As you plan your holiday promotional email campaigns, you’ll certainly want to draft subject lines for your intended campaigns. In fact, you’ll want to write multiple subject lines for each one so you can do some A/B testing. To get you inspired, we created this holiday subject line word cloud based on more than 700 subject lines used by national retailers between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, 2022.
If you’re unfamiliar with word clouds, the more frequently a word is used, the larger it appears in the word cloud. So, for instance, some of the most commonly used words in our word cloud include: get, tonight, gifts, deals, and ends.
While that’s interesting, let’s take a deeper dive into what this word cloud reveals about email subject line writing during the holidays and how that can help you write better holiday subject lines.
Themes in Word Choices
First, many of the most popular words fall into six categories. Let’s talk about each of them and share the subject line words that fall into each bucket.
Urgency. Always a strong lever during any seasonal buying occasion, urgency tells subscribers they need to act quickly to take advantage of an offer or ensure a product is available. The words that fall into this category include: tonight, ends, now, last, day, hours, time, left, chance, and final.
Occasion. Working along with urgency, occasion typically puts further restrictions on when action is needed. Unsurprisingly, it’s clear that Black Friday and Cyber Monday were major occasions that drove action. Words and phrases here include: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and to a much lesser extent Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Savings. Shoppers are always looking to stretch their holiday budgets, so the holiday season is very promotional most years. It’s certainly expected to be this year. The words in this category include: deals, sale, extra, deal, save, specials, clearance, and bogo.
Abundance. More than other seasonal buying occasions, the holiday season is a huge celebration that’s about generosity—and, if we’re being honest, about excess. It’s also often about no restrictions when it comes to discounts or deals. Some of the words in this category include: extra, free, everything, every, and plus.
Status. These words help convey the excitement of the holiday season, while also supporting urgency messaging. The words that fall into this category include: new, specials, best, great, and must-haves.
Sentiment. As much as shoppers are looking for value, they’re also looking to connect emotionally with what they’re buying and who they’re buying it for. The words in this category include: dream and favorite. Last year, retailers used sentiment-oriented words considerably less than they did in 2021, when words like cozy, comfort, love, warm, and fun were more popular.
All of those categories and words may not be appropriate for your organization, but look at each category and consider which words might be the most relevant to your audience. Then ask yourself how your brand might say it or put its own spin on it. Make a list of words or phrases to refer back to when it’s time to write!
What’s Missing from Our Word Cloud
Second, let’s recognize some important subject line components that are excluded from our word cloud, but should almost assuredly be present in your subject lines.
Numbers. Whether it’s a percentage-off or dollar savings, numbers are critical to conveying value.
Personalization. Best reserved for highly personalized emails and triggered campaigns, adding personalization to a subject line can be effective.
Creative spellings. While visually eye-catching, these creative spellings such as Laaaast, S A L E, and sooooo goooood can be problematic for screen readers and voice assistants. Use them thoughtfully, if at all.
Punctuation. So many exclamation marks!!! And how many question marks are too many questions marks? Who knows, but both are long-standing subject line elements, along with dashes (-), bars (|), and other symbols.
Emoji. Another powerful visual element, emoji are best used at the beginning and end of subject lines, and as a divider between ideas. According to Oracle research, 9% of retailers’ holiday promotional emails included emoji in their subject lines.
Sender’s name. Many retailers used their own brand names in their subject lines, including as part of the name of their loyalty program or sale name.
Brand names. In addition to promoting general sales and category-specific sales, plenty of retailers promoted their most popular product brands. You should, too.
We excluded the names of both senders and brands to protect the anonymity of our customers, as well as in recognition that your most popular brands may be different.
Evolve Your Strategy over the Season
Third, think about how and when your vocabulary might need to shift throughout the holiday season. You probably want to express a variety of sentiments or levels of urgency at different points—and for different audiences! Identify those points in time and audience segments, and then note the change in tone and messaging in your content calendar.
For example, generally speaking, we find that abundance and status themes are the most prevalent in October, the occasion and savings themes most popular in November, and urgency most popular in December.
Analyze Your Own Subject Line Word Choices
And fourth, look at your own subject lines from last November and December. Consider using wordclouds.com or another word cloud generator to see which words you used the most and what word themes were the most prevalent.
Then compare that to what we found. Doing this should reveal lots of opportunities for subject line A/B tests. Test your choice of words or put different categories head-to-head and see what resonates most with your audience, or various segments of your audience. And of course, hold onto your word list and test results for next year!
Need help with the subject lines for your campaigns? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers and employees, even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from creative and strategy to content planning and project management. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.
Want to better understand your email marketing risks and opportunities, take advantage of our free Email Marketing Assessment. Our experts will check your deliverability, review your email creative, audit your signup process, do a partial competitive analysis, and more. If interested in this free assessment, reach out to us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.
Kelly Moran is Senior Art Director for Copy at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. She is a writer by day and by night with a background in linguistics. Her understanding of copywriting across channels has been shaped by her experience in customer success, content management, and supporting boutique brands in retail and e-commerce.
Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.