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Email Marketing

How to Write a Compelling Subject Line and Improve Open Rate

Darya Karpova

editor
We receive dozens of emails every day. Most of them have standard subject lines, but some brands make theirs more interesting to stand out.
I've analyzed 4.500 emails in English and Russian and made a guide to creative strategies. If you want to make an appealing subject line, you can find inspiration in this article.

What is OR and what influences it

Open rate (OR) is a metric of email opens. We won't focus on it much here, let's just highlight the most important aspects:
  • OR means nothing if analyzed apart from the other metrics. If an email was opened by 70% of subscribers, but CTR (click-through rate) is low, is this newsletter effective? Probably not, so we'll have to figure out what reduces conversion.
  • High OR does not necessarily mean a successful newsletter. What is important is a pattern. If your OR is steadily low, you should identify the reason. If it's vice versa – consider increasing the email frequency.
  • There are no magic words that will hypnotize subscribers and make them open your emails. OR is influenced by several aspects: the sender's name, timing, the quality of a subject line. In this article, we'll discuss the last one and creative subject lines in particular.

According to the statistics, last year approximately 300 billion emails were sent every day with nearly 4 billion email users. Imagine the rivalry in a user's inbox – dozens and even hundreds of armed cut-throat emails fight for it.
You can grab a subscriber's attention if your emails stand out from the crowd. Let's see what crops grow in the field of creative subjects today, and which ones should be pulled out.

Types of creative subject lines

I have a special inbox for subscriptions to various newsletters.Over the last half of the year, I've received more than 4000 emails. They are classified depending on the topic for the sake of convenience. Each folder holds subfolders:
This looks like a control freak's inbox, but actually, loads of emails are hard to classify, and the rules I set for my email service don't always work. 99+ newsletters forever.
How to write appealing text for email newsletter
So, we had 2,996 emails, 10 categories, 130 folders of brands, and a whole galaxy of unclassified newsletters in the inbox… Not that I needed all that for the research, but once you get locked into a serious email collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
I needed to classify all that stuff according to the creative strategies used in the emails. I've made a list of devices that help emails stand out from the crowd; I've also collected some cringe examples and emails with subject lines offering not creative input, but profit.

Cap's allusion

Allusion is a reference to previous works of art: songs, movies, books, or TV series – anything that makes the readers feel an idea bulb turning itself on when they recognize the original image. We can come across two types of allusions in subject lines: literal and reformulated (but still familiar).
This device makes an email stand out in the inbox, especially when the author hit the mark with the subscribers' cultural background and used a suitable allusion – both familiar and not trite.
The other side of the coin is hackneyed allusions (such as references to Elizabeth Gilbert's novel "Eat, Pray, Love" or a TV series "Sex and the City") which don't seem interesting anymore or don't match the brand and/or the content of the email.

Literal allusions

This phrase is said by the main character of Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol" Scrooge, who considers Christmas a complete fraud.
The brand makes us recollect this quarantine song from YouTube.

Reformulated allusions

Once a Russian classic said: "Beauty will save the world", but today cryptocurrency is also fine.
Is this Homer's or Joyce's Ulysses, I wonder? Anyway, we see an allusion here.
I don't insist, but as I read this phrase, I had Zombies (Time of the Season) playing in my head.
An allusion to a famous nursery rhyme (or, perhaps, to the Powerpuff Girls?).

When people tell you that puns are not funny, punish them

In my classification, this group includes all kinds of wordplay and similar techniques.
Don't think of it as a strategy that would catch only your grandma's attention – it's far more sophisticated. The main thing you should bear in mind: never use corny cringe-inducing puns, (like "subordinate Clauses").

Wordplay based on similar-sounding words

This pun is based on similar sounds.
P.S. Thor, help us out!
Again, the pun is produced by similar-sounding words.
We hope it's a one-way ticket.
The product is compared with a passenger who's just landed.
We often associate "kitchen" with "taste".
The more Suzanne Kasler Christmas we have, the better

Blendings

spook + spectacular = <3
Words fail. This is a masterpiece.
Or goop evening. It's a good idea to use the brand's name for a creative subject line

How to use realia from your couch

Realia are familiar concepts from the real world existing in the collective unconscious (in our society). Realia can be confused with allusions, so remember: it's your daily life that helps you understand them, not the background.
For example, memes: all those "Shut up and take my money", Grumpy Cat, and so on. Their name is legion, and everyone grows tired of them. You can use memes but do it moderately.
A famous sales day — Black Friday — is colored in orange, the brand's color.
The subscribers found this email in their inboxes during the 2020 election.
The authors supported the BLM movement.
This exclamation originates from the phrase "oy vey".
Here we recall the tradition to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
The brand has nothing to do with what the crystal ball says.

About paradox, suspense, and bewilderment

Paradox is a device produced by violating rules of reason. In my classification, this group includes strange or unusual cases when the words don't normally go together.
Paradoxes disturb the peace and trigger interest. They are similar to riddles: your brain feels perplexed till you figure out what is going on.

This effect brings paradox and suspense together. Suspense works as bait capturing the reader's attention. This device is used in teaser ads: a mystery or an understatement is not something that… (you get the idea).
This subject catches the users because it reminds them of themselves. Imagine: you don't feel like working and do your best to survive a Zoom meeting — as good self-sabotage as any.
Both a paradoxical and philosophical question.
This issue is likely to catch email geeks' attention.
What does this switch mean and why should you flip it? You'll have to open this email to find out.
Hadar is a suspense professional. This subject line intrigues everyone who's had a job interview.
It looks like Jason at Litmus is chatting with the subscribers making them wonder why he's up in the middle of the night.
We don't know what photoshoots they mean, but the exposure is intriguing.
The countdown is on… Panic! Just open this email, now!
The subscribers are likely to open this email because an apology often means a screw-up.
Show me a person who wouldn't want to dress up their beer.

How are your subscribers doing?

A conversation with the audience is an engagement strategy that breaks the fourth wall. Usually, it means addressing your audience with a question, but it also may be a call to action: to express one's opinion, to choose a suitable option, etc.
You might think that it's not a creative strategy because brands often address subscribers in their newsletters. But it's one thing to ask a question or use the pronoun "you" ("Have you tried our new hand sanitizer?").
It's another thing to enter into dialogue naturally as if it were a letter from a friend or a continuation of a conversation. Or think of an appealing question that makes the readers share their ideas about the topic.
An original example of a reactivation subject line. Or, perhaps, the users don't open emails because they got lost behind the Milky Way in the Andromeda Nebula.
Provocative, but effective.
Nathan suggests that you should break the rules and open this email, after all.
This question makes the user doubt and want to test their knowledge.
A simple and effective way to introduce some information: ask your subscribers whether they've heard about it. Of course, they haven't, and the direct address helps wake them up and draw their attention to your email.
All jokes aside, it's time for serious questions. What is that Russian samovar exactly?
A question for bearded people who are ready to experiment.
Soylent decided to stop going in circles and just ask whether the subscribers got Covid.
A dialogue is not always about questions; it can also be offering a choice to a subscriber.

Here comes the cringe

We've finally reached the border group between creative and usual subject lines.

Cringe creative cases happen when a brand wants to amaze the audience, but something goes wrong. For instance, a strategy was already hackneyed in 2007, or suspense looks like a barefaced advertisement.
You don't have to CAPS LOCK anything. It seems that the subject is screaming at the receiver or thinks they're not smart enough to get the same idea in lowercase: BIG bonuses for ALL orders…
Okay, this one is literally screaming at me.
They usually say "hey!...you…" when they've forgotten the person's name :)
In 2021 we all understand that email marketers use bulk email.

Never mind creativity. Be useful!

Creative strategy is not the only way you can stand out in the inbox. There's another approach: be succinct and make the subject suggest some benefit for the readers. You can tell about the email's content or single out the main message.

I've found a few clear and succinct subjects which don't play with your hypothalamus, but encourage you to read the emails by offering interesting content:
These are both simple and compelling: most people will find tips and life hacks interesting.
This subject line emphasizes the exact benefits of the offer.
People who are interested in privacy issues will want to open this one.
Trello gave a succinct explanation of what you're going to find in this email.

How to create good subject lines: general recommendations

If you're not ready for creative strategies yet, but you still need to increase your open rates, follow these 4 simple tips:
1. Don't use emoji characters to make your subject line catchy. They don't guarantee your email will be opened. You can read this research to learn more about users' attitudes to emojis in email.
2. Make your subject line shorter. The fewer characters you add, the better. This is especially important for mobile devices as they display only 25–30 characters. If the "headline" of an email is suddenly cut, it may remind the user of a teaser ad and make them have mixed feelings. Compare the examples below:
3. Avoid such words and expressions as "FREE", "LAST CHANCE", "100%", etc. Also, you'd better not use Caps Lock and exclamation marks (at least, no more than one) — otherwise, your email may end up in spam.
4. Make it personal: add a subscriber's name to make your emails more personalized. But don't overdo it: if you address your subscriber in every single email, it will sound rather aggressive:
These are the basic recommendations that most email marketers agree with. They can help you improve your open rate together with our other tips.
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