Recently, I came across a blog headline: “5 ways to guarantee you’ll NEVER be successful” and, as a typically ambitious American, I have to admit I clicked on it faster than I mass delete the emails in my SPAM folder. The catchy fear-inducing word “never” captured my curiosity, as in: “One: am I doing any of these things? and two: I want to learn what these things are so I’ll never do them!”

But then I ran across a very similar article on email marketing written by Danny Iny on the AWeber blog entitled: “Can ‘Bad News’ Lift Response Rates?”. Because I clicked on a blog that I’ve never bothered to read before due to a “bad news” title in the very same day, my interest was once again piqued. Given my recent experience, my thinking was, “Why yes, a “bad news” subject line WOULD increase email marketing response rates, and therefore, ROI.”

Typically, “bad news” email subject lines increase response rates initially because they:

  • Prompt a question, rather than giving an answer
  • Highlight a problem, rather than outlining a solution
  • Evoke curiosity

These are three “musts” for a killer subject line that guarantee a high email open rate. While these kind of bad news subject lines do traditionally increase open rates initially, due to a feeling of panic and anxiety: “People read the email because they want to make sure they aren’t going to be negatively affected,” Iny writes, the overall results fall downhill from there. A negative-themed subject line can backfire over the long term because:

Your subscriber might not care about your bad news. If someone you actually know emails you with bad news, your stomach may drop a little bit and you feel your anxiety levels rising with concern. But “bad news” from an email marketer may result in disinterest, suspicion, or worse:

Your subscriber may lose trust in you. Many “bad news” subject lines open to messages that don’t actually contain bad news, and much like the fable of crying wolf, your subscribers might feel manipulated, or worse, deceived. “If your audience ends up feeling like you were employing cheap tactics to get them to buy from you,” says Iny, “then it will likely backfire.”

And a lack of trust means increased unsubscribes, possible spam reporting, and a drop in email deliverability. So if you’re considering implementing a “bad news” subject line email marketing strategy to increase response rates, think carefully and use them sparingly: if an initial boost in open rates ends up costing you subscribers in the end, you’re facing an email subject line strategy that will cost you big time.

Published On: November 2nd, 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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