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Subject Lines that Grab and Don’t Let Go

by Justin Palmer - December 13th, 2007

Subject lines are the first, and sometimes only, impression an email makes on a customer. Mastering this magical one-liner is not easy. The key here is to diversify your email subject line. Any one of the ideas below, if used too frequently, will lose its efficacy.

  1. Compound Topics: I’ve seen this used regularly by Karmaloop. They cram about as many topics, brands, or product names into the subject line as possible, in hopes that something will grab the users attention. In order for this strategy to work, it’s important to still keep the subject line scan able by breaking up the topics. I personally like using the “+” symbol. (“New Nike + Reebok + Addidas Shoes!” vs. “New Nike, Reebok, and Addidas Shoes”)
  2. Short and Simple: If you can communicate the topic email in 2 words rather than 6, you’ll stand apart from the rest of the inbox clutter.
  3. Use Special Characters: I like using special characters in order to communicate ideas and create eye magnets. Below are a couple of suggestions:
    • New Widgets = Great Gifts
    • Huge $avings on Widgets
    • { New Widgets, In-Stock Now }
    • New Widgets @!
  4. Question Marks and Exclamation Points: Creative use of Question marks and exclamation points within subject lines can stress urgency or create curiosity in the mind of the subscriber. I like combining the 2 and creating something like “50% Off All Widgets?!”
  5. Top 10 Lists: There’s something so attention grabbing about top 10 lists (or top 7, 13, or whatever). People want valuable information in bite-size, scan-able chunks. A list delivers value that can’t be achieve by endless paragraphs, even if they contained the same information.
  6. All Caps: Once considered a spam trigger, I believe all caps is back on the table. I frequently see it used by large companies that would probably not be doing it if it was harmful to the delivery rate. However, I would suggest only using all caps on special occasions. In addition, I think it’s much more effective to capitalize only 1 word in the subject rather than the whole thing. ( “HUGE Sale this Friday Only” vs. “HUGE SALE THIS FRIDAY ONLY” )
  7. Use Magical Word “Free”: It sounds trite, but “free” still works. With less ISPs nitpicking on words like this in the subject line, it shouldn’t hurt your delivery rate.
  8. Use the Recipient’s Name: Let’s face it, we love to hear our name. Adding the recipient’s name to the subject line will make them believe the message is personalized for them. I would strongly caution, however, not to use this tactic unless something in the email is personalized for this individual. Simply appending the name to the beginning of a subject line, and not delivering personalized content, is gimmicky.
  9. Leave them hanging: Subject lines that end with an … (an ellipsis) suggest there is a continuation of the topic within the body of the email. An example of this might be “Checkout these new widgets…” or something similar.
  10. Make them Witty: If appropriate with your demographic, use witty subject lines that make your readers smile. Threadless is a master of witty subject lines.
  11. Solution Oriented Subject: Rather than using product or brand names in the subject, consider writing from a solution oriented perspective. For example, a site selling anti-Spyware software might consider using a subject line like “How to get rid of Spyware Forever” rather than a product oriented subject such as “Brand New Spyware Software Released.”
  12. Don’t Be Gimmicky: If your subject line is “How to Live Forever” and the content of your email is offering a new alternative health supplement, your readers will eventually see through your gimmicks. The subject should be intriguing, but not over-promising.

The key to successful subject lines is a/b testing. Without solid data, there’s no guarantee any of these tips will necessarily improve your
open rates. Every subscriber list is different, so it’s essential that you understand what works for your list.

As always, be sure to leave comments with any other successful subject line tactics you’ve seen.

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5 Responses to “Subject Lines that Grab and Don’t Let Go” by Justin Palmer

  1. Tim McGuiness Says:

    I wonder about #7 – sometimes I think “free” has been used to death.

    I’ve done some testing recently that seemed to show that “free” actually lowered conversion rates. I ran them a few times in different ways and the results were consistent.

    Was it because I was targeting a more sophisticated/jaded market? Maybe.
    But it’s something I’m watching.

    Your suggestion for A/B testing is spot on. Every market behaves differently.

    I’ve tested using a question (#4) and am convinced it improves rates. I can’t wait to try combining them!? Should do well for the chess players out there { In chess notation, ?! means a dubious idea & !? means an interesting, new idea }

  2. palmerwebmarketing Says:

    I agree, “free” definately attracts a different audience. I’ve found that offering a freebie in the email does increase the open and click-through rates, but it doesn’t do much for the overall purchase conversion rate.

  3. SEO Canada Says:

    Great tips, just make sure you don’t use too many special characters or you’ll end up in my spam folder :)

  4. Bloggers Digest - 12/21/07 - Get Elastic Ecommerce Blog Says:

    [...] Justin Palmer gives some fabulous tips on writing email subject lines. [...]

  5. SEO Pakistan Says:

    Studies show that only the first 45 characters of the subject line grab a reader’s attention. It is therefore crucial to spend some time developing and testing your subject line.

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