50—to get to the just the right one.
  2. Be (very, very) brief. And not just because brevity is the soul of wit. According to the aforementioned Adobe Survey, people are checking email on their smartphones more than ever (90% of the time for millennials). Long email subject lines won’t fit onto those screens. Write accordingly.
  3. Go negative. Sometimes. If the recent political discourse has taught us anything, it’s that negativity, for better or worse, resonates with people. Can you rouse your recipients to action with language that has a negative edge? It’s worth a try from time to time.
  4. Emojify your lines. We’re not saying you should include an emoji in every email subject line. That would get old fast. But marketers who have A/B tested emoji subject lines have found they can vastly improve open rates. It may seem silly, but it certainly can’t hurt trying.
  5. Don’t be “that guy.” Or “that girl.” Email is a very intimate medium. When you’re in a person’s inbox, you’re sharing space with their mom, their kid, and their best friend. Don’t be salesy, smarmy, or creepy. Be decent. Use conversational language. Talk to the recipient like you’d want to be talked to.

Oh, and Don’t Stop A/B Testin’.

You can follow the advice above and still be disappointed in your open rates. That’s why the most important rule of all is to test, test, test.

MailChimp, Well Done’s email software of choice, makes it super easy to A/B test subject lines. And once you start doing it, testing subject lines is actually kind of addictive. You may even find yourself waking up early in the morning, immediately opening your laptop, and obsessively reviewing the results of your most recent A/B test. And that, reader, is when you’ll know you’re on your way to becoming a true subject line artist.