Writing effective email subject lines

Make sure your email gets opened – here’s how to write great email subject lines. Excerpts from a Q and A with an email expert.

Writing effective email subject lines

This is an excerpt from an interview with our colleague Karen Zapp, an email expert. Karen Zapp writes for nonprofits (charities and associations), and  B2B companies. Apply these answers to your own email subject lines and boost your open rates.

Q: What should be considered when writing email subject lines? How can people make it more effective?

First off, the goal of email subject lines is to get recipients to start reading the first paragraph. A catchy subject line often helps. With regard to newsletters, for example, do NOT use the same subject line for every issue. For any type of email don’t get so clever that it becomes obscure. Clarity trumps cleverness every time.

Q: What process do you use to write email subject lines?

Step 1
Before I write anything I determine the purpose of the email. Generically speaking the purpose of an email is to get people to click through to a landing page. It’s on the landing page where you persuade people to donate, to join, to download an article, to electronically sign a petition to Congress, or to buy a product. Therefore I need to know what the conversion is on the landing page so I can get the subject line and email aimed in that direction.
Step 2
Knowing the purpose and roughly what I’ll say in the body of the email, I write possible email subject lines. Sometimes I’ll nail it right out of the gate. Other times I’ll fire off anywhere from 2 – 6 and choose later. And if it makes sense for the campaign, I’ll recommend split testing subject lines so I’ll need two strong ones before I’m done.


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Step 3
Write the email. Revise the subject line as necessary.

Q: Do you recommend using formulas to write email subject lines? If so, please share those you like best.

Here are the top five guidelines I recommend:

  1. SHORT: 2 or 3 words. If it’s longer, make the first two words the most impactful. Most email software allows 50-60 characters (not much) to display in a subject line. But if your subscribers are using a mobile device, it may be as few as 10 characters.Get to the point fast!
  2. URGENCY: Cite a deadline, a date, or a phrase that clearly expresses how their help or action is needed now. It might even be a “reminder” of a pending deadline.
  3. USE A NUMBER: People respond to numbers whether it’s in a headline, subject line, or wherever.
  4. CURIOUSTY & BENEFIT: Combine them, or use one or the other. Arouse their curiosity by hinting at, or citing a benefit they’ll receive by reading the email. This works for nonprofits or for-profit organizations.
  5. EMOTION: Appeal to an emotion and stir it up. It might be loyalty, anger, patriotism, sympathy, and on it goes. It all depends on what you’re promoting. For example: I write many emails for nonprofits serving veterans and I often appeal to their sense of patriotism, their pride in serving America in our Armed Forces.

Four examples follow:

Birds disappearing (An environmental charity. It’s short, and also implies an urgency supporters of the cause would respond to. Curiosity is sparked because they want to know WHY the birds are disappearing, where, and how many?)

Book Sale July Only (Might be used by an association that offers professional development books to members – urgency and the benefit of saving money.)

73 and alone – Martha looks for hope (A charity serving seniors. Although longer, the punch is at the beginning. Combines a number, stirs emotion, and implies that the reader is Martha’s hope and as such, has the benefit of helping someone in need.)

4 Answers Spike Email Response (Used a number and combined curiosity with a benefit. Curious as to what answers to what questions? And the benefit is higher response rates.)

Q: How do you test subject lines?

Let’s take the basic example of an A/B split test.

Randomly choose names from your file/list. Send two identical email messages with different subject lines to the group. 50% receive subject line “A” and 50% receive “B.” Evaluate response with both open rates and click-through rates.

Send the subject line with the best overall response to the remainder of your list.

Peter, all that being said there are few – if any – absolutes in marketing. Your readers should use what I’ve shared as starting points and then test to discover what works best for their organization.

One last tip: Make time to write strong subject lines. They have a tremendous impact on the success of any email.

About us

LevinsonBlock is a Brooklyn-based healthcare marketing agency that specializes in mid-sized organizations. Our clients include healthcare providers such as FQHCs, disease foundations, and healthcare technology firms.
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