Short Is Sweet: Successful Email Subject Line Strategies

Creating e-mail subject lines should never be an afterthought. You might have created a great e-mail with an unbelievable promotion but if the subject line is poor, then people will not open it — which undermines all the good work you and your team have done. Surveys have suggested 33 percent decide to open an e-mail from the subject alone. It is a challenge to come up with a subject title that engages your customers and makes them want to find out more.

Despite being told never to judge a book by its cover, the reality is that we do. So here are some insider tips on how to make your e-mail stand out from the 105 billion sent each day.

Understand Your Audience

This is basically asking “what makes your audience tick?” An e-mail titled “50 percent Off Ski Holidays” will excite young, well-off professionals in the run up to winter more, than one titled simply “Special Holiday Offers!” This segment of people will be thinking about how to brighten up their long winter, and even for well-off young professionals, skiing holidays are expensive, so 50 percent off is a great deal.

Now would the skiing subject line draw in retirees or teenagers? Obviously not. It is all about detailing the benefits your audience will get by opening your e-mail.

Keep It Short and Sweet

Let’s get straight to the point here: Subject lines with less than 50 characters have an open rate 12.5 percent higher than those with 50 characters or more. This is due to a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is that people mostly scan through their inbox and long titles can get cut off, particularly with the advent of Smartphones.

It is important to remember that open rates on mobile devices have grown significantly in recent years, and some surveys show up to 66 percent of people open their e-mails on mobile devices (including tablets) and 34 percent do so on computers. So we are seeing more companies looking to keep their subject lines to no more than 20 characters, which is the cut off point on most mobile devices.

This makes it more of a challenge to get the message across within such a tight character limit.

Personalize It

Now, here’s an interesting idea — using a customer’s name in the e-mail subject line is simply not enough. Though names are still effective, lifting open rates by 20 percent on e-mails without a name, lots of companies are following the trend.

So, how do you personalize e-mails and make them stand out? By tailoring the subject line to their location, interests, and what products they have used before. Groupon and LivingSocial have great examples of e-mail subject headings relevant to the location of the customer. Mix that in with remarketing techniques on a product that customer had looked at before, and you have a powerful combination.

A good example of this is, say, if I was interested in a holiday in Indonesia and I looked at a few options on, a few hours later they would send me these e-mails:

There’s no denying the e-mails are pretty creepy in the way they track your Web movements but I was also excited about some of the deals they have on offer. “Here’s some suggestions…” also adds the curiosity element.


Putting a time or stock limit on a product can be a pretty powerful way to grab the attention of your customer. Studies indicate that e-mail subject lines with a message of urgency or exclusivity have a 22 percent higher open rate than the average e-mail. It is essential to make it a genuine offer, because people are quick to ignore over the top e-mails.

Take a weekly offer for instance: if your store has a weekly offer then it’s a good idea to make it clear that’s what it is, rather than a “one-off” special offer. This way, you are managing your customers’ expectations and they are not disappointed by the content of the e-mail, therefore, they are more likely to check out the offer next week and the one after that and so on.

This is a tactic that should only be used sparingly and when used, there is a genuine urgency or exclusivity behind it.

Test It

The best marketers test their subject lines all the time. A/B, or split-testing, is a highly effective method of testing which e-mail heading performs best. It is a fairly simple concept where you can send two e-mails to equal segments and see which subject line has the higher open rate. If neither is high enough for your expectations then you can come up with new lines until you get there.

There are several platforms that can provide this service and it is certainly worth checking out. It is a relatively low-cost way of nailing your perfect subject title.

Humanity and Humor

A little note from the CEO of a company saying thank you for a successful year goes a long way to fostering good relationships with the customer. Firstly, it’s not selling a product — not directly anyway — but simply a gesture of goodwill from the brand, which achieves not only great open rates but goodwill back from the customers too. Also a bit of humor never goes amiss, like a ‘Hey, where have you been?’ to an inactive customer is a good, friendly way of wooing them back.

Subject Lines

Subject lines are difficult to get right but if you follow these steps, you will go a long way to boosting your open rates. The challenge is to get the message across, in a personable way. Whatever you do, DON’T USE ALL CAPITALS LETTERS!!! or too many exclamation marks. That is either a sign of a crazy friend or, more likely, spam. And it is just plain irritating.

Karl Kangur is the marketing director at Mage-mail. Having set up his first online company more than nine years ago, he went on to become an advisor and consultant for digital marketing all over the world. He specializes in content and e-mail marketing, advocating the latest ideas and techniques through blog posts, talks and media appearances.