RE: Email Subject Lines That Work?

  |  May 21, 2001   |  Comments

We are all bombarded by emails. Some are legitimate business correspondence, many more are solicitations, personal mail, junk, jokes, spam... With all of that clutter in your prospect's inbox, does your email have a chance of being read?

You turn on your computer. Log in to your Internet connection. Start up your email client. Wait to see your email messages come flooding in: 1 of 46, 2 of 46, 3 of 46... They are all legitimate business inquiries, right? You sit there poised to scan and delete as many as possible before you even read them, just to cut the pile down to something remotely manageable.

We are all bombarded by email. Some of them are legitimate business correspondence; some are colleagues playing CYA ("see ya"); and some are solicitations, personal mail, junk mail, jokes, spam, and probably a few more categories I've overlooked. With all of that clutter in your prospect's inbox, how do you give your email communication a chance of being read? There's really only one way: Write a great subject line.

To Read or Not to Read

The amount of poorly written copy is a real shame. (I have ulterior motives, so I actually open a lot of junk mail.) What's worse, though, is seeing examples of really good copy that will never get read because the subject line screamed out "IRRELEVANT," "SPAM," or, basically, "DELETE ME."

There are a few factors you can control when your email message enters a prospect's email client: the Subject line, the From address, the To address, and (on some clients) a preview of the message. (Yes, if you want to get fussy, the date, too).

The Horse DOES Go Before the Cart

Many marketers treat writing the subject line of an email like a minor effort. It's easy to see why. It's just a few words. Isn't it the 100-plus words in the copy that do the selling?

Don't be fooled. If you can't get your prospect to open your email, no amount of great copy is going to make a sale. (Remember the first A in AIDAS?)

So, how can we make those precious few words in the subject line grab your prospects' attention, create interest, and make them want to open your super sales letter? Below are some principles that work. Keep in mind, though, that as with any copy, they begin losing their impact if you always follow the same rules.


Remember to KISS your readers. Keep it short and simple. Write your subject line so that there are fewer than 10 words; fewer than 5 is even better. Keeping your subject line down to a few words will make your email seem more credible.

They're Tuned to WII-FM, Are You?

Your prospects are always interested in one thing: What's in it for me? Write with that in mind -- which means write about the benefits that matter to them, not features that matter to you. Remember, your first sale in the email communication is making them spend their valuable time reading your solicitation. If you can't write a subject line that makes them do that, what makes you think you can make them spend their money?

You Who?

While it's generally a good thing to use the word "you" in persuasive copy, it's a spam predictor in subject lines. Few folks use the word "you" in emails to colleagues; spam uses it frequently. The closer your subject line comes to the tone of ordinary email, the more likely it is that your message will be opened.

Don't Do It!!!

Don't use exclamation points at the end of the subject line. Rarely do you see personal emails that need that kind of "noise" to grab your attention. Good business writing never does it. It doesn't need to.

Do It?

Do use question marks, if doing so makes sense. Questions are much more engaging than statements. Wouldn't you agree?

Would You Buy a Used Car From This Guy?

We have been so inundated with slick sales stuff that it now is an automatic turnoff. Avoid words like "limited time," "free," "opportunity," and "only." Doing so may hook some; it will turn off many more.

It's for Me?

You like to feel special? Well, how special do you feel when the message wasn't sent to your email address but instead to "undisclosed recipients" (or somewhere other than to your name or email address)?

If you have a database, use it to address your prospects by name. If you don't have a database -- first, what are you doing about that? And second, use your list to accomplish the same thing.

Someone Is Knocking at the Door

People prefer to buy from people, not robots, autoresponders, or even Web sites. Try to develop a style and personality in your email communications. And personalize the sender (you), too. How often do you see an email from "Company XYZ," and -- since you aren't ready to buy -- you just hit delete? However, that same message from "Fred Doolittle" makes it seem like it might be worthwhile reading.

Love at First Sight

Not every email client has a preview, nor does everyone who has a preview has it set to preview. The important thing to remember, though, is that whether the first part of the message is seen in a preview or when the email is first opened, it still has to grab your prospects' attention and engage them to keep reading.

The purpose of the first part of persuasive copy is to create in your customer's mind what is called the FMI, or first mental image. You want to inspire your prospects to begin imagining or visualizing themselves enjoying the benefits of your product or service. It is essential to write copy that creates a strong FMI, one that draws your prospect into discovering the real value of your message. And remember, sometimes less is more.

Step 1 Comes Before Step 2

I see a lot of copy that just "vomits" sales talk right out at the prospect, forgetting that successful selling is like a romantic encounter. You can't go straight to the bedroom without even a first kiss, and you aren't going to start kissing till you start talking.

Me Too

I get a lot of email feedback from these columns. I really appreciate it, but when you write to me, remember that I get more than 250 emails per day. Here's an idea: Use your emails to me as an opportunity to practice writing your own great subject lines. I'll even publish some of the best ones in a future article.

P.S.: Some of you may have noticed that the title, the first paragraph, and the section headings apply the principles I just wrote about...

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Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is coauthor of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times bestselling books "Call to Action," "Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?," and "Always Be Testing." Bryan is a professional marketing speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as SES,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, SEM Konferansen Norway, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others. In 2010, Bryan was named a winner of the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation's Rising Stars Awards, which recognizes the most talented professionals 40 years of age or younger in the field of direct/interactive marketing. He is also cofounder and chairman emeritus of the Web Analytics Association. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of SES Conference & Expo, the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit, and several venture capital backed companies. He works with his coauthor and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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