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Best Subject Lines for Email Marketing Provoke Subscribers

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The best email subject lines provoke subscribers into responding. Their appeal depends on subjects that are interesting or important.

Sex, violence and controversy attract print readers, TV viewers and online visitors alike. They also work for email marketing subject lines.

It is a somewhat inescapable fact that the most provocative headlines, TV shows and websites appeal to some of the baser instincts of people. The evidence is overwhelming.

Email marketing is not so different. That is not to say that the best subject lines for email marketing need sex, violence or controversy to maximize their open rates.

But it is no surprise that a news email for a client had its highest open rate ever with the headline: “Runner, mother of two, killed in early morning crash.”

The second best open rate: “Snow plow driver killed in Ashburn.”

The third best: “Elementary school teacher charged with drunk in public.”

The numbers clearly indicate that enticing and provocative subject lines work best while boring lines (no surprise) get much lower open rates.

Enticing someone to open an email also is not limited to sex, violence or controversy. Other enticements include money, humor and useful information that has some intrinsic value.

It helps to think in terms of the motivations and interests of the target audience.

6 Subject Line Practices

  1. Keep it less than 50 characters.
  2. Use numbers when possible.
  3. Use strong verbs.
  4. If available, include a location for geographic affinity.
  5. Now and then try punctuation such as question marks.
  6. Use A/B testing.

Keep the length less than 50 characters.

Research has shown that the ideal length of a subject line is less than 50 characters. That works out to about eight to 10 words.

People scan information online whether the information is on a website or an email reader. Time is valuable.

Use numbers when they are likely to help entice the subscriber.

For example, a how-to email may increase the open rate if it says “Discover 10 Best Ways to Create a Butterfly Garden” rather than “Tips on Creating a Butterfly Garden.”

Use Numerals.

Numerals are better than spelling out the number. Numerals use less space and they are easier to read.

Use verbs whenever possible.

The use of verbs in a subject line adds energy to the line. It is a standard practice in many media outlets to use verbs in headlines for that reason.

The above example using “bans” is a good example of a verb that attracts attention. Other verbs that evoke a strong response include:

  • Sell
  • Discount
  • Deal
  • Grab
  • Destroy
  • Kill
  • Murder
  • Steal
  • Arrest
  • Oppose
  • Fight
  • Lure

Email newsletter marketing tipsUse a location if that location is relevant to the subscriber.

In the case of a news email targeting an audience in a geographic location, the subject line of “Richmond Council Bans Handguns in City” is more likely to be opened than “Council Bans Handguns in City” if the target audience lives in the Richmond area.

Location also works well with other small business categories than local newspapers. Someone who lives in the Austin, Texas, suburb of Dripping Springs is more likely to open a retail email if they know from the subject line it came from one in the same community.

Use A/B Testing.

Online A/B testing is the practice of providing the same information two different ways to members of the same audience.

In the case of email marketing, one subject line goes to half the audience, another subject line goes to the other half.

For example, one version can have one subject in the subject line while the other version can have two subjects.

Analytics over time may show that one tactic works better than the other. But it usually takes multiple tries to find which method works best.

Multiple Subjects in One Subject Line

Some newsletters put more than one subject in a subject line to be more enticing. The practice is a mixed blessing.

The approach might work if the newsletter has two great subjects that lend themselves to just a few words each.

Using the previous examples, the subject line “Mother killed while jogging; teacher drunk in public” requires eight words and 52 characters. It is short enough and punchy enough to draw attention.

But “Mother killed jogging; teacher publicly drunk; snow plow driver killed” requires nine words and 69 characters. Three subjects aren’t as easily scanned as two. Removing extra words will increase the enticement.

A newsletter developer can observe the standard practice by signing up for multiple letters and seeing how other publishers handle the choice of one subject versus more than one. Anecdotally, the industry seems to favor just one subject.

Track Results and Learn from Them

One of the greatest single advantages for email marketers who use a platform like MailChimp or Constant Contact is the ability to track the open rates of their emails.

Over the course of time, it becomes more apparent what subject lines work best and which ones don’t work at all.

Using the same news email list described above, it should be no surprise that the worst open rate came with a good news headline about a high school fund raiser: “Getting ragged for a good cause.”

So much for trying to spread good news.

It is not just that the above subject line lacks sex, violence, controversy, money or humor.

It also performed poorly because the target audience is interested in crime, government, politics, education and other hard news topics.

A retailer who mostly sells clothing has an email audience that knows and expects it to promote clothing. What if 20 email newsletters in a row promote clothing and the next one promotes kitchen utensils? The audience might have the same open and click rate, but it seems unlikely.

Know your audience, track results and watch the open rate grow.

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