How many unread emails do you have in your inbox? 300? 800? Or maybe, if you’re like me and are on countless mailing lists, 2,644? And that’s after a little Gmail spring cleaning!
We get a TON of emails every day, and a lot of them are never opened. People are inundated with boatloads of information – more than ever before in history! But we don’t have more time to soak it all in. The chances of your email being ignored are pretty high – unless of course, you have a rockin’ sockin’ subject line.
Your subject line is your first (and maybe your last) impression on users. In many ways, your email subject line is more important than your email body. After all, a great newsletter is worthless if it never sees the light of day.
There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to creating slam dunk subject lines. We’ll be covering 9 different types of effective email subject lines and sprinkling examples throughout.
1. Simple, No Nonsense Email Subject Lines
There’s a lot to be said for minimalism – users need you to be clear and concise in your subject lines, as time is always an asset.
MailChimp conducted an email subject line study  and found that short, descriptive subject lines fare better than cheesy lures. Some might bristle up at the accusation that humor and creativity should take a back seat when creating good subject lines for emails, especially since many marketing experts say otherwise. It’s worth noting that this succinct approach is most applicable with notification emails, in which a user already has a connection with the content you’re delivering.
Most of these subject line examples involve updates or notifications connected with a user’s social media activity, order status, etc. These emails have a specific purpose, and so their subject lines should be specific as well.
2. Funny Email Subject Lines
A humorous subject line can really stick out among the dry, dull emails surrounding it. Humor it a touchy thing though – it thrives on exclusivity, which isn’t always great if you’re trying to appeal to the masses. However, if you know your audience well and your emails are targeted, a well placed joke can get your email opened and can earn major reputation points with folks on your wavelength.
Some funny email subject line examples:
- Please Touch Me! Enterprise Delight via Multitouch
- Defense Against the Dark Arts: ESAPI
- Do Gamers Dream of HTML5 Sheep?
- LEAN STARTUP: Baby Got (Feed)Back - Putting the Lean in Learn
The “touch me” line is a chuckle that will be understood by most readers, but the cleverness of the other funny email subject lines might be lost on some users who didn’t attend Hogwarts or haven’t taken their Voight-Kampff empathy test. But if you can recite every line of Sir Mix a Lot’s Baby Got Back word for word…like some of us can… you’ll love that “Lean Startup” subject line.
Note: The awesome email subject lines above and several text subject lines below are borrowed from this ClickZ article , full of many great examples.
3. Controversial/Shocking Email Subject Lines
Controversy (sometimes) sells, and it most certainly grabs attention. Using shock, controversy, or insult in your subject lines requires you to tread really carefully. You may get opens, but at the cost of customers. This strategy requires you to be confident in your understanding of your audience’s tastes and perceptions. It’s a bit of a gamble, but the pay-off can be pretty great – would you simply gloss over the subject lines below? Not likely.
- Everyone Is Gay: Social Media As Social Action
- Why Your 5-Year-Old Is More Digital Than Most CMOs
- Your Marketing Sucks: Why You Need to Think Local
4. Single-Word Subject Lines
One effective email subject line strategy involves going ultra-minimalist with one-word subject lines. Let’s take a peek at the promotions tab of my Gmail. The promotion tab is scheduled for a major makeover – Google is starting to display promotional emails in a image-oriented design inspired by Pinterest. If this new setup sticks, pictures will usurp subject lines as the pivotal email element.
Until then, we still need to worry about the current state of the promotions tab. It’s chock full o’ mess, with stacks upon stacks of unopened emails. Which one stands out? For me it’s Amazon Local’s M3 subject line.
From a simple design perspective, you can see why the Amazon Local subject line catches the eye – its length and shape stand out from the other largely similar-looking structures.
Another great email subject line example comes from Mequoda  with the simple subject line of:
It’s just a single word, but it’s an emotionally huge one. What should I be panicking about? Am I in danger? What’s going on? Am I having an existential crisis? Emotionally-walloping words make a big impression.
5. Email Subject Lines with Numbers & Lists
Many of the factors that make up a good blog post title also make a good email subject line. Incorporating numbers into your subject line attracts attention, as our brains are naturally drawn to digits. This tends to be why top 10 lists are so successful – lists are easier for our brains to process and they create curiosity, in addition to providing the promise of a quick and easy read.
Numbers and list email subject lines stand out for the same reasons that one-word subject lines or unusual punctuation do – they are visually jarring. An article at The New  Yorker  discusses our avid adoration of listmania:
“Whenever we’re scanning the environment for nothing in particular, our visual system is arrested by the things that don’t fit—features that suddenly change or somehow stand out  from the background. A headline  that is graphically salient in some way has a greater chance of capturing our eye, and in an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field.”
Basically, the ultimate goal is to make your email subject line visually stand out. How you do that is up to you!
XKCD's comic, "Headlines" 
6. Personalized Subject Lines
Incorporating personalization techniques into email subject lines is another way to increase open rates. By personalization I don’t mean incorporating a user’s name into the subject line – this has become so common practice that many users glaze over these as spam. Instead, try location-specific offers and language, or interest targeting. LivingSocial and Groupon are old pros at this, sending emails with subject lines promoting deals in your area.
LivingSocial also sends me emails about deals I looked at but didn’t end up buying by utilizing the very effective but always semi-creepy remarketing strategy . LivingSocial also sends me new deals based on my past purchases. I’ve bought a few Paint Nite and pottery deals in the past, so art-related offers are the ones I see most often in my inbox. They’ve got my ticket alright!
The subject line above combines personalization (via remarketing) with scarcity to create an effective email subject line. Brava!
In a broader sense, it’s good practice to understand your audience well enough to know what language, style, and offers will be attractive to them.
Thrillist knows exactly who their audience is – the young, drinking crowd – and their conversational tone fits perfectly here with their fun email subject lines.
Thrillist knows their audience. Photo courtesy of Bem Devassa .
Thrillist is doing a ton of other stuff right too; they’ve got lists, localization, and pay tribute to a holiday. Who doesn’t want to impress their buddies with fun Guinness facts on St. Paddy’s?
7. Questions & Other Punctuation in Email Subject Lines
Question marks and unusual punctuation offer another method for standing out from the email masses. Exclamation marks can be useful, but are so over-used in subject lines that they don’t tend to be very powerful. Instead, experiment with some fun symbols or loud punctuation to attract ‘dem eyeballs.
Asking your readers a question, as opposed to a standard statement, immediately engages them. Questions enter an instant dialogue with users, making them more likely to be opened.
Above, Banana Republic combines a question with scarcity tactics. Sephora asks an emotionally-engaging question (really? you care?) with just two words, creating a truly great subject line.
8. “Missing Out” & Other Scarcity Tactics in Subject Lines
We have a deep, inherent terror of being left behind, of missing out – that flock mentality was a survival instinct once, but now it’s just another subject line strategy to goad us into a purchase. Email subject lines threatening scarcity (limited time offer!) tend to perform well, and this language is also common practice with squeeze pages . People will commit some pretty cold actions  to avoid “missing out.” Yup, we’ve all got a serious case of the FOMOs . Throw in some scarcity words and you may be surprised how your click rates  will change.
Examples above incorporate numbers, scarcity, punctuation, and partial capitalization (emphasis on the partial) for some serious subject line success.
9. Mysterious Email Subject Lines
As Scooby-Doo or Sue Grafton can tell you, people dig a little mystery in their lives. Giving readers a little taste of something intriguing might cause them to bite.
Email Subject Line Best Practices
Some general good email subject line best practices to keep in mind when crafting those lures.
- Write multiple subject lines. You should write 10 subject lines for every email, just as you should write 10 titles for every blog post. Then choose the best
- Keep it under 50 characters. It’s general best practice to keeps subject lines to fewer than 50 characters. Subject lines with less than 50 characters have higher open rates and click-through-rates than those with 50+. Go over 50 characters and you risk being cut o-.
- Alliteration. An ample amount of alliteration attracts! Give it a try for some catchy email subject lines.
- More caps ≠ More opens. Covering your subject line in caps WILL NOT HELP YOU. Caps are powerful, but not to be trifled with. Use them sparingly and responsibly, like grenades.
- Know your audience. Your best bet for creating good email subject lines will be understanding your audience intimately and catering to them. This is a major rule for pretty much all aspects of online marketing, and while it can be a bit tougher in a limited character field like a subject line, matching your audience’s interests and mannerisms is essential if you really want solid open rates.
- What’s your tone? Most good email subject lines rely on a conversationalist tone to attract readers. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, known for their super-successful clickbait  headlines, take advantage of a casual, conversational tone.
- Call to action. It’s never a bad idea to try a call to action  in your email subject line. While many opt-out due to limited character space, call to actions may improve open rates.
Even a simple “Go!” can serve as a motivating call to action. If you're not sure what makes a great call to action, check out this post on call to action examples  by Dan for some help.
- Using You/Your. While name-calling is on the out, it’s still considered a best practice to use “you” and “your” wording to speak directly and comfortably with readers.
- Put Yourself in the “From” field. Keep your “from” section professional and consistent for business subject lines. This isn’t this place to be a goof ball – with so much spam floods, users want to see that you are a legitimate and trusted source. Most business emails put their brand name in the “from” field, or go with something along the lines of “John Smith from InvitaCorp”.
- Always A/B test subject lines. I must sound like a broken record – I know, I know, A/B testing blaa blaa, so important, blaa blaa. Well it is! You should A/B test everything you can get your keyboardy fingers on, email subject lines included.
- Pay attention to the preview. The email preview that follows the subject line is a valuable piece of property, and yet so many businesses ignore it or let it get filled with garbage text.
Doing it right:
Doing it wrong:
Many emails have text like this or something similar because they want the option to view in web browser for those reading on mobile devices. Instead, move the “view in browser” links and other mumbo-jumbo to the bottom of the email so you can make the most of the preview field.
- See something you like? Steal it! All the world’s greatest artists are thieves – they “borrow” from others, building on existing works to create their own. Don’t be afraid to break bad. If you see great subject lines that you think will work for your business, nab them! Tweak them a bit and try them on for size. Remember, imitation is flattery, so flatter the hell out of the best email subject lines.
Why Do My Open Rates Suck?
Having trouble with your email open rates? Working on your subject lines will help, but there may be other factors at play, such as:
- Is the email viewable? If your email doesn’t read well on a user’s device, they won’t bother trying to decipher it.
- Are you being a pest? If you’ve been emailing folks every day, they may be fed up with you and won’t be as likely to open your emails if you’ve been making yourself an annoyance.
- When did you send it? Many people don’t check their emails as often on the weekend. Check out our post on the best times to send an email newsletter .
- Quality of your email list. Is this a solid, targeted email list? If your list isn’t high-quality, it may reflect in your open rates.
Hopefully we’ve given you the information you need to make email subject line eye candy. These tips should help with open rates, but retaining those readers? That’s up to you!