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Five Boring Keys to Better Subject Lines

Travis Sharp By Travis Sharp

The average American receives over 400 commercial emails a month, and most of those on weekdays. I must be on the high side of that average, because I could swear I get 400 a day. It’s probably surprising to no one that most of those emails are never opened.

That’s a bummer. As marketers, we spend a lot of time crafting email content, packing it with real value, and tailoring it to the recipient. If only our recipients had opened it and taken a peek!

That’s where the redheaded step-third-cousin of marketing executions, the subject line, steps in. It’s the last thing we think about when crafting emails, but it’s arguably the most important.

And it doesn’t follow the rules of ad copy.

We’re never going to get a 100% open rate on our emails, even if we put a $100 Amazon gift card in them. But we can change the way we think about subject lines to increase our open rates significantly:

1. Don’t write a headline.

In our marketing world, clever wordplay and dramatic offers are the norm. Many marketers’ tendency is to apply the same criteria to a subject line. But if we’re applying best practices, a subject line should seem “boring” compared to other lines.

That’s OK. Our subject line’s goal isn’t to make readers laugh, cry, or scratch their heads. It’s to get them to open the email.

Keep your subject line short and descriptive of what’s inside. Focus on the benefit to the recipient. Avoid splashy, cheesy phrases or “ad speak”—these are all proven ways to reduce your open rates.

Of course, we have to do this in an honest way. If we did say “Here’s your $100 Amazon gift card,” we’d get great open rates. If there were no card inside, we’d get huge unsubscribe rates.

The best subject lines simply tell what’s inside. The worst try to sell what’s inside.

Nope: Don’t Turnip Your Nose at this Root Awakening!

Yep: Reggie’s Veggies Brings Heirloom Turnips to Boston

2. Identify the sender (that’s you).

Subject lines that identify the sender get higher open rates.

You might be thinking, “Don’t they see our company’s name right beside the subject line?” You’re right, it’s there. But the numbers don’t lie.

Think of it this way. As your recipients are scanning their virtual pile of unread emails, they’re making a split-second decision: To open or to delete? Let’s make it easy, and stick our name right there in the subject line. When they see that trusted source (you) right in the subject, they’re more likely to open.

Nope: Turkey Flambé Recipe

Yep: Turkeyco’s Award-Winning Turkey Flambé Recipe

3. De-spam-ify.

The first spam email went out on May 3, 1978. It was sent to 400 ARPAnet users, and of course it was trying to sell something (computers). Since then, we’ve learned to hate hate HATE spam email. We have spam filters, spam blockers, and we delete anything that resembles spam.

So we need to be perfectly clear in our subject line that our emails are not spam. We start by identifying ourselves (see number 2 above). And we finish by avoiding spam words and tactics.

You know the words: free, guaranteed, approved, affordable, winner, and many more. We should also avoid ALL CAPS, dollar $ign$, numerals, and exclamation points. Keep them out of your subject lines—even if you think they’re justified.


Yep: Your Birthday Coupon from CakeCo

4. Keep it fresh.

Does your email program have a name? Do you use it in the subject line over and over? It should come as no surprise that your open rates will go down each subsequent mailing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a program name, it just means you don’t need it in the subject line.

Subject lines that suggest your email contains repeated information also have lower open rates. So avoid phrases like reminder, don’t forget, and last chance.

Adding seasonality can help a subject line sound fresh too. Consider mentioning the month, the season, or an upcoming holiday.

Nope: The Fluffingtown Post Issue 37: Sale Reminder

Yep: Pete’s Pets Winter Clearance Countdown

5. Get local.

If you can, localize your subject line. Mentioning the state is good. City is better. Neighborhood is great.

Localizing a subject line is a proven way to get a nice uptick in open rates. Data suggest it’s a better tactic than including the recipient’s name, believe it or not. Actually, I’m not that surprised. I find it a little creepy when companies put my name in the subject line.

Nope: Hi Travis, do you like hot sauce?

Yep: Pepperassco Hot Sauce Turns Atlanta to Hotlanta

Understandably, my clients sometimes hesitate at these “boring” subject lines. But to paraphrase the 14th century proverb, the proof of the pudding is in how many people open the pudding cup. Open rates are easy to test, so if you’re still unsure, apply these techniques and test your results.