Making a First Impression: Email Subject Lines

Email Subject Lines

I love getting emails!  On a daily basis, I will probably receive about 100 emails between my work and personal accounts.  The majority of these are actually emails from various retailers – Gap, Amazon, Chapters and Shoppers Drug Mart frequently show up in my inbox.  But as much as I love seeing new emails pop up, I admit that even I don’t open every email that I get – some I delete right away, others I open hours or days after I receive them.  Being on the receiving end of all these emails have definitely helped me understand better the psychology behind email campaigns.  But I’ll be the first to admit it, I still have a lot to learn (and a lot of testing to do).

When it comes to emails, the first metric my clients will ask about is the open rate.  A lot of factors can impact the open rate but I believe the subject line to be the biggest determining factor. Here are the results of a few tests that I’ve done (on both B2B and B2C emails):

  • The long & short of it: short subject lines tend to have a higher open rate than long ones. From my research, subject lines should be no longer than 50 characters long. I know that for myself, I actually will stop reading somewhere character 40 and 50.
  • To the point: put the most important part of your message at the beginning (in case your subscribers are like me and lose interest halfway through the sentence!) Give enough information to let people know what the email is about, but reveal just enough to entice them to open the email to find out more.
  • To use or not to use numbers: one thing to think about is why they signed up for the emails in the first place. For people that sign up to get the latest promotions, emails with numbers in the subject lines tend to have a higher open rate. Make sense right? They want to see promotions and are attracted to percentage discounts. For subscribers that “just want to stay in touch” they might prefer subject lines without the constant sales pushes.
  • Questions? Question subject lines have been effective for me for both B2B and B2C emails. This requires a deeper understanding of the target audience and what they would find interesting and relatable.
  • Balancing act: emails that inform rather than sell have been quite effective – again, it comes down to why they signed up for the emails. Informing doesn’t mean there is no sales pitch – you just have to think about the call-to-actions. There has to be a balance between the sales pitch and education.
  • Creating urgency: deadlines, or limited offers create interest and I have found them to be effective in boosting open rates.

As well, with the recent update to the Google inbox set-up, most of my mailing list emails are ending up under the “Promotion” tab which I assume is happening across the board to all my clients.  This will be an added challenge to maintaining the open rates (let alone increasing it!) Combined with a more sophisticated audience that is already bombarded with countless marketing messages every day, more than ever, we will have to work on finding the secret formula for writing the perfect subject line!


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