Email subject lines 8 best practice tips

We look at 8 ways to improve your email subject lines and drive your email open rates through the roof.

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Here’s a really simple tip that can make a huge difference to your email marketing. Get your email subject lines right first.

I have been involved heavily either day-to-day or in an advisory position on email marketing campaigns for close to a decade. The one thing I still see to this day is people focus entirely on their design and content first and then send out their emails assuming that the design will do the work. No! If no one opens your email then no one will ever see it and so therefore all your fantastic design, content or offers go to waste. As much thought should go into your email subject lines as goes into the development of your emails.

One study suggests that 35% of email recipients open email based on the subject line alone. The key word there is ‘alone’ this suggests that those recipients are not even factoring in the from name (your business) or from email as part of their decision to open your email. These three elements are all you have to help convince your audience that they should open your email.

I worked for a large investment bank a few years ago that had open rates of 35%+ due in part to them having a small but dedicated recipient list and they were a known brand. People would open emails even if the subject said “don’t open this” – I don’t suggest you trial that mind. But what do you do if you don’t have that dedicated list and you don’t have that big brand behind you?

You follow these 8 steps to writing and improving your email subject lines.

#1 What’s the email purpose and knowing your audience

So hopefully you already know your audience in broad terms but it’s best not to fall into a trap of assuming that every marketing channel and every email send is going to the exact same broad audience.

Firstly what is the purpose of your email? Are you informing your audience about a new product, promoting your brand or trying to sell something? Once you’ve established this you can think about crafting a subject line that gets across your end goal.

Next, who is your audience for this specific email? It could be that the audience you’re speaking to for a product sale is very different to that of a general monthly newsletter. You may be going out directly to 18-30 males and so your subject line language could and possibly should be very different to your global database newsletter.

This point is number one for a very good reason. If you haven’t established your purpose or your audience then the tips below will have a diminished impact.

#2 Personalise

So you know your audience. Let’s show them some love. Personalising a subject line gives you the opportunity to speak directly to your audience. For your audience this can add a level of credibility to your email. You have personal details, this suggests a connection and some previous interaction with your audience.

Personalisation in digital marketing in 2017 goes way beyond just email but personalising emails has been around for years and is incredibly easy to do. All you need is a database with your audience’s name and their email.

We (and many others, including leading email marketing platform Mailchimp) have seen big uplifts when personalising, in particular when working with smaller recipient lists. But that’s not to say we’ve not seen it on larger ones too. For example we once had an event we wanted to invite our audience to, we tried two subject lines:

  • Join us this Thursday for breakfast at town hall
  • David, join us for breakfast

The second subject line had an over 50% open rate increase just by adding in the persons name.

You can use personalisation to make your users feel special. One word of warning though, make sure your name field data is clean before you personalise. You don’t want to send out hundreds of emails to “davidsmith” or “cuddlebunny”. Nothing ruins the illusion of a personal approach quite like getting someone’s name wrong.

#3 Keep it short

Whilst researching the perfect character length of a subject line for this article we found hundreds of examples of blogs with hundreds of different sources. It’s the eternal question; “how long should my email subject line be?”.

All-in-all the general consensus seems to be you need to keep it below 50 characters with the most common length being 41-50 for desktop email clients. This should be plenty to let you write what you need and helps you stay concise.

Most email clients will cut off your subject line once it gets beyond a certain character length anyway so there’s no logic in straying too far from the 50 character mark.

For a large proportion of organisations your audience will not be opening your emails on a desktop but on a mobile device. This is where things get a little complicated. An iPhone or Android will display only around 30-40 characters in portrait mode and 70+ in landscape. This only scratches the surface of the different mobile options available, so outside of trying to keep all your subjects below 40 the best option is to once again know your audience.

If you’ve been sending emails for a while you should have a nice amount of benchmark data. This is a good time to leverage your send report stats. Most email platforms will tell you what email clients your audience are using and on what devices. Take a look at this report and if you have a huge skew toward desktop you can go with slightly longer subjects, otherwise, well, you’ll need to get creative!

#4 Questions and intrigue

A great way to get the attention and engage your audience is to ask them a question and/or add a level of intrigue to your subject. This may not work for everyone but why not tease what’s in the email rather than offering everything up front? That’s not to say we want to trick anyone (we’ll come to that).

There are a few ways you can do this. Firstly asking a question that you feel will resonate with your audience such as “Are you making these subject line mistakes?” or “Which is our number 1 recipe”.

By simply asking a question you are directly speaking to your audience, engaging them and daring them to open up your email to find out what the answer is. Hell, you can even combine this with some personalisation.

Another way to generate intrigue without the need for a question is to tease an event or an action. Sky do a really great job with this with recent subjects including “Don’t miss this” and “Reminder: It’s finally here”. I know the email is from Sky and I doubt that I’m going to miss anything but what if I am, I don’t want to be the only one to miss out. Open.

#5 Create urgency

A nice accompaniment to the last two points is to create urgency. Hubspot suggest that creating an element of urgency to your email subject lines can increase your open rate by 22%.

Creating a time or date deadline can encourage your audience to act right now and not to put it off for fear of missing out. Subjects such as “24 hour sale now on – don’t miss out” or “Huge discounts today only” not only convey the urgency you need but also offer a level of intrigue as they don’t specify exactly what the benefit is.

Another option – particularly if you have a fantastic offer or deal – is to really show off your offer, tell them what it is. It’s so good you only want to open the email to see if it’s true, oh and you only have a few hours to sign-up for it. “4 hours left to sign-up for just $9”

#6 Don’t be afraid of humour

If I was writing this article for a UK market I probably would have skipped over the integration of humour. It’s a grey area and one that many organisations will steer away from both in terms of brand/tone and risk vs reward. However, we are writing a blog about New Zealand email subject lines and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about advertising (on and offline) it’s that Kiwi’s and NZ brands love their humour. It’s weaved into so many campaigns that it’s hard to ignore it as an option here.

I don’t know about you but I get hundreds of emails per day from organisations that I have no connection with. Personally I’m likely to take more notice if I see a subject line that looks a little different and cuts through some of the altogether too serious emails I’m getting.

UK betting website Paddy Power is synonymous with humour, their brand is effectively built on it. It’s not my preferred betting platform but I do tend to open their emails more regularly than my preferred platform.

Option 1: Royal Ascot Offers
Option 2: It’s not the size of the boat…

In short, if you’ve got the brand for it, don’t be afraid to give it a go, it can have a big impact on your open rates vs a straight up run of the mill subject line. Just be careful not to go too far and test until you get the balance right.

#7 Subject line relevant to the email

A close relative to point number one. Your subject line should reflect the content of your email. Don’t miss-sell, whatever you’re offering or discussing in your subject should be front and centre when a user opens it up. Don’t undo all your good work in generating trust to then kill it by misleading. No one likes to be tricked, a sure fire way for your audience to get some use out of your unsubscribe link.

#8 Split test and segment

As a regular reader of this blog you will know that many of our blogs end with the simple suggestion to test, test and test some more. You can never do enough of it and no matter what any expert or blog says the only way you can know for sure that these suggestions work in your industry and for your audience is to test it. These tips are best practice insofar that they have been tried and tested by experts with a wide variety of brands, sectors and markets. It doesn’t mean they are right for everyone.

Luckily for us virtually every ‘top shelf’ email marketing platform will offer you the opportunity to split or A/B test your subject lines, they are generally very easy to get up and running. Check your provider’s user guides if you’re struggling.

Finally, segmenting, this could have been a point on its own but I like even numbers. We won’t go into depth about the how’s and whys of segmenting your emails here as the benefits of doing it extend way beyond just subject lines. Hubspot provide a nice breakdown on the subject of email segmentation.

Segmenting your recipient lists allow you to drill down your audience and provide them the most relevant content. For example, you could have a 24 hour sale subject line that’s based at your Wellington store. You wouldn’t want this to go out to people in Auckland as it’s totally irrelevant. By segmenting you can ensure that only your Wellington residents get the email and you don’t clutter up and anger your Auckland database with irrelevant emails.

In summary, with the exception of humour – which should be reviewed on a brand basis – it really can’t hurt to trial any/all of these suggestions. Just make sure you’re measuring the results and using the data to inform your next test.

Three bonus do not’s

Here are three things not to do.

  • Don’t use unnecessary punctuation
  • Don’t use capitals
  • Don’t make spelling mistakes, get it independently proof read before you send!
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