email marketing best practices

Email Marketing Best Practices: Making Your Subject Line Sing

As an email marketer, your goal is to increase your overall ROI, and that’s accomplished by improving not just email deliverability but also open rates. And as we wrote in July,  while email deliverability rates improved, from 93% to 95%, email open rates fell 9 percentage points to 17% in 2010, resulting in hundreds of millions of emails that were delivered to inboxes and never opened.

We’ve been considering reasons for this decline, and more importantly, ways to ensure your open rates are staying consistent, or better yet, improving.

Anything that captures your attention usually has a great teaser. In the world of journalism, it’s known as the headline. In the world of email marketing, it’s the subject line. Subject lines are essentially headlines for emails, and in this context, they should definitely adhere to the Four Fundamental “U’s” of Headline Writing:

  1. USEFUL: Is the content valuable to the reader?
  2. ULTRA-SPECIFIC: Make the expectations on what’s inside the email clear.
  3. UNIQUE: How compelling and interesting is the promised content?
  4. URGENT: Conveying a feeling that the message is important and intriguing enough to be read NOW is the difference between opening an email when it appears in the inbox, waiting until later, or deleting without opening.

But because email subject lines have their own formats, show up truncated in a number of email programs, and must convey enough information to lead to an “open email” response but not too much such that the entire purpose of the email is delivered in the subject line, email subject line best practices have to get a little more specific to be truly effective.

Keeping the Four “U” Fundamentals in mind is a great start to successfully developing effective email subject lines. Beyond these, adhering to the following in your subject lines are specific to improving email deliverability:

  • Identification: Your subscriber needs to know at a glance who the email message is from. If you’re providing useful, unique, and specific content, your subscriber will know the emails are coming from a trusted source.
  • Consistency: Be smart about how you use the “From” field – ensure it comes from the same source each time, even if you have different senders, and that the source is identifiable to the subscriber. You can also consider starting every subject line with the same identifier, so that your subscriber will know what to expect from that email.
  • Useful and Ultra-Specific: Of the four “U” fundamentals, Useful and [Ultra]-Specific are of most important to your subscribers – ensuring the content is valuable to them, and their expectations are met means a greater chance for increased email deliverability.
  • Use Urgency sparingly: Use urgency in your subject line only occasionally, otherwise consistent urgency becomes like an email-version of “the boy who cried wolf” and your subscribers will start to tune you out. When urgency is useful, like when there is a compelling reason to act now, or if there’s a looming deadline, this is a great technique to use to ensure that the people opening your emails don’t miss out.
  • “Brevity is the soul of…” Email Subject Lines: Subject lines by definition should be short, even if there is no defined character limit. Subject lines don’t always show up in full on mobile devices or certain email applications, and it’s no use if you spend most of your time crafting a perfect subject line only to have the majority of it chopped off by your subscriber’s email provider or mobile device.

If you are able to create useful, specific, and occasionally urgent and unique-teasers in a powerfully compact subject line, your email marketing program is bound to succeed and your deliverability rates will soar. And if you can combine intriguing teasers of subject lines with compelling email content, congratulations! You’ve unlocked the secret to successful email marketing.  What is your secret? What have you found works well in your email marketing program? What hasn’t been as effective? Share with us: We’d love to hear from you.

Published On: August 10th, 2011Categories: Email marketing best practices

About the Author: Sharon

Sharon Ernst from is on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes. Her newest class on intermediate email copywriting covers 19 tips and techniques non-copywriters can put to use right away for better results. The class has real-life examples and before/after comparisons to make the lessons stick. Find her class at When she’s not busy helping employees, managers and marketers master their writing skills, she and her husband are busy raising pigs, cows, chickens and vegetables on their 20-acre farm.

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