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Subject lines are hard.

Look, we’ve all been there. You’ve crafted this spectacular marketing email the crosses every t, dots every i, and meets every possible requirement for it to sell. And then you stare at the blinking cursor in the subject line field, and you freeze up. The wrong subject line means nobody opens it up at all, and the right one could bring in buckets of relevant, qualified leads. So what do you do?

It’s easy to think about bad email subject lines. Screaming, in-your-face messaging that’s clearly trying to get you to take out your wallet. But as you sit there, thinking through your options, it’s hard not to go there. After all, you want to communicate your benefit and give them a reason to open up, and “FREE!!!” feels so important.

Or maybe you go wildly in the other direction. Casual. Understated. “Just wanted to drop you a line.” “A Question.” But these are subject lines that don’t tell your reader anything, and only garner opens from the morbidly curious (which, maybe that’s your demo?).

And finally, if there’s one thing a marketer loves, it’s a clever line. You want to craft a smart little tag that perfectly communicates everything you need to in one awesome quip.

It’s hard to be clever. It’s hard to be catchy. But the beauty of it is that you don’t have to.

You just need to be clear.

Writing Effective Email Subject Lines

The thing is that your readers are busy people with things to do. You don’t just have to get their attention. You have to make reading your email worth your while. And while maybe eventually they’ll like you enough to open your emails without a second thought, most of your recipients aren’t there yet and never will be.

You have to earn their time. So don’t play around. Get their attention, but then get to the point.

  1. Communicate the Benefit in Actionable Terms

Your email has to promise an immediate benefit, and the reader needs to have some idea what they’re getting out of the email before they even open it. But it can’t come off as salesy; even when you’re offering a discount, you want to couch it in terms other than “spend your money.”

Think of it like this. You get an email with the subject line “15% of All Swimsuits.” Great. Fifteen percent off. I’m not really thinking about going to the beach right now, though, so it’s not super relevant to me. It’s a flat fact – there’s a discount – that isn’t doing anything to connect.

But tweak the subject line a bit. “Glam It Up Beach-Style with 15% Off Swimsuits.” Maybe it’s not the best line in the world, but it talks about an activity. It mentions a setting. It catches my eye, ignites my imagination, and reminds me of all the fun you might have at the beach while hitting on your desire to look and feel attractive.

When I open that email, I know what I’m getting and why I want it.

  1. Be personal

Relevance can be as simple as using someone’s first name or mentioning their location. We’re totally coded to pay attention when we see our names. So it’s no surprise that targeted, personalized emails generate higher open rates than emails sent out en masse.

Sometimes, something as simple as “Todd, We Have a Reservation Waiting for You” is enough to get the email opened. It immediately draws the eye, and makes it feel like I’m being personally served. But it gets a little deeper than that, too.

If your email list is sufficiently segmented by, say, age group, buyer persona, or geographic location, you can write completely different subject lines that hit on specific benefits that are of particular interest for these segments. Using the “15% off” example above, emails sent to people near the ocean could mention the beach specifically, while sends to inland contacts might talk about tanning by the pool. Different populations with different concerns respond to different messaging. Own that.

  1. Be intriguing, but keep it clear

Catchiness is a grace, but clarity is a virtue. It should always be your first priority. So at the outset, focus on crafting clear, concise, actionable subject lines; this has at least the benefit of forcing you to think through who you’re talking to, why they care, what the benefit is, and how to catch their attention. Once you have that, you can think about more creative, interesting, catchy ways to do that. Earning a chuckle is always a good thing, and makes your contacts more favorably inclined to your emails.

But they cannot be your priority.

  1. Make sure your messages match

This should go without saying, but it falls through often enough that it can’t be ignored: your content and your subject lines need to agree. If your subject line made a promise – and seriously, it should have – your email needs to deliver. If they don’t, you’ve lied to the reader, and they won’t trust you again.

But more to the point, an email that matches your subject line will have a much higher click-thru, because you’ve delivered what you promised. They got what they wanted, so they’re much much more likely to follow through.