Senior SEO Consultant

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Regardless of what a lot of people might think, email is not a dead channel. Email is very much alive and kicking, and can still work for you. It’s an easy way to quickly contact a large number of targeted individuals, and is inexpensive (depending on your services provider) compared to many alternatives. Email will also work for you whether you’re a small business, or a large multi-national organisation.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect subject line.

Because email is relatively inexpensive, it is often seen as a throwaway channel with less time invested in it than it really should. For example the below screenshot is from my MailChimp account for the last email campaign I did:

By working on your subject lines, as well as your content, you can really make your email campaigns yield results.

53.2% open rate, slightly above my send list average and a lot greater than the industry average of 15.7%, and the click rate within the emails isn’t bad either.

So how do I do it?

You need to connect with your audience. Part of the problem is that many people will not even bother to open your email if they do not recognise your name. People opt into email lists for various reasons, and not all of them do so fully paying attention to the brand. This is also a major issue if you’re one of the “trusted third-parties” that some companies share email lists with, and they never signed up with you in the first place.

Of course, outlandish subject lines are easily identified as spam, so maybe they’ll be more inclined to test their luck with your more temperate introduction. But maybe not.

There are a lot of blogs out there about how to structure, and write an effective subject line, and because you only get a small amount of real estate to fit in your message, a subject line can be either make or break.

Because it’s a small area, mistakes are also magnified – from spelling and grammar, to wordiness, to ambiguity, there is a lot that can go wrong in just a few words.

Allowing for subjectivity, there are certain practices that should be followed. Adhering to them may not lead to objective perfection, but it will lead to objective quality and achieve higher open rates, which leads to higher click rates (from experience).

#1 Actually Write The Subject Line

Before moving forward, the obvious should be stated. Don’t leave the subject line blank. I feel I shouldn’t have to say this, but unfortunately I do.

A blank email from an unknown source does not look good and gives the reader precisely zero reason to unpack your message. It’s also important that you write the subject line yourself, and not use a generator.

Email subject line generators are good however if you’re really stuck for inspiration, and some may even churn out a really good line, but I’d also advise adding your own brand and tone of voice to it, so that your messaging and tone are consistent.

A lot of people forget that the brand experience is a part of the overall “value” that a customer gets, and through email this can be easily lost in the pursuit of subject lines.

Some of the better subject line generators I’ve come across and used personally are CoSchedule Headline Analyzer, Litmus PutsMail, and the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer.

#2 Check For Spelling & Grammar Errors

Measure twice, cut once. Wise words, and should always be applied to your email subject line.

If you are cold-mailing someone and introduce yourself with a stupid mistake it is not going to make a positive first impression. If you can’t get the line right, should they really trust you with any business dealings?

If you’re unsure as to whether or not you’re using the correct grammar, you can use tools like the Hemingway App, or Reverso are simple to use and should be built into your quality checking and testing process.

#3 Be Concise & To The Point

This is another thing I see a lot of people get distracted by – all those blogs saying how “long the perfect subject line is”. The subject line is there to inform the reader on what they will find, what value they will get when they open the message.

This should be made clear, and not overly verbose. It’s also important again to remember your brand and your tone of voice, and how brand contributes to the overall user experience.

If you’re hung up on counting the characters, one of my go-to tools is Character Count Online, for pretty much spot checking anything that I need to measure.

#4 Be Specific

“Discover what great offers await for you…”. No.

The mystery angle can sometimes work, but lets be honest, the world has moved on and a lot of people read emails on their smartphones, the window of opportunity is very small and if you’re selling shoes with 35% off, tell them that.

The worst examples of this I see come from websites that stock many, many different products and I don’t know if these offers will even be on products that I’m interested in. If your database however is maintained, and tied in with the user’s online shopping account you can just as easily say:

“Dan, discover these awesome deals on X, up-to 35% off”. Yeah, I’m in, I’m going to check this out.

If your database isn’t connected to a user account, and least include some form of personalisation and mention the product categories, such as:

“Discover huge deals on tech, clothes, groceries & more!”

As chances are, I’m interested in either tech, clothes, or groceries (I like all three).

#5 A/B Test Different Subject Lines

There is no such thing as a perfect subject line. I’ve said it again. Even if you are doing everything right, you won’t appeal to everyone, and sometimes, weirdly, doing things wrong yields results.

But right and wrong are subjective, all that matters is that people are opening your emails and rewarding your marketing efforts with exposure/clicks/leads/signups…

That being said, there is only one way to know if you are doing right. Data.

AB testing subject lines can both help individual campaigns, as well as inform future emails and wider strategies. Image Source: MailChimp

Email subject lines might seem trivial, but they are the de facto first impression of any outreach email, and as such, have a strong bearing on people’s reception toward your brand. With data you can make meaningful and impactful decisions;

Without data you’re just a person with an opinion. Without opinion, you’re just another person with data.

The first part of the above is a quote from W. Edwards Deming, the second part a play on the fact that having data doesn’t make you smarter – understanding the data and being able to apply it however does.

#6 Personalise Your Subject

If you are reaching out to the personal email address of an executive, as opposed to a generic email address like [email protected], consider addressing that person directly.

If I see, “Dan, here’s some blah blah blah that can help you” I’ll probably open that email as it’s both;

a) Something I probably signed up to as my name is a part of their database,

b) Spam doesn’t usually go to that level of personalisation (from my experience)

I might not act on the call to action within, but I’m intrigued to see the advice one way or the other. If you can’t locate an individual name, the company’s name can be used in lieu, but even then you need to make sure it makes sense. If you are going to do this, make sure you test it so it doesn’t end up like this:

Personalisation can also work if you don’t include the persons name, you can include other fields from the data, such as what services or products they have bought. I got an email from Zapier the other day:

I mean, I use Zapier a lot, but I don’t use it for anything financial like QuickBooks, and I don’t use it for Google Docs… However when I open the email, it shows Slack as being an update – I used Slack, I have recipes setup for Slack and other things… Surely you know this Zapier? So why not lead with that? I would have opened the email then – other than to use it as an example in this blog post.

#7 Don’t Overuse Caps, Punctuation Or Spam Emojis


b) Summer Sale Nearly Over!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

c) These deals are HOT! 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

No. All of these go agains the 6 tips that have gone before this one.

The emojis one I admit can be tempting, and I do include some on some email subject lines, but over spamming them to excess just looks wrong and dilutes the message completely.

If you’d like to talk to me about your email campaigns, please contact me here. I’ve worked with send lists varying from 100 to 100,000, using a variety of platforms including MailChimp, HubSpot, IBM Silverpop, GetResponse and SendGrid.

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