Email Marketing: 7 make-or-break decisions about the subject line

Attention e-marketers: Ignore the small things at your peril.

It’s the eve of your latest email campaign. You’ve been preparing for weeks. You feel good about your prospects as you draw closer to hitting the send button and letting the world know who you are and what you have to offer. Then someone asks what the subject line should say.

Believe it or not, your response to this question is the pivotal moment in your campaign.

The subject line of your email is the first and most critical point of contact with your audience. If you don’t pay careful attention to those 50 or 60 characters, recipients won’t bother to open your email, and all of your efforts will be in vain.

That’s a lot of weight to shoulder for a half-dozen words, so it’s important to select them very carefully. And how do you do that? Here are some tips.

1. Branding: Subject Line or From Line?

Just like a direct mail piece, every iota of space in a marketing email is important, even the from line. A common mistake is to have the name of your company in both the from line and the subject line. Be honest. Is your company or organization name really so compelling it will make the recipient say, “Wow, I just gotta open this email?” Probably not.

Which example do you find more interesting?

From: Big Thing Company
Subject: Big Thing Company Newsletter, Spring


From: Big Thing Company
Subject: 6 Big Ideas You Can’t Afford To Ignore

Brand yourself in the from line and save the subject line for your persuasive pitch.

2. Length: Long or Short?

Subject lines have a lot in common with newspaper and magazine headlines, which tend to be short, succinct, and enticing. A good headline captures and conveys the essence of the article in a way that demands attention. It makes every word count. In the same way, a good subject line should capture the essence of your email and grab the recipient’s attention.

Although many consider 50 characters a rule of thumb, don’t limit your subject line to an arbitrary length. One camp argues a subject line should never be more than 40 characters, while another insists you can write an effective subject line of 70 or more characters. The key is to let your message be your guide. Short subject lines work, and so do long ones. It’s the content that counts.

Just be sure to put the key information first and be careful that the line doesn’t break on a crucial word or phrase. One easy way to check this is to send an email to yourself with your test subject line.

3. Numbers: Are They Part of the Equation?

Absolutely. Numbers in subject lines attract attention. In fact, the highest open rates we’ve received for our inSights eNewsletter were for articles with subject lines containing numbers. Here are two examples:

8 Marketing Truisms for a Tough Economy
Presentations: 8 mistakes everyone makes

Numbers give a subject line immediacy. “These are the five things you must know.” They also set psychological parameters for an article, signaling the reader that they will find bite-sized chunks of useful information and not a time-draining tome.

4. Interest Motivators: How Many?

In as succinct and engaging a way as possible, you want to include interest motivators in your subject line. These are words or phrases or names that jump out and catch people’s attention.

Make a list of words and phrases in your email that will really entice your recipients. Here are some examples:

You’re having a sale:
Save Now on Our Finest Linens

You’re running a specific promotion:
Purchase Three of Our Most Popular Tires, Get the Fourth Free

You’re sponsoring an event with a well-known speaker:
Tiger Woods on Discovering the Winner Inside You

You want to create a sense of urgency:
Three Days Left to Book Your Alaska Cruise

The number of interest motivators is variable depending on your message, but the more you can include, the wider a net you cast with your recipients. Interest motivators also help you focus on the marketing benefit of your message.

5. Tone: Statement or Story?

Far too many email subject lines are factual statements lacking any pizzazz — or necessary detail. Surely, you’ve received some of these dullards in your inbox:

Organization XYZ Email Newsletter May 2009
Acme Company Communicator, Volume 9

Snore. (You already know what month it is. And do you really care about volume numbers?) Strive to make your subject lines stories, rather than statements.

Instead of a statement:
From: Big Thing Company
Subject: Bill, your May issue of Big Thing newsletter is here

Tell a story:
From: Big Thing Company
Subject: Basic branding no-no’s

Here are other examples of subject lines that begin to tell a story:

Forget consensus! Lead with vision
7 tips for recession-proof merketing
Why aren’t you refreshing your web content?
How to repair a damaged digital reputation

6. Case: Title or Sentence?

This Is Title Case. This is sentence case.

Yes, we’re talking about capital letters. And, yes, they’re important.

You’ll find as many opinions on title case vs. sentence case as you will on subject line length. Title case works, and so does sentence case. Let the content guide you. If you’re a close reader, you’ve probably noticed we’ve been jumping back and forth in this article between title case and subject case. This is purposeful. We like both, depending on the subject line content.

Here are some general pointers:

If your subject line is a sentence, use sentence case:
Why aren’t you refreshing your web content?
Forget consensus! Lead with vision

If your subject line is short and headline-like, use title case:
Tough Economy: 8 Marketing Truisms
Presentations: 8 Mistakes Everyone Makes

If you are promoting a sale or a special offer, title case adds importance:
Purchase Three of our Most Popular Tires, Get the Fourth Free

7. Testing: What Works and What Doesn’t?

If you fish, you understand this point implicitly. You might start with a lure. If nothing happens, you switch to a fly. If that isn’t working, you move on to bait. You test different approaches until you find one that drives the fish crazy.

Test your subject lines. You can try out variations of the line on different segments of your mailing lists or, less formally, you can run lines past ad hoc focus groups at your company to see which ones prove strongest.

And now we’d like to test you. Here are several possible subject lines for this article. (Yes, you received one of these in your inbox.) Which is your top choice? Which one meets your criteria for a successful subject line?

Email Marketing: Ignore the subject line at your peril
Email Marketing: 7 make-or-break decisions about the subject line
Email Subject Lines: 7 tips before you hit send
Email Marketing: How 50 characters can ruin your campaign
Email Marketing: Before you send, did you check the subject line?