Email Marketing Writing/Content

The Art of a Good E-mail Subject Line

Image courtesy of (Stuart Miles)/

How many e-mails do you send straight to the trash can every day?

We’re living in a time where brevity is important. Your audience’s inboxes are jam-packed – you need to fight off the other hundred e-mails just get them to open your e-mail and read through it.

So with so much noise, how do you stand out? How do you ensure that your e-mail gets opened?

A good e-mail subject line is the key. It will increase your open rates and get your audience reading your e-mails. But unless you’re a copywriter, it can be hard to craft the perfect subject line.

I haven’t always got the subject line right. It’s taken a lot of testing and learning from other e-mail marketing experts, but I can confidently say now that my subject lines work. They help my e-mail marketing campaigns get opened and read.

What makes the perfect e-mail subject line?

It’s a combination of five elements. Let’s explore each element and discuss how you can start improving your e-mail marketing with better subject lines.

1. Use the right words

Too many times I run into e-mail subject lines that just don’t use the right words. They are either plain boring or way too complicated to understand. One way to improve performance is to use words that describe a benefit.

In fact, research by Adestra studied subject lines from 2.2 billion e-mails and found that words like “free delivery” and “sale” perform well. Keywords that describe a benefit work well because they stand out. Particularly, if the benefit is closely related to an audience’s need, then it instantly makes a connection and the reader wants to open the e-mail to find out more.

Let’s look at an e-mail from Van Heusen:


E-mail subject line: “Shirts for less than $35.”

This subject line works because it offers a benefit. As a past customer, I know that shirts from Van Heusen usually retail for $80-100. So when an e-mail like this hits my inbox, it immediately grabs my attention because it’s offering shirts for more than 50 percent off.

2. Avoid common ‘spam’ words

On the flip side, there are words that you must avoid. These ‘spam’ words are known to lower your open rates because they tend to get caught up in e-mail spam filters. You should avoid these words at all cost:

  • Free
  • Buy
  • Call now
  • Bonus
  • Discount
  • % OFF

Although you may be tempted to use these words, they may stop your message from getting to your audience.

Let’s look at an e-mail I received from Menulog, which was caught in my spam filter:


The reason this e-mail got caught was because it had “10% OFF!” in it. You can’t be yelling “OFF” with an exclamation mark. That – combined with a percentage sign – just screams spam. Before you send an e-mail, think about whether your subject line sounds like one of those spammy e-mails you get all the time. If it does, it will probably get caught.

3. Use celebrities and brands that are well-known to your audience

Have you ever wondered why you are drawn to celebrity news? It’s because you want to read about their lives – you want to relate to them because they are popular and newsworthy.

Using celebrities and ‘celebrity brands’ can really help improve the performance of your subject line. The trick is to find a celebrity or brand that your audience knows. Even better – find someone or a brand that works inside your industry. People want to read about other people and brands they are familiar with and can relate to.

For example, let’s say TwoCents is sending an e-mail update about this blog post that you’re reading right now. Imagine if we used a subject line that references a brand mentioned in this article. Compare these two subject lines:

“Avoid these e-mail subject line mistakes made by Menulog”

“Avoid these e-mail subject line mistakes”

Which e-mail would you open? Of course the Menulog one because it’s a brand you know and you can relate to.

4. Personalize your e-mail subject line

We have all been guilty of sending broadcast e-mails that are bland and generic. But personalizing subject lines can be one of the easiest ways to increase e-mail engagement.

How many times does an e-mail marketing campaign actually address you by name in the subject line? Would that catch your attention?

Apparently it does. Research by Retention Science analyzed 260 million e-mails and found that subject lines with the recipient’s first name in it had and average open rate of 18.3 percent, compared to subject lines without a first name attracting an open rate of 15.7 percent. That’s a 16 percent increase.

Mailchimp research found similar results in their study: personalizing the first and last names in subject lines had the biggest impact on open rates.

Although using a recipient’s first name might not make sense with every e-mail campaign, it certainly is worth trying. Let’s look at this e-mail from Freshbooks:


Freshbooks addresses me by my first name, which certainly stands out from the other generic e-mails in my inbox. This works because people like receiving e-mails that are addressed to them. It makes us all feel special. We don’t like being treated just as an e-mail address – we are human!

5. Appeal to your audience’s interests

Knowing your audience is an essential element of e-mail marketing. So when it comes to writing subject lines, you need to incorporate your audience’s interests and challenges. By segmenting your e-mail list based on your audience’s interests, you can tailor the subject lines to connect on a more personal level.

For example, let’s say at TwoCents we have two primary segments for our e-mail list. We have marketing managers and we have small business owners. Each audience has different goals, interests and challenges. When we send out an e-mail update to let them know about this blog post, we should use a different subject line to appeal to their respective interests.

Marketing managers are interested more in how-to guides and strategies, while owners are interested more in the end result: the ROI. Here are two different subject lines that show this idea in action:

Marketing manager: “Five ways to improve e-mail open rates by writing better subject lines”

Business owners: “Improve e-mail marketing ROI by understanding how subject lines affect e-mail engagement”

Are you segmenting your e-mail list and sending tailored e-mails? I can guarantee it will increase engagement.

Improving e-mail subject lines is a process of testing and optimizing

E-mail marketing is becoming harder and harder as more and more e-mails are flooding our audience’s inboxes. The best way to combat this noise is to make your subject lines brief, to the point and interesting to your audience.

You might not come up with the perfect subject line straight away. It will take ongoing a/b testing to find out what works best for your audience. Use inbuilt segmentation and a/b testing features inside your e-mail marketing to try different subject lines and analyze what works and what doesn’t. As you get a better understanding of what works, you can optimize your subject lines for better performance.

Your thoughts?

What do you think about these five elements? How do you craft the perfect subject line? Share your thoughts in the comments below.9x_REODZ-M3oBnN5XtR7smOKeAGpNSTr5aILU8d8lHXtN-O25sVU5AzTaQWxqRY3iRbf7Ra382zYHnt8j_ZWNTbbaFM-ovRn3DcybJUEGHXeTMipOon1BI8acDvx-NRocoYu4FCmf-Q

About the author


Simon Dell

Simon Dell is a former agency owner and managing director, and is now a freelance consultant under his own brand His goal is to help develop and implement strategic digital and creative marketing plans for clients delivering measurable results and fantastic ROI. He also writes for Fairfax Media, MYOB's business portal and frequently speaks at events and conferences around Australia.

1 Comment

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  • This topic is so relevant in this day & age of emails coming through all kinds of devices not just computers. And, certainly all great suggestion for improving the readability of the emails. My favorite is #3 that talks about mentioning brand and celebrity names.This is so very true because the brand name or celebrity name lends credibility to the subject matter. I have yet to hit the delete on an email with this kind of subject line. Oh, another point though not on the subject line but emails in general. If the “TO:” section says “undisclosed recipients”, its a sure delete trigger.