First of all, this is not a blog post about how to write email subject lines that sell (though it may help you do that).
It’s also not a blog post about how to write good sales copy. I’ve got nine thoughts on how to do that here.
When you get an email, there is, like the title of a book or a chapter, the subject line.
It is, in many ways, the headline to your email.
My mentor Robert Middleton said this recently, “I agonize over subject lines. It’s kind of an art.”
I think that’s the right attitude to have.
This blog post came from an email that myself and many colleagues received from someone in our industry (you’ll hear more about it in Though #2). This inspired a lot of big conversations about it, and tactics like it, in a private facebook group. And that all inspired this blog post.
Thought #1: The subject line is not the most important factor in an email being opened.
Not by a long shot. It’s not that they aren’t important, it’s just that they’re a distant number two from the most important reason – who it’s from. If the email is from someone they deeply love and trust, they’re almost guaranteed to notice it and far more likely to open it. There is so much attention given to the subject line but it’s just not the most important thing.
Two things this means:
1) Having your message delivered by key influencers and hubs will have a lot of impact.
2) If you are not trusted, it doesn’t matter how good your subject line is. So, if you do things that break trust with your followers, your emails will be ignored. This leads neatly into thought #2…
A colleague of mine Kathy Mallary said this, “Another thing that rarely gets mentioned is that if you are doing a good job of building a meaningful, value-based relationship with the people on your list (a first step might be to refer to them AS people, rather than “my list”!), then your subject lines will probably get better results no matter what — even if they, shall we say, ‘suck‘. For instance, if Mark Silver or Robert Middleton were to send me an email that said “Sorry, but I have to move on…” I would DEFINITELY open it, and even if inside they were to (accidentally, I’m sure) say something silly like “I’m really sorry that I have failed to communicate the value this program could create for you and that now we are leaving you behind!” I would most definitely email them back and check to see what the heck is going on, because that kind of message affects our relationship. Because both Mark and Robert have consistently taken the trouble to build a relationship with their audience, and as one of their tribe, I trust them and care about what they’re up to. So if you’re the marketer, I encourage you to get up to speed on relationship marketing — it’s actually a “thing”. And getting good at it might actually create the space and forgiveness you need so you can afford to make a silly mistake once in a while (who doesn’t?!).”
Thought #2: Your subject line is a promise that the email fulfills (or not).
Whatever you write in the subject line is a promise to them.
The email is where you fulfill that promise.
If you consistently make good on your promises (and maybe even over deliver) people will trust you.
If you consistently break your promises, people will trust you less.
Here’s the story about how this blog post came to be (it includes an epic rant).
One of my colleagues got an email from another colleague which had a subject line that she felt (and I agree) was misleading.
The subject line was, “Here’s my phone number”.
But the email she gave in it, was not her personal cell phone number. It was a conference bridge line. This is a part of the email.
“I’ve never done this before – so TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ME!
Here are the details:
Primary dial in number: (425) 440-5100
Secondary dial in number: (513) 233-7881
Guest pin code: 834536#
Give Me a Call … I’d LOVE to Meet You!!!”
My colleague was upset and ranted, “Oh for the LOVE of all that is HOLY – do not EVER EVER EVER send an email to your list with the subject line “here’s my phone number” and then give a motherfucking conference bridge line. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? DO YOU THINK I AM A COMPLETE MORON?? WHAT THE WHAT?!?!?! She’s never done this before? What? Given out a bridge line? Who suggested to her she do this? Has she lost her mind. This is the most disingenuous, insidious and offensive marketing email I have ever gotten. She was trying to like dupe the reader into believing it was her personal number…. Just say you are having a Q&A call and you will stay on to answer any question – TERRIFIC – AMAZING – I LOVE IT – I DO IT – I ENDORSE IT…. but pretend you are giving out your personal phone number?!?!? Just a douchey move on my part. Way way way douchey and bad for the entire industry. My point is – say that – “I’m having a Q&A call and I’ll stay on the line until every question is answered.” But don’t pretend we are friends and you are giving me ‘your’ phone number and that it’s something you’ve ‘never done before.’ That’s the dirty creepy gross part – to me. I think we can all still make lots of money and make a huge difference without lying or manipulating people into it. In my personal gut, heart and soul, I believe that they wrote that subject line to get me to think that inside there would be a personal number – maybe a cell phone, maybe a google number but not a bridge line. I have never used the phrase “here’s my phone number” to refer to a group call. It also implies – TO ME – in my interpretation — a personal call between me and the sender. So my vet just sent me an email with his number and I’m going to call him. I believe they wanted the reader to think they were going to have a private call with her before they opened the email.”
And I agree with her rant. I think it’s how more and more of us are feeling these days.
The email subject line made a promise.
The email broke it.
You must deliver on what you promise.
Of course, it’s not always so blatant.
I’ve seen many email subject lines that I felt were misleading to me.
Here are the usual suspects that are just so clearly hyped up and disingenuous.
- “The World’s Best ________” – In the world? Amazing. I know a donair shop that is the best in the world too! The sign says so!
- “You can make a million dollars too – using my system” – Somehow I suspect this system will involve me sending emails to others with the headline, “You can make a million dollars too – using my system”…
- “Meet the woman of your dreams – simply read this book” – Phew! I was scared I might have to actually start a conversation and risk something.
- “I saw what this ____ did with this ____ and I can’t believe it!”- Really? You couldn’t believe it? Were you actually that shocked?
- “You can lose/get _______ with this one weird trick” – Really? That’s all it takes? One thing? And, real talk, how weird is it actually?
- “I’m a Nigerian Prince and I’d like to help you” – For once, I’d like to meet an actual Nigerian prince. I bet he’d be charming as hell. We’d go on adventures. It’d be the best.
- “I Have No Secrets <- (Open BEFORE 3pm Pacific Today!)” Really? Or will the content of this email be annoying and all baiting.
- “This amazing product for you for such a low price, but I have to take it down forever after ______ date.” – You have to? HAVE to?
- “This is the best thing you’ve read all day!” – How do you know? Creeper.
- “‘Secret’ Leaked Video: Watch Here Tad!”- Whoa! What an exclusive scoop! Thank you for secretly leaking the video and then totally leaking it and secretly announcing it to your list of thousands. I’m so glad this isn’t some marketing ploy to make the video seem more valuable!
“watch this movie 3 times/week and watch your in…come go up by at least 10K, mine did” – If this worked, a dear friend of mine would be a horse whisperer by now. And I’d be travelling space and time in a TARDIS.
“This REVOLUTIONARY training” – Move over Che Guevera! THIS is what a revolution is all about! Packing old ideas in a new way and selling them for millions!
All of the above, could be legit. If they’re legit and sincere.
As one of my friends said, “a red flag is anything that promises to blow me away, blow my mind, blow up my sales, etc. Just talk like a normal person already.”
You must deliver on what you promise.
Here are ten more examples of email subject lines that are often subtly misleading…
EXAMPLE #1: “I’ve never been so vulnerable!”: Subject lines like, “This is the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever shared” or “I’m really scared to share this with you . . .” only to read it and have the vulnerable thing be something salesy that is clearly not very vulnerable at all. They used my caring of them as a hook to get me to open the email. That didn’t feel good. As another colleague of mine, Teray, shared, “When someone sends too many “vulnerable”, “embarrassing” subject headings in a row…it starts to feel like me me me me.”
EXAMPLE #2: Using Family Photos: My dear colleague Morgana Rae expressed her discomfort at marketers using truly heartfelt things as bait, “I heard about a colleague who recently shared pictures of her newborn baby, then tied that into a marketing campaign. At the end of the day, be a person.“
EXAMPLE #3: Feigning Vulnerable Stories: My colleague David Jurasek expressed how, “The ones I get fooled into opening and annoy me most are when folks I generally trust pretend to get all up close and personal about their own story and then I find out in the email they are being quite superficial and linking me to their “good friend” who helped them once and is now selling a program.“
EXAMPLE #4: re: Other colleagues of mine pointed out how much disdain they had for emails that began with “re:”. Kim Page Gluckie said, “I don’t like the new trend to start with “Re: ……” It implies we have had a personal conversation or exchanged a 1:1 email. When it shows up in the subject line it feels overly familiar and contrived. Because it is. It happens on the lists I’m sure I never actually subscribed to.”
EXAMPLE #5: provocatively misleading: Kathy Mallary shared, ” I think the worst I’ve gotten from an “expert” started off with this subject: ‘Sorry, but I have to move on…’ and then went on to say: ‘I’m really sorry that I have failed to communicate the value this program could create for you and that now we are leaving you behind!’”
EXAMPLE #6: “I’m puzzled.”: I-ching worker Hilary Barrett of the UK was not too impressed when she opened an email with the subject line “Hilary, I’m puzzled.” and how the email went on to explain how puzzling it was that she hadn’t signed up for whatever-it-is. “I think these are generally the last one in an auto responder series, sent with the thought, ‘Well, if she unsubscribes now it’s fine, because she’s not buying anyway.’” I’ve gotten a few of these and felt like, ‘I’m puzzled why you feel entitled to my business…’ Another colleague sent out an email with the headline, “So… What gives?” and a different colleague, Thea, commented on it, “I know you agree with me, but I just had to vent. Why do people use guilt to try to get clients?!!! Pisses me off. Just received this email with the headline, “I thought building a business was important to you. I thought having the freedom to live life exactly the way you wanted was your dream. And I surely thought if I gave you the fastest path I know to big money … and made it absolutely free … you’d jump at the chance. I’ve done all that for you … and you still haven’t signed up for the FINAL encore of ….” And my colleague Rachel had this to say, “Ahhhhh!!! This happened to me a few months ago…where when I decided to opt out of doing a program, I was told that I *clearly* didn’t care enough and I preferred to just sit back and let my dreams and goals pass me by. UH…WHAT??!?! You were just trying to SELL something? Buh bye.” And Robert Middleton insightfully noted, “I’ll admit it. I want to send that kind of email all the time. But I restrain myself! Instead, I try to find an inspiring reason for them to take action. Sure works better. We need to remember that people do things for their reasons, not your reasons. The more you understand those reasons, the better results you’ll get.” Fact.
EXAMPLE #7: “I’m about to explode!” Or the Jay Abraham classic headline, “I’ve got to get this off my chest before I explode”. If you have something you feel that intense about, then sure, use that headline, but many of the times I’ve seen it used it felt like a contrivance. Like they knew that was a winning headline and then sort of reverse engineered it to try and come up with something they needed to get off their chest that might possibly relate to what they’re selling.
EXAMPLE #8: The False Promise of Info: Another colleague of mine shared this, “I can’t stand when a title implies there will be info in an email, and they try to redirect me somewhere else to get said info. I usually find this with business newsletters. They bait you about finding out about some incredible opportunity and inside there’s a link to a promo video on a website, trying to sell you access to the info you were interested in.” Again, the promise implied one thing but the reality was another. A friend of mine shared with me, “I just foolishly clicked on one a few minutes ago, thinking I was going to read some research: “Surprising ways to reduce neuropathy” with a picture of a woman rubbing her foot. The ‘article’ an add for some kind of supplement.” The photo seems to have been used to imply that massaging your foot could do it when the real intent was to sell a supplement. Another colleague of mine vented about someone she used to love, “Dr. Mercola (who I LOVE for his pioneering on alternative healthcare) now clearly has a copy/article writing staff and they’ve been using an article summary gimmick in his newsletter that contains 5-6 articles. It’s a complete turn off the last couple of years. Something like “This food will give you Alzheimers and your won’t believe what it is!!” And then the article never actually mentions a specific food. I’ve gotten so I won’t read any article with that kind of sensational come on. When you grow to have a staff, you have to watch their brilliant marketing ideas!”
My colleague Nick Pfennigwerth wrote this, “In the past two months my best email subject that received a 33% open rate was: ’90% of Your Business Problems are Solved with This Change’” That’s a big promise. If he delivers a solid answer to it in his email that makes sense to people, he will build a huge amount of trust. But if it was something like, “Think more positive” without much of a unique take on it… he will lose trust and followers fast.
You must deliver on what you promise.
What’s the point of enticing people to open gifts from you if the gifts are always disappointing. That will hurt your reputation.
Another important reason to avoid sneaky subject lines that has nothing to do with you…
But it’s more than that, and this is important, it hurts the reputation of the industry. My dear colleague George Kao speaks beautiful of the notion of sustainable marketing. He urges people to look at any marketing tactic through the lense of “if everyone in my industry marketed like this, what would the impact be?”
And, I put it to you, if you knew that every email you got from a marketing coach like myself was a lie, what would you do?
I tell you what I would stop doing – opening the emails.
One colleague put it this way, “To further prove your point, I know exactly which email you’re referring to in your friend’s rant of Point #2, because i received it, too. Up until that email, I’d appreciated the value in what that particular person/company had to offer, even if the emails they sent weren’t totally my style. I am a good listener so I can make allowance for communication style. But that particular email tipped me over the edge and made me ask if that person/company had now dipped into the “dark side” of marketing. I thought of unsubscribing, haven’t decided yet. Even more interesting, though, is that it got me wondering about all of the other people in the industry who sometimes forward me that company’s programs as affiliates. They were sort of tainted by associate n. (sorr y, I think that might mean you too, Tad, but by now you know I’m a devoted fan of your stuff :) So, your friend’s point about it casting a shadow over the whole industry is well-taken. I guess the other very practical thing that occurs to me is that poor subject lines mean that, as a small business owner, you are much more likely to have people identify your email as spam, which will hurt your ability to spread the word in future.”
The way we conduct ourselves in business doesn’t just impact us, it impacts our colleagues, our industry and the level of trust in the marketplace as a whole. Using unethical marketing approaches, no matter how successful they are, is, ultimately, a very selfish act.
And one could legitimately raise the case that, “Everyone does this!” Sure. That’s true. But old man Hargrave asks you, “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?” Yes. Newspaper and internet headlines are full of hype. But is that the world we want where our word means nothing anymore? Where we assume everyone is lying to us?
Ask yourself, “Based on the subject line… Will people feel satisfied with this email or disappointed?”
This matters, because, especially in the seminar industry, we often see a pattern of broken promises. The subject line promises something that the email doesn’t deliver because the email is promising those answers can be found in a free live workshop. But the free live workshop leader tells you that, of course, those questions are too big to be answered in a single evening so you should sign up for the full weekend… Which turns out to just be a weekend of being sold into a high end coaching program. And yet, at no point was much value delivered.
Be wary of over promising. Sure, it will fill up your workshops. But with people who quickly wither on the vine and become bitter towards you.
I’m not arguing that these tactics don’t work. They do… in the short term. But they erode trust in the long term. Simon Sinek makes this point brilliantly here.
Are we impeccable with our word or not? This is the real question.
You must deliver on what you promise.
Thought #3: The point of the subject line is not to get people to open the email.
This is a bit of tricky wisdom.
Yes you want your email opened. But not by ‘people’. ‘People’ is code for everyone. And you do not want everyone on your list to open every email you send. Whaaaa???
I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
If I really wanted to get people on my email list to open an email, if that was my only goal, the subject line would be something like, “I”m dying and this is my last email to you.” That would go gangbusters. Except for the small peccadillo that it’s not true at all (beyond the dying bit which I’m hoping is a very, very long ways away). But you feel me. If the point was just to get them to open up your email, surely we could come up with more compelling things! “I’m pregnant!”, “I’m getting married!”, “This simple trick could double your profits overnight! Actually! No Hype.” etc.
But then we become the boy who cried wolf. And people come to learn, “Oh. Their subject lines are always provocative but the content is just the usual.”
And then there’s the whole ‘using-people’s-names-in-the-subject-line-thing’. Like a friend shared with me, “I recently got an email where the email subject line was, “We’re meeting today, right, Brenda?” And then it was a teleclass promo. I hate it when it’s made to look like it’s an individual email specifically for me.” I am also not a fan. It is insincere. It’s trying to give the impression that this email is just for me. Why? So you’re more likely to open it. But it’s not just for you. As my friend Craig Martin put it, “When I see my name in the subject line, 99% of the time it’s a Constant Contact user trying to appear more personal while sending out mass emails that have nothing to do with.me. If it’s something useful, tell me what it’s about and let me decide. Don’t pretend to be my buddy.”
I don’t think the purpose of the email subject line is there to somehow, by any means necessary, get everyone on your list to open every email. The point of the subject line should be to help people know if this email in particular is one that would be relevant to them and to state that in the most compelling way possible.
To state it another way: the purpose of the subject line is to get the right people to open the email (and make sure people the email isn’t a fit for don’t).
To give a specific example. I recently sent out an email with the subject line ‘Do you lead workshops (or are you thinking of leading them)? It got a 22% open rate (my average these days is around 20%). Some people saw that headline and thought, ‘I don’t lead workshops and I don’t ever intend to. This email is clearly not for me.’ and they didn’t open it.
In my mind, that’s a success.
The goal of marketing isn’t to get people to say ‘yes’. There are three roles. First, to get their attention. Second, to filter and establish, as quickly as possible, if there is a fit at all between what you’re offering and what they’re wanting and needing. And third, to lower the risk of taking the first step.
Ideally your subject line does as much of the following as possible.
It lets them know what to expect in the email, who it’s for and what the benefit of that all is. It explains the value in the email. It helps them, in seconds, decide whether or not to open it.
It gives them a compelling sneak peak inside. A teaser. A micro summary. It piques their interest. Intrigue, engage, and intoxicate with the promise of real value (and then the email must deliver on what was promised).
What’s the point of getting them to open the email, if it, even in a small way, breaks trust with them?
It has the right people say, as my colleague Leslie Nipps put it, “Well crap! I gotta open this!” Rather than “Oh, one of my five bazillion emails in my inbox. Delete.” It’s got to give the right people a good reason to read more.
An important, and perhaps obvious note: the purpose of the subject line isn’t to get them to open the email. People who aren’t a fit deciding not to open your emails because of the subject line is a big success. But, you do enough of the right people opening up your emails to sustain yourself. So the key is to be focused on making sure you’re sending out the right things to your list rather than focused on the subject lines. And I suspect that this is a sticking point for many entrepreneurs with email lists, they haven’t really settled on a niche and so their emails are a bit all over the place. If someone had a laser focused niche and sends out emails that are 100% on topic for the people in their niche with compelling subject lines… they’ll do very well. The subject lines are the lipstick. The email is the pig. Pigs do not look good in lipstick.
You must deliver on what you promise.
But you also need to be promising things that are relevant to your people.
And, of course, this means that you need to know who your people are. Which most entrepreneurs don’t. If you can’t articulate what you do clearly, no fancy subject line will save you.
Thought #4: The subject line should be as clear and compelling as possible.
You might be thinking that I mean email subject lines should just be literal, factual and to the point.
But that’s not what I’m saying.
Toronto based copywriter Rachel Sparacio-Foster points out “anything that says something like “Latest Newsletter” is boring. It should tell me more about what’s in the newsletter.”
A blog reader, Monica O’Rourke backed this up with her words, “I recently unsubscribed from a recipe email list because every single time the subject line was “Check out our new recipes.” I bit once or twice, and the content was equally boring. So, ummm, no thanks. You can’t take a moment to highlight an interesting recipe to get me to open your email (as every other list I’m on does)? Then I’m not interested.”
So, I’m not arguing for being boring. As author Derrick Jensen says of the central rule of writing, “Don’t bore your reader.”
But, as Robert Middleton pointed out, it’s an art.
I remember hearing a story about three different headlines created for the same public speaking course. The first one, that got an okay response, was, “Public Speaking Course”. That’s very clear. Their second attempt was, “Learn how to speak confidently in public.” That feels a bit closer to the bone. That’s a bit closer to what people are actually craving. They don’t just want to learn the technicalities of speaking. They want to not feel so scared to do it. The third headline was the most successful, “How to Get Rousing Applause, Even a Standing Ovation, Every Time You Speak”. This spoke to what people were craving at the core. The response. Now, we can have a meaningful debate about whether feeding people’s egos like this is a good thing to do but that is a better way of saying the same thing and likely something they can deliver on (as long as their marketing also filters out people who wouldn’t stand a chance of succeeding) and the rest of their marketing clarified the promise.
Don’t bore your reader.
But there is something even more important here and I am underlining it so you get it.
Do. Not. Waste. My. Time.
Do not trick me into opening an email that isn’t actually useful or relevant to for me.
Do not bait and switch me.
That doesn’t turn annoy me. It angers me. It speaks to a level of disrespect that I have zero time for.
I am unspeakably busy with things that matter to me. Do not steal my time.
Do. Not. Waste. My. Time.
And this post isn’t about how to write a compelling subject line.
Although here are a few simple tips:
- Geography: If you’re promoting a workshop in a certain city, tell me that in the title. Don’t raise my hopes and make me spend 30 seconds opening and reading your email to find out the workshop is happening on the other side of the planet.
- Dates: Is it time sensitive? Tell me in the subject line.
- Problem/Result: Can you let me know what issue this email will help me with? What result it will help me get?
Basically, just help me understand what’s in the email.
Want to know how to do write more compelling subject lines?
Here are a few posts to get you started:
Megan Mars wrote a fine post called The 9 Best Email Subject Line Styles to Increase Your Open Rates. Affilorama had some good pointers here. Entrepreneur magazine share their thoughts here.
But my favourite post I found on this was from Copyblogger – read it here.