How to Write the Perfect Subject Line


It takes up so much real estate in our professional lives. There are even podcasts dedicated to it, teaching us how to wrangle it, tame it, understand it. As a marketing agency, we’re both senders and receivers of a massive amount of email—personal and promotional. We have developed a nose for what makes an email good and what makes one…well, stink.

Today, we’re focusing on the most crucial part of the entire email: The Subject Line.

Let’s begin with in-agency one-word associations:

“I say subject line, you say what?”

Creative Director: “Meaning.”
Senior Copywriter: “Inspiring.”
Junior Interactive Copywriter: “Difficult.”
Junior Web Developer: “Pivotal.”
Director of Web Strategy: “Catchy.”
Art Director: “Catchy.”

Subject lines are tricky S.O.Bs.

We’re all searching for a “Best Practice” that will increase all measurable signs that our emails are a hit, something that will get open rates up 50%, conversion rates up 40% and profits up 30%.

But what happens when there seems to be no playbook with a winning streak?

Director of Web Strategy: “One brand we worked with threw all convention and acceptable practice out the window. All they put in their subject line was the name of the recipient. I received this ominous email with just my name. I opened it and apparently much of their listerv did, too. The open rates haven’t been seen before or since. It was such an anomaly.”

(Stay tuned for why this was actually a bad strategy.)

Before you get frustrated and quit your day job as a semi-professional email crafter to pursue your daydream of being a quasi-professional kayaker, rest assured that beyond these anomalies there are guidelines that generate reliable (not the sexiest of buzzwords, we know) results for emails.

1. The subject line matters most, so spend more than a minute on it.

You’ve poured your heart and soul into this email. Never has there been such witty, informative, life-changing content. You kiss your computer screen. You pat yourself on the back. You release your creation into the world with a two-cent subject line.

“The work will speak for itself,” you’re sure.

A few days later, you check the open rates.

They’re abysmal.

This lesson is hard learned, so take it from us: your effort is worth bupkis if the subject line is not motivating someone to click on it. That’s a phenomenal email down the drain.

It may seem unjustifiable to spend as much time on one sentence (or sentence fragment, or single word), as you do on some paragraphs, but first impressions matter. A lot.

2. Click bait is quickly becoming click turn-offs.

It may rile you (or tempt you) when you see companies getting higher open rates with nothing but emojis, OR ALL CAPS, or ominous one-word subject lines (like just the recipient’s name).

Here’s why that strategy was penny-smart and dollar-stupid: you want to foster a history of healthy communication with your customer base. Trying to get them to open an email by being sly is going to hurt your brand’s reputation. No one is going to support an organization if they feel it is trying to sneak in through the back door.

Besides, the majority of internet users are savvy enough to see through someone trying to get opens with gimmicks. Often, they will intentionally refuse to indulge that.

Remember: an association with integrity never hurt anyone. Respect the intelligence of your consumers and they’ll respect you. Failing to do so will damage trust, increase unsubscribe rates and get bad word-of-mouth flowing. And really, if you need to trick your customers into looking at what you have to offer, there may be a larger issue at hand.

3. Keep it relevant.

TJAers have an endless list for why they don’t open some emails. But when asked what makes them open one, there’s a resounding answer: Relevancy.  People want to spend time doing and consuming things that directly benefit them.

The easiest thing in the world for a business to do is write about themselves. The smartest thing a business can do is write to improve the lives of those who are reading. Advice, references, anecdotes, lessons and resources that are written in a way that speaks directly to the needs of your readers will deliver results.

The subject line needs to demonstrate that direct benefit. It needs to answer the “Why should I read this?” question before it’s been asked.

The best subject lines are yet to come.

You are now armed and ready to reenter the highly competitive world of subject lines. Make sure all the work you put into the actual content is justified by getting it opened. Respect your readers by giving their intelligence more credit than your competitors and they’ll return the favor. Lastly, stay humble: it’s not all about you. Your customers are the reason you thrive, so cater to them and their needs while demonstrating why you continue to serve them best.

Now, go get read. 


How to Write the Perfect Subject Line
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