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Published August 23rd 2013

(No Subject): Five Tips for Constructing Effective Email Subject Lines

When it comes to email marketing, there are a lot of factors to consider while crafting your campaign, ranging from the very broad (how should you segment your lists; how often should you email your target audiences?) to the very specific (what time of day and what day of the week is best to send an email?). 

Experts in this field—and let us be clear here; I am most assuredly not one, though I’m also no stranger to this area—tend to agree on the answers to the questions asked in the broader realm.

When it comes to the narrow and specific, however, the “answers” get a bit murky, turning from outright declarations of what you should do to be successful into sweeping guidelines and overarching best practices, particularly in one small but critical area:  the email subject line.
Ah, the email subject line … the bane of every online marketer’s existence.

This one small component of your campaign is all too often overlooked and left until the very end of the process, as you’re performing final testing and prepping to schedule the drop.

There’s nothing wrong with saving it until last — in fact, I’d recommend this; you need to have a firm grasp on your content before you can create a compelling subject line, for starters —but you should include sufficient time in your campaign schedule for this particular item.   Here’s why.

The email subject line is nothing short of the keys to the kingdom.  The Holy Grail. The secret handshake.  The “open sesame” to … well, you get the point.  It can be your greatest strength, but as the cliché goes, it can also be your greatest weakness.

Think about it in terms of the countless emails you’re no doubt inundated with on a daily basis.

How do you judge whether an email in your inbox is worthy of your attention?  You look at who sent it and you look at the subject line.  If both of those are interesting enough, you open the email … and somewhere, you just made an email marketer very happy.
And if you go on to read the email and are intrigued enough to actually click on a Call to Action button and convert, that marketer is thrilled beyond belief, I promise.

The email subject line, then, is critical to launching your target audience down that path to conversion.  Thankfully, there a few guidelines that most experienced marketers agree on.


1/ Keep it short


According to Mailer Mailer’s latest Email Marketing Metrics Report, subject lines of just 4 to 15 characters resulted in the highest open rate last year, at 15.8%.  Longer subject lines also resulted in lower open rates.

The same holds true for click rates; with subject lines of 4 to 15 characters, Mailer Mailers reports a maximum click rate of 2.6%.  When subject lines exceeded 51 characters, the click rate declined to 1.6%.

Most email marketers agree:  Keep your subject lines to 50 characters or fewer.


2/ Keep it timely, descriptive, and interesting


Bottom line: You want your subject line to be timely and informative.  Constant Contact has a slightly unusual take on this.  They recommend thinking of your subject line as a tweet, which should be easy enough for those of us who are accustomed to communicating in short but effective bursts of 140 characters, max.

MailChimp also has some great advice on that front, advising would-be subject line auteurs that when it comes to subject lines, don’t sell what’s inside. Tell what’s inside.


3/ Include numbers

According to Constant Contact, including numbers in your email subject line not only helps to set reader expectations for what’s inside, it also implies that the content is relatively succinct, which increases the likelihood that your target audience will click through to read your email.

Some examples:

  • 5 Steps To Retiring at Age 50
  • Just 2 Days Left to Register for #Brandwatchers
  • 3 Tips to Social Monitoring Success


4/ Ask questions


It’s basic human nature: If we’re asked a question, we feel somewhat compelled to respond.  So why not include a question in your subject line?  MailChimp advises that subject lines phrased as questions often perform better, particularly when you keep the overall message straightforward.

Some other strong advice from those chimp email experts?  Avoid using promotional phrases, CAPS, or exclamation marks in your subject lines.


5/ And finally, include a call to action


This may seem pretty obvious, but urging people toward some sort of action (downloading a report, registering for a webinar, attending an event) inspires open rates and click throughs.  Just remember, you want your subject line to be timely while also relevant and fairly brief.  You want to be interesting and engaging while also being descriptive about what’s inside your email.

It may seem like a tall order, but here’s the thing: There’s no one single formula that works for every marketer at every company.  You need to experiment and test and experiment and test some more until you find the rhythm or groove that works for your company and for your audiences.

Good luck, and may the clickthrough rates be ever in your favor.


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