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Subject Lines, Like Headlines, Are The Only Thing You Read

I attended the Digital Summit – Kansas City on May 16-17. Over two days I was able to see presentation on everything from podcasts to SEO from a variety of industry experts. The highlight for me was a four hour workshop on email. Honestly, I could write 10 blog posts about what I learned from Michael Barber. Perhaps I will in the future. Today we focus on subject lines.

I hate to break it to you, but most people aren’t opening your emails. That means the subject line is often the only part of your campaign that anyone reads. They can quite literally make or break an email marketing campaign. How much thought are you putting into subject lines?

We all know that the audience is busy and needs a reason to open your email. Should you include prices? For a long time we thought prices were a one way ticket the spam folder. Not only is that not true anymore, but having a price in the subject line increases click-through-rates by 246 percent. “Worth” and “deal” increase 134 and 91 percent. Finally, “buy one get one” has an 89 percent increase in open rates. As with everything there is a catch. You need to be sure to mix things up. Customers will start to expect deals if you include them too often. So be sure to vary your subject lines.

That brings us to effectiveness decay. Even the wittiest subject line will be less effective tomorrow than it was today and even more so next week. How often do you change the subject lines of the emails you send out? If you are anything like me even when you change the actual words the format is essentially the same. This leads to the same decay.

Can’t figure out a solution?

There is hope. Questions are effective. Especially those that start with “can’t or “won’t” they do better than questions with “will” or “who.”

  Barber mentioned a company, Phrasee, that studies subject lines. The charts were hard to read so I created my own with the main information. The first is a list of action words and how they perform in subject lines. Not surprisingly words and phrases associated with spam contests decreased open rates. Avoid “claim your” “get” and “would you like.” On the other hand things like “introducing” and “discover” increase open rates.


Subject lines that include sales words are much more effective than those with just the action words. Anything that references a sale explodes open rates. This list reinforces that BOGO and prices make people open your emails. Words like “your order” and other phrases found in transactional emails also scored high. Transaction emails are some of the most opened emails marketers send. It is because people are actually looking for those messages.


  The punctuation chart is the one I found the most interesting. First, we can forget about not using exclamation points. People are more likely to open an email with three exclamation points than one, but they are more likely to open emails with only one exclamation point than two in the subject line. I’m not sure that actually means anything, but it is fun to think about. Using an ellipse led to high scores in all categories. Including two or more commas also scored very high.

We have all heard that shorter subject lines are better. However, in reality there is no correlation between the length of the subject line and open rates. The fact that subject lines with two or more commas shows this. If you have a lot to say then say it. If you subject line is good people will open your email regardless of how long it is.

Finally, we come to emojis. You should start using them. People are more likely to open your email when an emoji is used in the subject line. Also, don’t be afraid of using them in B2B emails; 42 percent of white collar workers have used an emoji in a work email. They aren’t just for teens anymore.

The bottom line is subject lines are important. Arguably, they are more important than the content of the email. Don’t treat them as an afterthought.

Sean is a web specialist. He runs the email marketing program, helps in website design, manages social media accounts, and uploads weekly ads. In 2017, Sean started Grocer Podcast, a month show that intends to be another way to get information to retailers. Prior to joining AWG, Sean spent three years as a high school teacher. Sean is an avid cook, sports fan and Kansas Citian.