Subject Lines: How Important Are They, Really?


While many people tend to focus on the content of an email marketing message, in reality, the most important element is the subject line. Yet, despite the fact that the subject line is the first thing that your recipient will see, it is the one factor that is often ignored the most.

Why Are Subject Lines So Important?

Remember that the subject line is the first and only hint to the reader regarding the content of your message. Today, when many people receive hundreds of messages daily, it is imperative that your message stand out from the crowd and catch your recipient’s attention. If your subject line is not able to accomplish that, it may never be read at all.

What Works and What Doesn’t Work

If you peruse the subject line column of your own inbox, you will likely see example after example of subject lines that simply do not work. An ineffective subject line provides no information and no real reason to open and read the message. By comparison, an effective subject line works much in the same ways as the headline to a newspaper column. It provides vital information about the content of the column. It’s a sort of snapshot of the information to come. An effective subject line always includes a key piece of information that allows the reader to gain an idea of what your message is about at just a glance.

In composing a subject line, it is important to ensure that you adhere to four important elements. Ask yourself if your subject line meets the following criteria:

1. Is it useful? Does it promise value to the reader?
2. Is it specific? Does the subject line let the reader know what is being promised?
3. Is it compelling?
4. Is it urgent? Does the reader gain a sense that they must read it now or miss valuable information?

In today’s hectic world, most people are inundated with information on a daily basis. As a result, they must make instantaneous decisions about what they will take the time to read and what they will not. When you send an email, you are asking that your reader invest some of their valuable time in reading your message. Consequently, your subject line must be compelling enough to convince the reader that it is worth that investment of time to read your message.

With that said, it is also important to understand that there is not a one-size fits all solution for subject lines. Each industry and business is different, and you must learn to customize your subject lines to your audience. The following tips can help you to tailor your messages based on your industry and your audience.

Begin by identifying yourself. Given the amount of emails that most people receive on a daily basis today, the majority of people will not bother opening an email from someone they do not recognize. Your recipient must know from first glance that the email is from a trusted source. Along with ensuring that opening the email will not unleash a computer virus of epic proportions, they must also know that the email is from someone with whom they have an established relationship. Utilize the “From” field of the email or use the same identifier in every subject line to ensure your recipient knows that the message is from you.

Many people make the mistake of believing that customizing a subject line, such as by including the recipient’s first name or last name will improve its open rate. This is not actually the case. Instead, it is often much better to provide localization, such as a city name.

Be aware that while it is important to establish a sense of urgency, it is also important to ensure that you do not overuse the privilege. If every email that you send is urgent, it quickly becomes apparent that none of your emails are really urgent. Use a sense of urgency when it is useful, such as when there is truly a compelling reason to take action or a real deadline, but do not create a sense of false urgency simply to lure your readers.

Short But Sweet

Think of your email subject line as valuable real estate. You want to gain the most value possible by utilizing the least amount of resources. The more compact that you are able to make your subject line, the better. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to keep the length of your subject line to 50 characters or less.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-Subject Line Examples

Let’s take a look at a few examples of subject lines and explore why they work or do not work.

“Your June Website Stats”
This subject line works because it provides timely and useful information

“Greece Tour Group-Important Travel Information”
This subject line immediately lets the reader know that this is information that is relevant to them and which they need now.

“Gourmet Food Magazine Reader Survey”
This subject line provides a high affinity to user experience or activity.

“Final reminder for free gift when you sign up for a membership”
This subject line breaks all the cardinal rules. Along with being too long, it uses two words that are taboo when writing a subject line—reminder and free. The word free often triggers spam filters while the word reminder frequently has a negative connotation to readers.

“SALE ends soon – Get up to 75% off.”
Although many marketers make the mistake of thinking that including sale information, including percent off, will entice readers the exact opposite is often the case. Along with potentially triggering spam filters, including percent off, in the subject line immediately alerts readers that the message information is promotional in nature, which may cause them to simply gloss over it.

“Help us help others.”
This subject line is short, but it contains the word ‘help,’ which immediately clues readers into the fact that you are asking them for money.

The Takeaway
Ultimately, it is important to put yourself in your recipient’s shoes. Browse through your own inbox and think about the emails that you actually open versus those that you do not. Today, people are bombarded with spam. Time is a valuable commodity. Pleas for money, continual reminders and vague teasers are not enough to stand out and compel readers to open an email. Rather than trying to sell what is inside your email via the subject line, it is important to instead simply tell your readers what is inside.