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Writing email subject lines: How to say "open sesame!"

These days, just getting people to just open an email is a challenge. I probably open less than 5% of my in-box messages, even though at some point, I asked to be put on most of those mailing lists.

We all constantly filter out what doesn’t relate directly to us in some way. Otherwise, given the ongoing deluge of information and promotions and enticements, we’d go mad. But few writers take account of the narrow window for interesting our target audiences. You have about four seconds to elicit an open sesame or be ignored.

People typically also ignore the limitation of the literal window—the words that show up in the in-box under “subject.”

Here are a few I didn’t open today, along with the senders:

The Education Team: Last chance to get $25 OFF F.…
Steve Jones: I hope to see you in June
Mitch Terry: Are you open?
Corning Museum of Glass: Brighten your home with…
Source Bottlle: Has your biz benefitted from…

Some I did open:

MarketingProfs Today: Effective, Affordable Content… 7 Ways to Bore the Hell Out of….
AWeber Blog: [Research] How Do Millenials…
eSaleRugs: Hurry, Easter Weekend Sale E…

Some conclusions about what works and what doesn’t from even this small sampling:

1. Load to the left—always put the key words as far to the left as you can. People’s in-boxes are set so various amounts of copy will show, and of course, many of your readers scan their email on tiny screens. If the important words get chopped, so does your email. While the three “better” examples still leave something to the imagination, enough of the subject matter comes across to interest me in the messages.

2. Don’t assume readers will know who you are and interpret the subject for you. The Steve Jones message, for example, actually did connect with my interests. When I opened it for purposes of this blog, I found he was promoting a very neat social media learning event worth knowing about.

3. Be as specific as you can about what you’re offering. Is it a sale? Say so. Are you offering ideas? A brand new product? Make it clear. Clever or intriguing is nice—Chris Brogan’s subject line works. But never be clever at the expense of clarity, and be sure the message delivers the promised content. The Corning Museum line loses not only because I couldn’t tell what was offered, but because I was misled into thinking it was selling lamps. In fact they were pitching a vase.

How could some of these subject lines be written more effectively?
The Steve Jones line:Social Media Summit May 15: 10 Top Experts
The Corning Museum line:Waterford Hurricane Vase, Just $19.99!
Source Bottle’s:“Influencer” Master Classes: Campaigns that Win

My core message: Take the time to think about and create good subject lines. Think of them as headlines, which they are. And some good advice for headlines is to see them as flags you wave at people in a train speeding by. What will capture their attention?

Just as with blog and newspaper headlines, aim to tell the story as fully yet concisely as you can. Figure out why the people you want to reach should care. Envision how your subject line may appear in their in-boxes.

Always be 100% honest and deliver what you promise in the rest of the message. To ensure this, revisit the subject line after your message is written. It may need recasting if you shifted gears. Often it’s easier to write the full message and then distill the subject line from it.

If you can’t craft a tight, specific, honest and engaging subject line, take it as a clue: Do you really know why you’re writing—and who your audience is?

As with all business writing, before you write subject lines and the messages that go with them, know what you want from the reader and why he or she should give it to you.

These simple tactics require some thinking but can bring you big benefits.

Beyond achieving a higher “open” rate, you—and those you write to—will be able to find your e-messages much more easily. This helps if a reader is triggered to buy your service when she encounters a need and remembers a relevant message. Even when communicating with friends, aren’t you often irritated by those who simply say “Hi” in the subject line time after time? I am. Good subject lines generate good will, which you want to cultivate every chance you get.

The bonus: Practice your subject-line skills and you’re more than halfway toward writing good headlines. Which are as crucial to your reports, proposals, blogs and make-or-break business documents as they are to reporters.

Do you have a pet peeve about how people handle subject lines? Or have you written a great subject line for an email message that got great response? Share it here!

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