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Compelling Subject Lines & Email Messages

Multiple studies have shown that the subject line is the most important factor in driving digital marketing results. You can spend hours composing a truly informative email for clients and prospects, but it’s a waste of time if no one reads it.

The good news is that you have many more characters in the subject line than you’re using—about 85. The average email subject is only 45 characters. What a waste! The thinking used to be that you want the subject line to be as short and snappy as possible. With the proliferation of mobile devices subject lines were supposed to be even shorter and snappier.

It was a valid argument at one time. However, the new thinking is that, as long as you put the most important information at the beginning, use up as many of those 85 characters as you can. The same goes for the email message, which I’ll get to in a minute.

So instead of:

Subject Line: The Best Cloud Solution


Subject Line: We’re Offering an Industry-Leading Cloud Solution with Excellent ROI

go with

Subject Line: Excellent ROI on Cloud Solution---Our Industry-Leading Access Software

BTW--You Actually Have Two Lines - Not One

In addition to the subject line, you also have the From line, which you can configure however you want. Most companies use the From line to clearly identify the sender – opting for either the company name or the sender’s given name.

Research shows that people are more likely to open emails that have a personal name, but only if it’s a name they recognize. If it’s not, it screams SPAM and they will not open it. So think long and hard before sending an email with only your given name in the From line. However if you only include the company name in the From line, it will also hurt the open rate.

One way to solve this problem is to put your name first – without a title - followed by the company name. But you’ll only have about 40 visible characters to do this. So include your full first name, use only the initial of your last name; abbreviate the company name where possible by eliminating spaces and shortening or eliminating common words; and add in some advertising with the space you have left. For example:

Jean Van Rensselar – Smart PR Communications (38 characters)


Jean VR SmartPRCommun PR for Tech B2Bs (39 characters)

This line is another case where there’s a lot of unused space. If you look at your inbox, you’ll see that almost no one uses more than half of the From line. Just as with the subject line, put the most important info first and then use up as many characters as possible.

So this is your formula for the From Line:

Personal Name + Company Name + Advertising

Back to subject lines. Research shows there’s also a formula for writing compelling subject lines. Here’s where to begin.

The Subject Line

The subject line should coordinate with the From line (i.e. don’t mention the company name again in the subject line). The length of the visible subject line varies according to the email provider, but 85 characters is fairly safe. In those 85 characters, you’ll need to be straightforward, be as brief as possible, avoid certain words, and convey these three messages:

[if !supportLists]1. [endif]A clear feature or benefit

[if !supportLists]2. [endif]Ease of access

[if !supportLists]3. [endif]Immediate value

Offer a Clear Feature or Benefit

Assuming that you know the demographics of your email list, offer a feature or benefit that the people on your list will care about. You’ll have to summarize the feature/benefit in a word or two – this will be your most difficult subject line task (made easier with a thesaurus).

If torn between mentioning a feature or benefit, follow this guideline: Mention the feature if the benefit is obvious. If not, mention the benefit.

Promise Ease

The combination of a relevant benefit and an easy read is powerful. Busy people are much more likely to open something they’re interested in if it looks like it will cut to the chase.

You can do this three ways.

[if !supportLists]1. [endif]Include a word such as “quick” or “easy”

[if !supportLists]2. [endif]Include a small number, “4 Ways to…”

[if !supportLists]3. [endif]If you have room, include both, “4 Quick Ways to…”

Again, if you say it’s going to be “Quick” or “Easy” – it better be.

Promise Immediate Value

Only promise “10 Tips for Reducing Packaging Costs” if you include those tips in the body of the message, in an attachment, or one link away. If there’s room, I like to include the words, “Here’s How” or just “Here” at the end of the subject line.

For example, don’t provide a link to the information that requires the reader to register, wait for a registration confirmation, and then go back to the link. It will annoy readers and get your relationship off to a very bad start. The only thing that will annoy readers more is if they’re asked to pay $95 for a white paper or sign up for a $300 course. If there’s a cost involved, imply it in the subject line. “Course – 10 Tips for Reducing Packaging Costs.”

Be Straightforward

Do not make promises in the subject line about the email message that aren’t true. No one will ever open your emails again. The best advice is to use the subject line for telling, rather than selling what’s in the message.

Avoid Certain Words

The three words/phrases you’ll want to avoid are these:

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Help

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Percent off

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Reminder

In addition to avoiding these three words, avoid other words that convey the same sentiments. For example, “Don’t Forget” is the same as “Reminder”. Why? Researchers have discovered that the click through rates on subject lines with those words and sentiments are low. No one can say exactly why – but they speculate that “Help” and “Reminder” imply work and “Percent off” is always too good to be true.

However, there are legitimate reasons for using those words – for example, someone that opted into a software company’s email list probably would like to know that some programs are 30% off. The operative words here are “opt in”. There are other subject line words and phrases that will trigger a spam filter. You shouldn’t be using these anyway. Some are:

[if !supportLists]· [endif]The recipient’s name

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Information you requested

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Guarantee

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Special Promotion

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Winner

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Free

The list is actually rather long. But you’ve been erasing emails messages for many years and probably know what these words are. Here’s a Substantial List.


Always send a test email/post to yourself first. Don’t copy words from a document and paste them into the subject line. This can cause the characters to mistranslate during the sending process. Always type in the subject line. Don’t use all caps or exclamation marks. Don’t use imperatives such as:

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Must

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Now

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Always

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Never

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Immediately

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Or else

Approach your email subject line and message with the sincere desire to make people’s lives better and easier, and you can’t lose.

Some Good Subject Lines

[if !supportLists]· [endif]From a corporate gift supplier: “Cut the Company Gift Selection Hassle in Half With These 3 Tips” (64characters)

[if !supportLists]· [endif]From a law office: “5-Minute Summary of the New E-Discovery Law Attached—What You Really Need to Know” (82 characters)

[if !supportLists]· [endif]From a bearing manufacturer: “Prolong Coupling Life—3 Quick Ways to Reduce Maintenance Expense Here.” (70 characters)

So Here’s Your Formula

Switch these factors around until you arrive at a formula that’s right for most of the messages you send out. But it really is this simple.

Main Idea (and as much of the following as you can squeeze in ) Small Number + Feature/Benefit + Ease + Immediate Value

Optimizing the Subject Line and Email Message for Mobile

Take this all a step further and optimize your subject lines and email message for mobile devices, including smart phones and tablets. You don’t need to shorten the subject line, the From line or the email message; you just need to frontload the most important information. This means you want the most relevant information at the beginning of subject lines and From lines and at the top of email messages (the same goes for Web pages).

For the email message, summarize the most important information in one paragraph at the top; on the next line add a call to action; and follow that with 1 line of contact info (no spaces between any lines in this top section). Add a space, then add in the full text, and follow that with complete contact info.

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