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14 Email Subject Line Hacks

  |  March 14, 2012   |  Comments

Lessons from the SXSW catalogue.

The SXSW conference has always been known for the quirky session titles it inspires. The competition for panel slots is intense, with 3,000 panel submissions presented for 2012 alone. Part of the selection process involves voting by the public. So, an effective title gets attention when garnering votes for a panel.

We have the same problem with email.

We need subject lines that pull inbox scanners from their numbed slumber in which most emails are unceremoniously deleted. If our email is to be read, our subject lines must save our recipients from mindless autonomy.

What can we learn from SXSW panel authors? In a follow-up to my 2011 SXSW email subject line experiment, I offer this list of session titles-cum-subject line from the enigmatic conference. In general, folks seem to be less creative than in 2011, but the lessons are nonetheless destined to improve your emailing prospects.

Things That Don't Fit Together: Non-Sequiturs

Our brains are wired to discard the familiar faster than a bear can spell Constantinople. It is the unexpected that gets the attention of our conscious and prepares us for action. These titles demonstrate the use of twists to pull readers out of their inbox apathy.

A Penny Press for the Digital Age

Philanthropy Is Not the Future of Journalism

Cloudy with a Chance of Gaming

Multiple Personalities–Not a Disorder but the Norm

Does Your Product Have a Plot?

Meat is Might: Epic Meal Time Rules the Web

Social + Location + Mobile = The Perfect Beer

When Goliath Tries to Steal Your Lunch Money

Can Growing a Moustache Change the World?

Bootcamp for a UX Team of None

Explorations in Corporate Zoology

How to Be Strategically Unlikeable Online

Sunspots: The Promise and Pitfalls of Gov 2.0

Dreams of Your Life: A Darkly Playful Experience

Help, My Avatar Is Sick

Being Considered Obsolete Is Awesome

The Science of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea

Why Karl Keeps His Shades On: Style & Social Media

Lists of Three

There is something memorable, readable, and easy-to-count about lists of three. This method is especially successful when the third item is overly specific or doesn't fit. See "Things that Don't Fit Together" above.

Drugs, Milk & Money: Social & Regulated Industries

Credits Coins Cash: Social Currency & Finance 2.0

Free Coffee, Bad Apples & the Future of Currency

Clouds Here, Clouds There, Clouds Everywhere

Shock and Awe

Boring subject lines make me want to poke needles into my eyes! Sometimes it makes sense to hit readers over the head with something that is just plain shocking. Sometimes.

How Not to Die: Using Tech in a Dictatorship

How Mexico's Drug Traffickers Harness Social Media

Language of Mutilation: Grammar for Ads & Life

Demographics Are Dead: Unlocking Flock Behavior

Everyone Is Gay: Social Media As Social Action

Media Measurement: Science, Art or a Load of Crap

Please Touch Me! Enterprise Delight via Multitouch

Your Social Media Job Is Dead: Now What?

Avoiding Bulls**t Personas: A Case Study

Eat, S**t, Sleep: Enlightenment Through Unemployment

Rhymes and Alliteration

Sensual subject lines supplement the bottom line. Alliteration is the repeated use of consonants. Rhymes grab your readers like a musical phrase. Don't be afraid to add a little poetry to your prose.

Social Music Marketing: Bands, Brands & Fans

An Unusual Arsenal: Tech Tools to Topple a Tyrant

Invention & Inspiration: Building a Better World

Contextual Communication: Crowds and Coordination

Check Yo-Self Before U Wreck Yo-Self, Startup Metrics of the Masters

The Creative Collaboration Conundrum

Binary B****es: Keeping Open Source Open to Women

Teaching Touch: Tapworthy Touchscreen Design

Create a Common Enemy

You may find your reader united behind you by identifying a common enemy - like the delete key.

When IT Says No: How to Create Fast Feature Flow

The Systematic Undoing of Copyright Trolls

Screw the Job Market: Young + Passionate ≠ Broke

Rise of the Social Spammers

Can Washington Make Your App Illegal?

Epic Battle: Creativity vs. Discipline in Social

Why Your 5-Year-Old Is More Digital Than Most CMOs

Has Twitter Made the Sports Reporter Obsolete?

Insult Someone

Don't be a wimp. When all else fails drop the political correctness and tell the reader what you really think.

Advise THIS! Matchmaking Startups & High Profile Advisors

Shut Up & Draw: A Non-Artist Way to Think Visually

Flash: F Bomb or Da Bomb?

Big Ol' Babies: Why Baby Boomers=Public Media FAIL

Your Marketing Sucks: Why You Need to Think Local

Lead With a Number

Four session titles that use numbers. When we offer the reader a specific number of things, they know they are going to get a manageable set of tips or tricks that is easy to scan and digest.

11 Reasons QR Codes Are Not Engaging Consumers

3 Secrets to a Killer Elevator Pitch

100 Things Designers Need to Know About People

Enterprise Social Media: Five Emerging Trends

Make Up Words

If you find yourself with subjectlinitis, tossing a memebomb or two may be your best hope. New words can turn a deletophile into a reader.

Adprovising: Agile Marketing Made Easy

The Making of Twittamentary

Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas

Discover the New Frontier of the Glocal Internet

The Local Backbone of the SoLoMo Revolution

Coolhunting and Coolfarming with Social Media

Wireless Wellness: App-tastic or Just Fun & Games?

The Hyperlocal Hoax: Where's the Holy Grail?

Pop Culture References

If you know your audience, you slip them some "Funky Cold Medina" in the form of a pop-culture reference. For your geeks, "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" will do. For the younger generation, something from the "Harry Potter" series might make a connection. Music is usually a sure bet. Can you name the sources of the following references?

Star Trek and Social Media

Do Gamers Dream of HTML5 Sheep?

The Cloud as Skynet: Conquering Digital Overload

Get Smart! Hack Your Brain for Peak Performance

Wall-E or Terminator: Predicting the Rise of Al

Gimme Shelter from the Storm Clouds

Defense Against the Dark Arts: ESAPI

The Field of Dreams Manifesto

Is That Your Final Offer? Mobile Dynamic Pricing

Not Your Mommy's Blog: The Evolution of Dad Blogs

Why Doesn't Congress Grok The Internet?

LEAN STARTUP: Baby Got (Feed)Back - Putting the Lean in Learn

Metaphors and Similes

Similes are like can openers for the mind. Metaphors are the batteries in the flashlight of your email. The technical term for this style of messaging is "transubstantiation," using the characteristics of one thing to add meaning to another in the eyes of the reader.

Rev Up Your Product Design, the "Concept Car" Way

Online Personality Disorder: Resumes & Profiles

Knitting a Long Tail in Niche Publishing

Snackable Content: Working in a Bite-Sized Future

Hunt or Be Hunted: Get the Design Job You Want

Keeping Kids off the Street: Wall St. vs. Startups

Death of Digital Downloads: MP3s the New 8-track?

Target an Audience

Right-handed marketers, take note! Targeting your audience can significantly increase the relevance to two groups of people: those to whom you are speaking, and those who feel left out by the fact that you aren't speaking to them (you left-handers felt a twinge of anger at being left out, didn't you?). This approach takes guts, as you are consciously ignoring part of your audience in the hope of truly engaging another.

Why Women Fail to Rule the Social Networks

Greek to Geek: Classical Rhetoric & the Modern Web

Blogging: Why So Many Women Are Doing It

Digital Divas: How Girls Rule the Digital Universe

Monetizing Mommy

Sex Sells

Even the "oldest profession in the world" required some persuasive messaging. Your reader may see sex as the most base or most exalted activity humans can engage in. This is the risk and the reward for bawdy banter in your email subject lines.

Brands That Believe in Sex After Marriage

Sex, Lies and Cookies: Web Privacy EXPOSED!

Sex in the Digital Age

Big Brands and You: Make the Love Connection

Social Media Comes of Age Without the Help of Porn

Nudity and Online Journalism

Sex Nets: Pickup Artists vs. Feminists

Sex on the Web - The Sabotage of Relationships?

Big Promises

If you've got the goods, big promises will make you rich in as little as three days. Big promises make the reader ask, "So, how can you do that?" even if they are skeptical. Of course, if you can't deliver on the promise with sufficient proof in your email, all is lost - including your credibility.

Expanding Our Intelligence Without Limit

How to Live Forever

We Are Legion: Digital (R)Evolution

Change the Course of History with Greasemonkey

UCB Comedy presents: The Best Damn Stand-up

New This Year: Add an "i"

Turn your subject line into an iLine! All it takes is one little vowel.

iVision Africa: New Media's Role in Reframing Africa

iPlant: Advanced Computing to Feed the World

There you have it. Over 100 titles to tantalize and titillate your email mind like a jolt of electricity from an unlicensed nuclear reactor, guaranteed to help you get lucky and make your ex jealous - if you're not a total iDiot. Did I miss anything?

Hit us with your favorite subject lines in the comments.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Massey

With 15 years of online marketing experience, Brian has designed the digital strategy and marketing infrastructure for a number of businesses, including his own technology consulting company, Conversion Sciences. He built his company to transform the Internet from a giant digital-brochure stand to a place where people find the answers they seek. His clients use online strategies to engage their visitors and grow their businesses. Brian has created a series of Web strategy workshops and authors the Conversion Scientist blog. Brian works from Austin, Texas, a place where life and the Internet are hopelessly intertwined.

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