Don’t Sell, Tell, and 9 More Tips for Better Subject Lines

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“Subject lines that are ‘creative’ or too clever require too much mental power. In those couple of seconds often it’s easier just to delete than try to work out what the heck is under that cool and wacky subject line you spent hours devising.”

That quote comes from a post by Adam Ramshaw at marketing firm Genroe. He advises to not use the words, “help,” “reminder” and “percent off” in your subject lines. As Jim Sinkinson of Fired Up! Marketing has also told us, subject lines should be about the benefits that are waiting for us by opening.

Here’s how Ramshaw puts it: “We all like to think we are altruistic and give to the common good but when it comes down to it, WIIFM [What’s in It for Me] rules supreme. [What’s] in it for the recipient?”

Here are 10 rules from a few B2B sources:

From Real Magnet

1. Lead with the offer. Highly targeted messages convert better, so make sure you alert your subscribers in the subject line. For example, if you are offering a discount on your upcoming event for new members or new subscribers, use a subject line that indicates as much: “New Members: Here’s your $100 Event Discount.″ A subject line that conveys the offer and the reason for it is a more sophisticated (and effective) form of personalization than simply inserting your subscriber’s first name in the subject line.

2. Be cleversometimes. "A disarming subject line can break through because it demonstrates some empathy with the subscriber. You know what they are going through just trying to empty out the inbox, a sentiment that gives your brand an added opportunity to resonate." They cite an example from Netflix, which overcharged the writer: "Give credit where credit is due." These can come off bad, however, so pick your spots and check with a colleague.

3. Be different—but true to yourself. How many New Year’s related subject lines did you receive? Real Magnet suggests to occasionally get "unexpectedly colloquial and even friendly"—but make sure it still fits your company's personality. I got one from a group called Museum Hack—they put on programs geared to younger folks—with this line: "Sorry Museums, They Just Aren't That Into You." It works because it fits their image.

From Jim Sinkinson:

4. Your first 3-4 words are the most critical: Choose them with extreme care to achieve as many objectives as possible.

5. Use words that speak to your prospect's known problems or hot interests. (e.g., penalties, new cure, lawsuits, save money). What is going to motivate a farmer to be a member?

6. Make your proposition very specific: If your promise is effete, they will delete.

7. Your audience should be implicitly (or explicitly) telegraphed by your use of "hot button" industry words (e.g., drugs, real estate, taxes, media, AIDS).

8. What drives people to make purchases is either fear or greed, so you should play to that. "In order to be a good copywriter, you need to be a good salesman." And you must think about your audience. "Most people make business decisions based on emotional factors."

From Bethesda Emedia Marketing:

9. Tell a story. “Whenever possible, approach your subject line as a story. In other words, pique your reader’s curiosity in your email and get their emotions (fear, humor, curiosity, anger, joy, gain, logic) involved; anything that suggests there is more to be read gets readers to open your email… Sometimes a statement-type subject line is necessary, but do try to ping emotions in the subject line when possible.”


From MailChimp

10. “Don’t sell what’s inside. Tell what’s inside.” In MailChimp’s most recent subject line study, they recommend 50 characters or less. “The exception was for highly targeted audiences, where the reader apparently appreciated the additional information in the subject line.”


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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…