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The Secret of Successful Email Subject Lines

Kaila Garrison
Product Marketing Manager


Your email is finished—drafted, crafted, done. The design looks great. The message is on target for your audience. It’s in the queue and ready to distribute. All you need is a compelling subject line. Why is that the hardest part to write? 


Mark Twain may have answered it years ago: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.


Your subject line has to be right. To start, you have to understand its relative importance. Assuming you start with a valid email address and your email gets delivered, the subject line is the second-most important part of the effort. It’s the first thing your audience will see. It is your headline, and if you think of it that way, you’ll approach it with great care.


Whether you’re promoting a product, a service or new content on your site, here are five keys to great subject lines, adapted from legendary advertising mogul David Ogilvy’s thoughts on headlines.


  1. Be Truthful. Why? First, because it’s always best practice in business (and in life) to tell the truth. But, if that were not enough, today’s decision-maker is savvy. Bombarded with messages from every angle, she has become discerning whether she knows it or not. No one believes Lose 25 lbs. in 5 days on Our Chocolate Cake Diet, and no one will believe your subject line if it contains something equally absurd.

  2. Be Brief. Decision-makers are time-crunched. They scan. Everything. Email subject lines may get scanned more than anything. Your subject line must be short. Concise. The general rule for a billboard headline is seven words or fewer. Try to keep your subject line to that as well.

  3. Be Specific. Save, Save, Save! This just doesn’t have the same attraction as 25% Off Your Next Purchase. Reduce Overhead won’t pull as hard as 4 Keys To Lower Shipping Costs. It’s the same with promoting content. Your subject line needs to be specific to what is in the email.

  4. Be Value-Oriented. The entire intent of the email (and the content it is promoting) is to deliver a promise. So the subject line should be a hint of that promise. Knowing how to Grow in a Down Economy has great value. A Time-Proven Approach to Maximum Profit offers a promise and a benefit for all businesses. The more value you can promote in your subject line, the higher your open rate will be.

  5. Be Persuasive. I Tried It, and It Changed My Life may be too strong, but I Tried It and It Changed the Way I Think is compelling. Just remember: If the subject line isn’t interesting enough to get attention, the reader is going to decide the email isn’t worth opening. And all your efforts will never be seen.


Here’s another great resource for writing more compelling copy.


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