The Lost Art of the Subject Line

Image for The Lost Art of the Subject Line

If you’re reading this, it’s because you either (a) subscribe to the VanillaSoft blog (Way to go you awesome person!) or (b) you googled “good email subject line” or “catchy email subject lines” or “best email subject lines for sales.” We get it – you can spend hours getting the content of your email perfect, but if that subject line isn’t just right, all that perfection will go to waste.

Here’s what you need to know to begin to master the lost art of the subject line:

  • At least 47% of emails are read on mobile platforms (source)
  • 47% of email recipients open an email based on the subject line alone (source)
  • 69% of email recipients report spam based solely on the subject line (source)

The deck is undoubtedly stacked against most modern sellers. Aside from the stats above, the internet is littered with hundreds of articles with suggestions of subject lines to try out – many promising 2-10x open rates. So how do you know what’s right for you, your product or service, and, most importantly, your buyers?

Best Email Subject Lines for Sales 

Honestly – no one can tell you with certainty what will work for your unique situation. Industry benchmarks are easy to find, but they don’t take your buyer persona, industry, team size, or region into account. There are no silver bullet subject lines.

To make it even worse, when someone shares what worked for them on social media, it’s common for lots of other people to then emulate that tactic. (Which they absolutely should do.) The problem with this is that the buyers get flooded with the same tactic and become immune. Think of it like antibiotic resistance. If everyone who gets a cold takes penicillin, it won’t cure a cold (because it’s a virus, not a bacteria), and all the bacteria in the body get exposed to that drug. Any that survive are now immune to it. So when you get an infection later on, the penicillin isn’t as effective.  Buyers operate the same way. They can only see a subject line 1-2 times before they know it’s a sales tactic and ignore it.

A good example of this is to insert the prospect’s name into the subject line. This rose in popularity with email automation tools and the ability to leverage form fields. Initial data showed that including the name in the subject lines increased open rates considerably. However, over time that impact has slowed to the point where this author can’t find any data from the past 18 months, which tells her this tactic has saturated the market and isn’t commonly used.

“But wait!” you ask, “Aren’t you supposed to help me? All you’re doing is telling me how hard this is to do well!”  Don’t worry – we’re here to walk you through this just like your own personal sensei. First, you have to understand what you’re up against, then (aka next) we’ll teach you how to fight back.

good email subject line

Just like Mr. Miyagi, we’re going to start with some basic principles. Commit these to memory, and you’re well on your way to creating your own custom subject lines. It’s more important to understand why certain subject lines work and others don’t because otherwise, you’ll always be guessing what will and won’t work. (Which means it’ll take you significantly longer to find something that works)

Lesson #1 – Don’t be deceptive

The worst outcome when testing subject lines isn’t a low open rate – it’s a high open rate paired with a high unsubscribe rate. When a prospect opens an email expecting one thing and finds another, you immediately break trust. We’ve all received an email we thought was from a friend, opened it up, and found a sales pitch. Your heart sinks, and sometimes you write off the company altogether. Please. Don’t do this.

Some examples you may see of this are utilizing “Re:” at the beginning of your subject line (to make it look like you’re replying to a previous email), lying about the reason for the email (I once received an email saying “Did I leave my jacket at your place,” but it was just a promo), or faking a referral (“Steve told me to email you,” and you pick a generic name instead of rooting it in reality).  

Additionally, depending on the severity of the deception you could be legally liable (in the US) under the CAN-SPAM Act which expressly prohibits “a subject heading of the message would be likely to mislead a recipient, acting reasonably under the circumstances, about a material fact regarding the contents or subject matter of the message.” Not worth it – for you or the company.

Lesson #2 – The shorter, the better (to a point)

We already know most email is read on mobile – which severely restricts the number of characters visible in the subject line. Aside from that, most email programs only “preview” a set number of characters. The shorter the subject line – the quicker it can be read, and the more likely a prospect is to open the email.

Marketo did an excellent analysis of subject lines to determine the “ideal” word length and came up with FOUR words. Four measly little words to hook your prospect. Actually, you can go as high as seven words, and you only lose 3%, but beyond that, it falls significantly.

However, it isn’t that simple. Marketo also looked at the clickthrough rate, and emails with SEVEN words in the subject line had the highest clickthrough rate. (By contrast, subject lines with eight words had HALF the responses.) The difference in engagement between four and eight-word subject lines was about 2% – so this author suggests keeping your subject lines in that 4-7 word sweet spot unless absolutely necessary.

Lesson #3 – Hint at the reason for the email

While you can’t (and shouldn’t) explain the full reason you’re reaching out in the subject line (see Lesson #2), you must give some taste that indicates what’s inside in the body of the email and what the call to action will be. The best subject lines will whet the prospect’s interest – highlighting the pain point you’ll help them solve, creating a sense of urgency, teasing some research you’re offering. This helps establish value immediately and builds credibility.

This is how you can be sure you’re generating “good” opens (ie, they opened because they’re intrigued) vs. bad opens (they opened thinking it was something else). Try breaking out a thesaurus and looking at synonyms to test for common ways to describe your product, service, pain points, or anything else you want to discuss. This also helps you to establish a reputation for “giving first” instead of “asking first” which only helps when you actually ask for whatever you’ll end up asking for.

Lesson #4 – Stand out through creativity and humor

True masters of the subject line arts can deploy a joke, pun or turn of phrase with deadly precision. Humor is a tricky thing – highly subjective and easily misunderstood. You never want to come across as child-like or make a joke that offends the prospect. If you’re worried it will piss someone off, don’t send it.

However, a well-placed dad-joke or a pun that demonstrates a clear understanding of the prospect’s day-to-day responsibilities can instantly make you one of their favorite people. Creative subject lines can also break through the noise – reference research you’ve done into the target company or prospect. If you’re going creative, make sure to really go creative – separate yourself from classic sales subject lines as much as possible. Don’t be subtle. Make a strong statement and watch the reactions pour in.

Lesson #5 – Know your audience

Just like a stand up comic or any other performer, without a strong understanding and empathy for your target persona, you cannot hope to write a subject line that will resonate. You have to understand not just the pain points you handle but all aspects of their jobs. If you’re unsure how a subject line will play, try asking within your company. Find your target within your own company – or through your network and see what they think. Ask for honest feedback “Would you open this email?” and listen to their feedback. 

Now some practice

higher open rates

It’s time to start putting these lessons into practice. Mastering the art of the subject line requires frequent, consistent testing. What works today will stop working in 3-6 months. Mastery comes from significant time watching open rates, constantly a/b testing new ideas, and never settling for existing results. Let the data drive your decisions, and don’t be afraid to try something that seems a bit “crazy.” The bigger the bet – the bigger the reward, and the quicker you’ll see if it works or not.

Not sure where to start? May we suggest the following:

  • Test variables/form fills – start with “company name” and/or the prospect’s first name. A/B test a subject line without a variable and one with it. (“John – How’s your budget looking?” vs. “How’s your budget looking?”
  • General vs. Personalized – If your software allows it and you have time try A/B testing a persona or company-specific subject line vs. a custom variable filled in with research for each prospect (ie, a reference to a prospect’s alma mater)
  • Asking a Question – A recent trend is asking an open-ended question that is a non-insulting but common pain point for specific personas. See what phrasing the subject as a question vs. a statement does!
sales email subject

Don’t get discouraged if the first couple of subject lines you try don’t have the results you want. Practice (and iteration) makes perfect. Focus on testing and gradually adjusting based on results. You’ll be better off starting something with lower results and gradually iterating over a couple of weeks than continuing to use something you know needs to be changed for weeks waiting for the “right” subject line to come to you. Be patient. The higher open rates you want will come.

So what are you planning to test? What crazy ideas do you have? Tell your sensei what worked for you and where you get stuck. This art takes as much time to perfect as it takes to grow a bonsai – but this is one skill that will pay off throughout your career.

Watch Now! ------------------------------------- Shitty Sales Emails: Are you a repeat offender? 

LEARN MORE