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10 steps to better subject lines

1 December 2014
by Adam Oldfield

Interesting subject lines are to email what a ‘private and confidential’ stamped envelope is to direct mail. They’re used to build suspense so that the contact has opened and engaged before they realise it.

Countless studies have been done to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do within your subject lines, all with contradicting views and evidence. As a leader in the field of email marketing automation, we have devised our 10-step-plan to make sure you never put a foot wrong.

Step #1

Be it for better or for worse, email is a very different medium of communication to direct mail. Not least, because it eliminates the fear of the contents ending up in the wrong hands in the same way as DM. This means you can include some detail of what the user will find when they open. Do this wisely and it could just score you some extra opens.

Step #2

It’s swings and roundabouts because the lack of fear of it falling into the wrong hands is counteracted by the layers of spam detectors and junk folders you have to get through just to make sure you have a chance to speak to the right people. Always keep this in mind and tread carefully because deliverability is key.

Step #3

On a similar note, make sure that the subject line is absolutely relevant to the content within the email. Not only does this improve the deliverability and make the email more likely to be seen, it also builds your reputation with the contact as honest and reliable.


Suspense-building subject lines work extremely well in our experience, but again, make sure it’s relevant to the content within the email, or people will learn not to trust you, not to mention a low click through rate, which is the ultimate goal. Remember, you only want to speak to people who would potentially buy your service or product. Everyone else is deadweight so don’t try too hard to impress by pretending to be something you’re not.

Step #5

Your prospects are busy people. Who isn’t these days? They don’t have time for something that doesn’t clearly offer a direct benefit to them. Tell them why they should open. If you’re selling a specific product or service, tell them the main benefit it will bring. If it’s more generic, such as a cross-product sale, tell them what they could save, or better yet, what they could gain extra using the money they’ve saved. Paint them a picture so they can see it for themselves.

Step #6

If you’ve had a relationship with the contact in the past, particularly as a supplier, make sure they know about it. They’re much more likely to open your email and go on to engage further. It’s a free shot, so take it.

Step #7

In this day and age of technology, people have grown wise to the use of their names to grab their attention, but personalisation doesn’t just mean names. People tend to be much more responsive to other types, such as the City in which they live or their job title. Even though it’s all information that is easily captured, people are surprised that you know it about them, and where it’s relevant, it can help them see the benefit of what you’re offering more easily.

Step #8

Make sure you get step 7 right! We’ve all been the unfortunate recipient of an email not intended for us. Not only does it frustrate the reader, it will devalue all of the hard work put in to building your relationship with that contact. They like to think that the emails you send them are made for them and them alone, sending an email to the wrong person only highlights the fact that they’re not.

Step #9

If (heaven forbid) you make a fatal flaw and someone receives the wrong personalisation in their subject line, make sure you own up and apologise, as soon as physically possible. It may just be able to rebuild your reputation.

Step #10

We all know there are certain words that we should be avoiding, such as ‘free’, ‘save’ and ‘urgent’. But there are some other words, which show a significant drop in open rates that you maybe would expect, such as ‘help’ and ‘reminder’.

Photo of Adam Oldfield
Adam Oldfield
Managing Director & Founder

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