How to Write Better Subject Lines in Less Time

So you’ve taken a bunch of time to write a compelling email—awesome. Now all you have to do is hammer out a subject line and you’re all set. The trouble is, it’s a lot easier to write an interesting email than it is to create a subject line that actually stands out in the chaos of the average inbox. And if you don’t get the subject line right, your recipients are never going to see all that amazing email copy you spent sooooo much time creating. So, in the interest of helping you do a better job, the email marketing experts at Zeta have put together a list of classic tactics that will help you write better subject lines in less time.

Pose a captivating question

Subject lines framed as questions generally perform better than general statements. What questions do your readers have that your content can answer? This will open a dialog with your audience and draw them in, especially if it’s something relevant to the recipient’s buyer persona.

Madewell sent an email with the subject line, “Where’d You Get That Necklace?” linking to “conversation starter” jewelry pieces. Using an enticing question in the subject line encouraged recipients to click in and see what the buzz was about (and hopefully browse products on their site).


Make use of humor and puns

Humor can make your email stand out among rows and rows of dry emails. A successful joke is a psychological currency that earns attention. Successful humor is hard to do well, so you may want to gut-check funny subject lines with coworkers (in addition to A/B testing them). As always, ensure the humor is appropriate for your audience and the level of edginess expected from your brand.

Include numbers & lists

Using numbers and lists is a simple way to avoid creating vague statements in your subject lines. Not only will they help demonstrate a clear message about your brand or offer, but numbers and lists will also help your email stand out and set the right expectations. Consider using numbers and lists to refer to the title of your listicle, a specific discount, and more.

Create mystery

You want to be careful with teasers (because if you get peoples’ hopes up, you have to deliver the goods), but sometimes a little bit of mystery is warranted. A subject line that is slightly puzzling or even a little provocative will generally perform well in getting people to open an email. When creating mystery in your subject lines, be sure to reward that curiosity upon opening, or you risk losing the reader’s trust (and tanking your click-through rates).

Let’s take a look at some out of the ordinary subject lines that can compel recipients to open the email:

  • “It’s all over April 19th…”

  • “We weren’t going to say anything, but…”

Instill a sense of importance

We all hate to love the nostalgic infomercial phrase, “Act now!” While we don’t recommend using this exact language into your subject lines, communicating urgency in other creative ways can help compel recipients to click your email. Consider phrases like “Redeem your offer before it’s gone” or “Exclusive offers for our loyal customers only.” As a reminder, these types of subject lines should be used sparingly and only when the occasion calls for immediate action.

Have an opinion

Our brains are good at finding the one thing that stands out from a set, which also means we’re good at glossing over familiar and consistent things. One way you can avoid this is by writing subject lines that have an inherent tension or disconnect. Examples include:

  • NONSEQUITURS: “Your marketing automation isn’t broken, so it must be working.”

  • OXYMORONS/CONTRADICTIONS: “Growing smaller: the office of the future.”

  • Out of Context phrases: “Understanding database archeology.”

  • MADE UP WORDS: “ Is your CRM software giving you rageroids?”

  • OPPOSITE DAY: “How to lose subscribers effectively.”

Utilize engaging preview text

Although preview text isn’t technically part of your subject line, it is something that deserves your attention as a marketer. Preview text gives recipients a sneak peek into your email content as it displays alongside the subject line. If you don’t set preview text, email providers (iPhone Mail app, Gmail, Outlook, etc.) will automatically set one based on the content in the body of your email. This leads to a wasted opportunity to engage your audience.

How to write better email subject lines in less time
(Image source: Art Storefronts Blog)

And if you REALLY want to write better subject lines…

Talk to us. Our team understands the intricacies of effective email acquisition marketing better than anyone else. From the mid-size to the enterprise, we know what it takes to deliver more powerful email marketing to consumers. If your brand works with our team, we promise we can help you write better subject lines in less time.


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