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Email Subject Lines: Best Practices

July 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Social Media

Spam in mailboxIn preparation for an Email Marketing 101 workshop I am developing, the discussion of Email Subject Lines kept popping up.

Why are Email Subject Lines so important?

Fact: They are the #1 factor in why your email gets opened, deleted or worse ignored!

So what is a Business to Do? How can they create great Email Subject Lines that will get their Emails Opened at a great rate? Here are a few secrets, tips and ideas that should help you on your open rate quest.

7 Key Rule ‘s of Thumb to Creating Great Email Subject Lines:

1) Avoid “Killer” Words:

Yes there are some very bad words to use in your subject lines. And no I am not talking “dirty words”, but words that do the same damage – they send your email right to the spam box.

  • Free
  • Guarantee
  • Save
  • Spam
  • Credit card

According to Mail Chimp, these words are not on the “bad” list, but they will decrease your open rates.

  • Help
  • Percent off
  • Reminder

2) Don’t use this stuff
So now you know what words to not use, now you have to be careful how you use them. Because even if you use the right words, you can capitalize, punctuate or misspell a few things and…. off to the SPAM box!

  • Don’t USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (they think you are screaming and spam box here you come!)
  • $$, &,*, and other symbols
  • Excessive punctuation “!!!!” or “?????”

3) Keep it Short and Simple

This is one rule I struggle with, how to keep it short. As a blackberry addict (I am in full blown addiction) I can attest that the short subject line is key – because as mobile email grows – that long subject line gets cut off – and who wants that? However, as with every “rule” for Email marketing, their can be exceptions to this rule. Long subject lines are great if you have a highly targeted audience (which is the master goal) but for that general newsletter list – not ideal.

  • Max words to use in a subject line: 50 characters or less (that means count the spaces not just letters)

4) Change it up! Don’t repeat the same Subject Line for Newsletters.

Let’s face it, do you *Really* want to open an email titled “March Newsletter”. Okay, neither did I. So stop doing it (and yes – you know who you are). Give it a subject line that tells what is inside.

  • Bad: “Newsletter for March”
  • Good: “Secrets to Keeping your Computer Healthy”

5) Grow, Nurture, Love, Feed and Water Reguraly

The true secret to getting great open rates is keeping your list fresh. If you create a interesting, fun, and valuable emails, your open rates will go up. Why, because you will have invested in your readers, so they invest in you by opening each one of your emails. This is where the term “quality over quantity” is so key.

  • Question: What would you rather have? List A:  10,000 names with open rates of  12% or List B:  4,200 names with open rates of 35%?
  • Answer:   List B: 1,470 opened emails   List A = 1,200 emails

6) Personalization,  Localization and Bears:  Oh My!

Mail Chimp conducted a study that found personalization such as including a recipient’s first name or last name in the Subject Line did not significantly improve open rates. In my experience, this depends! When a client has just purchased something (Thanks for your purchase Jane) or something is wrong (Jane, Your account is on Hold) will make the email open rates soar and create a more personal touch.

Same thing applies for the other finding from Mail Chimp. The study found providing localization, such as including a city name, does help open rates. Is this true for your list? Is your list even reaching outside of your city? If your company is based in Houston- how would putting this in your email Subject Line impact your open rate? This is another one of those rules that really is a “depends”.

7) Ignore the Rules because it depends on the list. So Test.

Yes, after all of these rules it still depends. It depends on your list, the email programs they are using, what is going on with the spam filters, and where the stars are aligned. The true secret to getting your open rates up? Test! Each time you send your newsletter, announcement, etc, split your list and write 2 different Subject Lines. It will amaze you to see what works and what does not. Best of all – you will learn the “rules” for your list. Your list might like it more when their name is used in the Subject line, or it may not. The particulars of your list is dependent on who they are. So you can cultivate a message – style – tone all your own that can drive your open rates wild!


  • You can break just about all of these rules, and still get your emails opened.
  • Keep a watch on Spam rules – they differ for each email provider. (So test your emails in several free accounts).
  • TEST. TEST. test. (Please test).
  • Get to know your list. They will ultimately dictate your open rates. Great content, targeted list and tested subject lines will get your numbers up.

Here are a few articles I found that will give you even more insight and info:

  • Mail Chimp: Best Practices in Writing Email Subject Lines
  • Cheetah Mail: Email Case Studies
  • Interspire: Avoiding the Spam and Other Email Marketing Tips

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