Win the Inbox: Subject Lines Dos and Don’ts Part 1


How to Write Better Subject Lines for Better Open Rates

As I’ve mentioned before in other Win the Inbox episodes, maintaining open rates is essential. But what if your open rate is stuck? Even if you’re around or beating industry averages, which are 20% or so, you know there are some lists that are absolutely crushing those numbers. How do they do it?

The key to getting that all-important open is, of course, the subject line.

But because there is so much to cover on subject lines alone, I can’t possibly get it all done in my promised three minutes or less. So to make it all work, the next FIVE Win the inbox episodes are devoted to subject line dos and don’ts, and that includes the subject line’s important companion, the preview, or preheader, text.

So, welcome to this episode, part one of five of the “Subject Line Series” – and the first of three parts on the DOs of writing compelling subject lines that get your emails read.

I’m Phil Hollows, CEO of email service provider, and this is “Win the Inbox” where I cover one email marketing question in three minutes or less.


Before I get into these “subject line hacks” I must make this point: None of these tips matter if you make the topic about you, and not the recipient. Once more for the people in the back: Make your subject line about the reader, and her needs. Start from there first.

So the very first tip is this:

Do connect with the reader.

People are complicated, and what resonates will vary. But every one of us has fears, pain, desires, aspirations, our sense of self-worth – and our insecurities too. We all have the things that make us feel empowered, and the things we run away from.

Positive, uplifting email subject lines that speak to growth and success work very well; but sometimes exciting the darker side of your audience can also be remarkably effective, especially if it’s a little out of character with the rest of your mailstream. Whatever you do, you have to pull the reader in, and quickly.

Do be authentic.

If the subject line doesn’t fit you, it won’t fit your audience.

Do be relevant, and truthful.

Don’t waste the trust you’ve built. You need sustained open rates time after time. A deceptive one-off may get you instant gratification, but won’t cut it in the long run.

Do be brief.

Only the first five words or so, or about 50 characters, can fit on a phone’s screen. It’s ok to go longer for other email apps, but it’s important to make your point early. Try to cut your subject line down to just one or two words – it’s a great exercise, and very effective if you can pull it off.

Do ask rhetorical questions.

It creates intrigue, stimulates thought, and stokes curiosity. But be sure to ask open ended, and not yes / no, questions, because if the reader mentally replies “no” then they’ll never open your mail.

Do mention keywords that click with your list:

Examples include store names, brands, hot industry topics, personalities, dates and holidays. For example, “Black Friday” is a great keyword to use. Add in “Walmart” or “Target”? Boom!

If your keyword speaks both to those who are hopeful and those to who are fearful, so much the better. For example, for NFL fans, “Read Why Tom Brady’s Career Is Over” speaks to New England Patriots supporters’ fears, and everyone else’s not-so-secret hopes. As a subject line, it covers both sides of the emotional coin, no matter which team the subscriber supports. It’s a win.

Do personalize, especially on transactional and targeted emails.

Think beyond the recipient’s first name here. For example, if you’re selling oil changes, mention my car’s make and model year, and the last time I came in.

And … that’s it for part one! Since there’s a lot here – and lots of sometimes conflicting advice about email marketing subject lines online – you have to test. Try something, review the results, then try again. You need find an approach that works for both you and your audience.

If you found this helpful, please like, share and subscribe. You can catch all the “Win the Inbox” episodes at I’m Phil Hollows, and I’ll see you next time with part two in the series of Subject Line tips.

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