New Subject Line Study Reveals 4 Ways to Increase Open Rates

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It was encouraging to see in the new Member Engagement Study that I wrote about last week that email popularity defies generational preferences. Around 60% of every age group rated email as their preferred method of delivery.

And because of that continued reliance on email, subject lines truly matter. The email platform provider Yesware analyzed 115 million emails over a year to identify successful email subject-line strategies. "We looked specifically at most and least used words and formats in comparison to most and least effective," says Yesware data engineer Anna Holschuh.

"[Readers] often make split-second decisions about dealing with email, and it’s easy to disregard a message based on a subject line," says Holschuh, in an article on the Fast Company site. Here are four of their findings:

1. Don’t use a question. "Questions put people on the spot, and you’re asking a lot of an already busy, stressed-out professional," says Holschuh. "You’re asking them to do work without providing value up front."

Readers want to know the benefit of something. If you ask, it could just frustrate them. So instead of my asking, “What’s the best thing you should do with video?” this study would suggest the subject line, “Improve your microsite and activate partners with video.”

"If the recipient is familiar with you or if you add context to your request on why it benefits the other person, it could be a different story," Holschuh says. "But cold emails that put people on the spot don’t do well… do your research up front and save the person’s time.”

2. Save the hellos. People don’t like overfamiliarity; they want to be respected. So the study recommends dropping any hellos, hi’s or howdy’s. "The technique was used to dupe people into thinking that the sender was an old friend, and it was overused," says Holschuh.

She suggests that personal content could work in the email body, but serves no purpose in the subject line. I saved an old subject line sheet from a SIPA conference session a few years ago. The four categories the speaker said your subject line should fall under are: reader benefit; a quick and easy way to do something; newsworthiness; and curiosity. A “hello” doesn’t accomplish any of that.

3. Work numbers in. "We believe it’s the case because in this age of data, people like numbers and hard facts," says Holschuh. "Metrics also offer credibility, and we saw that including numbers boosts open and reply rates."

“Take 15 minutes and save 15% on car insurance.” That’s a definitive and eye-catching benefit. Like anything else, it shouldn’t be overused. But numbers can provide a certain confidence—the difference of saying Katie Ledecky did well vs. Katie Ledecky won by 5 seconds. It just feels like I can trust the latter message more. I’m getting facts.

4. Use title case. This was unexpected, they write, and I have never seen this reported in a study either. “When senders use title case—for example: Subject-Line Story versus subject-line story—emails had a higher open and reply rate,” the study said. "It provides a sense of authority of what you’re talking about versus an informal tone that’s implied with all lower-case letters," says Holschuh.

Funny, I’ve always just thought of headlines in a newspaper, where lower case looks better and seems more accurate than upper case—and translated that thought process to subject lines. But that probably isn’t logical thinking. It sounds like something we should A/B test on.

Lastly, where the tendency might be to spend all the time you have on your email and write a quick subject line, that doesn’t make sense. Refresh your thinking with rules such as these or others you might have cut out somewhere. And check your analytics on a bi-weekly or so basis. People can’t read what you wrote until they open it.

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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…