5 tips to write catchy subject lines

In spite of any rumors to the contrary, email marketing is alive and growing. However, both promotional emails and email newsletters face a number of challenges in terms of deliverability, open rates and conversion rates.

One essential element to the success of every email or newsletter is the quality of the subject line. Unfortunately, writers appear to spend a great deal of time working on the body of an email or newsletter, and give very little attention to the subject line itself.

This is curious, because unless you write a great subject line, nobody is ever going to open your email or newsletter.

The Power of Name Recognition

Name recognition is the most powerful element in your subject line.

If you were to sign up today for an EmailGarage newsletter, the best way to catch your attention in your inbox tomorrow would be to include the word “EmailGarage” in the subject line. You will immediately think something along the lines of, “Sure, I signed up to hear from these guys. I’ll open this one.”

So while you only have about 40 characters or so to use in your subject line, find a way to include the name of your site, your newsletter or your editor in the subject line… whichever you feel will create the strongest name recognition.

Avoid Spam Traps and Filters

We all know a few things about avoiding spam traps and filters.

Don’t use too much capitalization in your subject line. Don’t use words like Free, Offer, Money et cetera. Don’t use exclamation marks. However, it isn’t enough simply to avoid the obvious words.

Your email will have to successfully pass through a number of filters at different points. All these filters together may use a combined list of literally hundreds of different words which they consider “spammy.”

So before you send any email or newsletter, run it through a spam checker (like the one included in EmailGarage). The spam checker will alert you to problems not only in your subject line but also within the body of the message.

Beware the Human Spam Trap

We all receive an unwelcome amount of spam. And the subject lines are often loud, aggressive and promotional.

The more of these spam subject lines people read, the more finely tuned their own sensitivity to spammy language becomes. In other words, the final spam filter is the recipient of your email.

Be careful not to sound like spam in your subject line. Avoid that kind of language– Free, Offer, Money, exclamation marks, misspelled words, ALL CAPS and the like. Instead, go for recognition and then quietly describe the contents in a relevant, direct manner that shows how useful and helpful your email or newsletter is.

We know. This is often tough to do in 40 characters. But therein lies the challenge.

Test, Test and Test Again

It doesn’t matter how many times you test subject lines. You will never be able to reliably identify the winner without testing every time. Here’s how to do it.

Forty eight hours before each send, test three or four different subject lines against a small portion of the list.  So if you have a list of a 10,000 names, take out three groups of 100 names each and send each a separate test subject line. (Don’t stress about the final validity of the test. What we are looking for here are strong indicators, not a statistically significant set of research data for publication.)

Twenty four hours later, look at the report on open rates and conversion rates, if appropriate.
You will constantly be surprised by what you see. Often you’ll find your favorite subject line bombing, and the one you hated delivering double the open rate. Once you have your winning subject line, use it for the major send a few hours later.

Test three or four options for every promotional email or newsletter you send.
If that sounds like a lot of work, do the math. Let’s say that each time you test, the best-performing subject line does eight percent better than the worst. And that’s a very conservative figure. Now count up the number of times you send promotional emails and newsletters each year. Finally, do the math on revenues.

Increasing open and/or conversion rates by eight percent with every send can have a huge impact on your ROI after 12 months.

Add Value with Every Email

This brings us back to name recognition.

If you deliver useful, relevant and timely content with each email and newsletter you send, your subscribers will start to watch for your name in their inbox.

If you deliver low quality content, then they will start to ignore you when they see your name.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your subject line is to always deliver outstanding content, and always include your site, newsletter or editor’s name in the subject line itself.

Which brings us to one final point.
Do the same with your “From:” line. Use it for name recognition.
As an example, here is what a subscriber will see when receiving one of our newsletters:
From: EmailGarage Weekly Tip
Subject: Write good, clear and relevant copy

In conclusion: go for name recognition, avoid spam filters, always test, and deliver great content.


  1. Posted May 20, 2008 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Good to know.

  2. Posted May 27, 2008 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Good tips.
    Clear and attractive.
    Give you the envy to read more…

  3. Posted July 10, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Great blog, with smart, practical tips for email marketing in general and subject lines in particular. I will give this a try on our next email mailing – luckily, my company’s email systems support segmented testing in a pretty user-friendly way!

  4. Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve read many subject line tips but this one is short but it has it all! No words like free – company name – max 40 characters – just perfect!
    I will use this link for customers that repeatedly ask me for advice

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