Email Marketing, Uncategorized

Email Marketing Best Practices: Subject Lines

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10 Email Subject Line Tips from 280,000+ Emails

Email marketing is still one of the best ways to drive new sales.

The problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to get into people’s inboxes, and that it’s getting harder and harder to get them to open your e-mail.

So today, we’re going to take a look at over 280,000 different e-mails that we’ve sent to pick out a few email subject line tips that you can use for your own business.

Email Subject Line Tips

Before we get to those best practices, there are a few considerations that you need to think about and that you need to sort out before trying to optimize your subject line.

And the reason is because today, we’re going to talk about something really, really tactical, small, and minute.

If you don’t have these considerations in place before getting into this, then you may or may not see any good results.

So the first consideration is segmentation.

Who is receiving these e-mails and why are they receiving them? Are they somebody who’s relatively new to your business? Or are they somebody who’s been a loyal customer for years and years?

That’s going to have a huge bearing on what you send them, and obviously, what the subject line is going to say.

Number two is frequency.

And this, again, goes back to number one. But how often are you going to send these? Are you going to send these only after special events?

For example, if somebody is checking out an e-commerce website, and they abandon their cart, are you going to send an e-mail like that to them? Or is this going to be some regular interval, like daily, weekly, monthly?

Last but not least, there is a concept called subscriber recency.

Basically this says that the more recent people to your list are typically the most active.

And what you find is over time, the longer people have been on there (if you aren’t bringing, if you aren’t consistently bringing in new people, and you have a list that’s just kind of been around for a while), typically they’re going to be a lot less active on opening your e-mails and clicking on them.

So that’s another consideration to take into account, again, before we dive into this.

But what we’re looking at here are the top seven e-mails in terms of click through rate.

So not just open rates, which tend to be pretty unreliable in the way that they’re calculated, but click through rates… because again, we’re interested in driving sales here.

So, there’s a few key things that are going to jump out at you. And I want to kind of point them out one at a time.

The first takeaway is to provide easy, quick fixes.

As you are probably aware, all of us, myself, yourself, we’re all overwhelmed. We’re completely overwhelmed with what’s going on.

We are constantly looking for something easy, something simple, and this is why list posts tend to do well.

So a couple of the key things that will jump out at you here are numbers, numbered lists. But it’s also important to remember here that you can also use some type of percentage. So 56% of people do this.

Another thing you’ll notice is that not only are we giving somebody an easy quick fix, but we’re also telling them when they can do it. And you’ll notice that these two e-mail subject lines are basically identical. And that’s not an accident.

What you should do and what you should think about is how can you go through and recognize different trends and patterns of all the different subject lines you use, headlines, any type of content we’re talking about.

What are the patterns that you’re seeing jump out at you? And how can you keep reusing those to make sure that you’re doing a good job of making your own life simple and obviously improving results, too.

The second one is negative messaging.

Companies are typically really good at positive messaging. So for example, our product does this to help you improve in this way. Or our company will help you save this much money. So those are very positive messages.

What companies tend to not be as good at is negative messaging. And in this case, there’s two things you want to focus on: How can we help people avoid internal mistakes that they’re already making? And how can we help people avoid external threats that might get them?

And so, for example, this one right here, if we look at, why you need to start using Google+? Google+, something that everybody kind of makes fun of, but in this case, what we’re saying is there is a good reason that you should be using it, and you’re probably not using it already.

Another example here is, why comments are useless and why you should not track metrics. And so these two things, specifically, also deal with this third takeaway, which is pattern interruption.

Most people, when you open an e-mail inbox, when you look at a piece of content, you’re used to seeing the same things, more or less. What pattern interruption does is it breaks that mold, it breaks that expectation of what you’re going to find, maybe by using some contradictory statement or something like this, where, well of course, any reasonable person would want to track metrics on a regular basis, right?

Any business should be tracking metrics. But because you’re using it like this in this context, what you’re doing is you’re breaking that pattern of expectation that people are going to have, and it immediately jumps out at people, and it immediately grabs their attention.

So if you can, first and foremost, make sure that you have these considerations taken care of, and then provide some easy quick fix.

Can you incorporate negative messaging, helping people fix their internal mistakes, or helping people to avoid those external threats?

Or can you use some form of pattern interruption? Can you do something unexpected? Can you do something that’s going to potentially put your customers off-balance a little bit and get their attention?

And hopefully, eventually, you’ll start to see a lot of these numbers, those key metrics.

Open rates, kind of not that reliable, but the major ones, click-through rates and then revenue generated from your e-mails should go up.

10 Email Subject Line Best Practices from 280,358 Emails

Never take fitness advice from a fat person.

Because if they’re so knowledgable about weight lifting, cardio, and nutrition… then why are they still fat?

Yet companies do this all the time.

They hire Ad Agency XYZ for something, let’s say social media management, even though the Agency’s own social media presence is awful, uninspired, and doesn’t produce any results.

We eat our own dog food.

Our biggest source of new business is through online, “inbound” channels like email marketing.

So while recently reading this post about headlines, I was inspired to mimic (OK, copy) their approach and look through the top 100 email campaigns we’ve sent to our own list of subscribers.

However before we proceed, it’s important to address lies, damned lies, and statistics. Here are a few caveats:

  • We narrowed our sample size down to the largest 100 campaigns with over 1500 deliveries each (because the smaller the list, the less accurate the data).
  • The top 100 email campaigns are ranked primarily by Open Rates — which are notoriously unreliable. But it’s the best correlating factor we have when looking at subject line performance.
  • The Click Rates are unique, not total, and most email campaigns only contained 1-3 links, a common practice in cold email outreach strategies.
  • The tips below are more observational and anecdotal than scientific. That includes hypotheses based on first-hand experience.
  • Obviously, your own results may vary. These are specific to a certain type of B2B audience. Everything in marketing depends on your own unique company, customers, business model, market conditions, products/services, etc. etc.
  • We’re benchmarking and comparing these email campaign performances against our industry. According to MailChimp, both the “Consulting” and “Marketing and Advertising” industries have average Open Rates of ~18%, Click Rates of 2.5%, and Unsubscribe Rate of 0.29%.
  • Last but not least, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

So without further ado, here are the 10 email subject line best practices we’ve learned from sending over 280,000 emails.

Jump to a tip

Tip #1: People Want (No, Need!) to Protect Themselves

Tip #2: Everybody Loves List Posts

Tip #3: Provide Step-By-Step Answers

Tip #4. Short, Concise and Snappy

Tip #5. Use Vivid Words that Evoke Emotion

Tip #6. But Don’t Overdo Hyperbole

Tip #7: Business People Expect Business Case

Tip #8. Use Templates and Formulas to Save Time & Boost Performance

Tip #9. Creativity is Overrated

Tip #10 Polarization is Alive and Well

Bonus Tip: WIIFM?

Tip #1: People Want (No, Need!) to Protect Themselves

The best marketing uses timeless persuasion and psychological devices to unconsciously connect with your desired customer.

That’s especially true with email subject lines, because you typically have less than a second to get your point across.

So one recurring theme you’ll see here includes using basic, primal motivations.

And one of the most powerful of these is that humans innately want to protect themselves from external threats, or quickly fix internal mistakes they might be making.

Most companies are great at reinforcing what people will GAIN from using their product or services. But not enough emphasize what people stand to LOSE by not using them.

Loss avoidance is the most powerful motivation factor in our lives, so focusing on the negative implications is one way to quickly grab someone’s attention and interest.

Obviously this can be overdone.

And it’s use depends on how and where you use it.

But a large percentage of the email campaigns with the highest Open Rate used negative messaging in one way or another.

Tip #2: Everybody Loves List Posts

Everybody is busy. And stressed. And overworked.

Which means they need quick information, at their fingertips, so they can move through their To-Do list and have everything done by yesterday.

That’s why list posts ALWAYS perform well.

Take the following study for example: 5 Data Insights Into the Headlines Readers Click by Conductor.

conductor overall headline preferences

(Image Source)

What do you notice in the data?

Well, list posts generated the most clicks and engagement. BY FAR.

And in our case, 9 of the top 20 were list posts, including probably the most popular I’ve ever written…

Our post 50 Ways to Get Customers in 2014 had a 36% Open Rate and 9.10% Click Rate (which is 2 and 3 times better than industry averages).

Besides the impressive email campaign performance, this article also got linked to from The New York Times (among others) and brought in a client worth over 16k to date.

Tip #3: Provide Step-By-Step Answers

Right after our insatiable quest for simple tips, is our desire for finding a step-by-step guide.

We innately want to get better.

And while tips are more straight-forward and easier to understand, sometimes we need a deeper “How-To”.

These in-depth guides fix some primal motivation, include lots of examples, and grab us immediately by incorporating personalization (like “You”, “Yours”, etc.).

You can take this step further (see what I did there?) by combining it with previously mentioned tips and also including something unexpected, bold, or controversial.

For example, just a few weeks ago we used the email subject line: “Why Your Website Conversions Suck” — which combines (1) negative messaging, (2) personalization, (3) bold language and (4) goes on to explain a process. It was one of the most successful campaigns we’ve had.

(Side note: Starting headlines and email subject lines with the word “Why”, and then explaining a process always, always works well.)

Tip #4. Short, Concise and Snappy

The best email subject lines tend to be either really short (or really long).

headline superlative preferences chart

(image source)

Further investigation of the Conductor data shows the quick, short, snappy headlines were preferred by more than half of their respondents.

That’s huge. Keep it simple and to the point.

There’s a large correlation between the campaigns with the highest Open Rates being within 30-40 characters:

  • 3 Killer SEO Resources
  • 50 Ways to Get Customers in 2014
  • How to Sell When You Suck at Sales
  • Why Comments are Useless
  • Why Your Website Conversions Suck

You’ll also notice that these are bold, self-contained declarative statements.

Get to the point quickly, and focus 100% on the major pain or benefit your campaign provides.

Tip #5. Use Vivid Words that Evoke Emotion

The best subject lines evoke some strong emotional connection with the reader.

Three of the top 20 subject lines used a variation of the word “Kill” (i.e. killer, killing, etc.).

Four of the top 20 used “Mistake”. Some even combined the two.

So far you should see a pattern developing in the last few tips, and notice how they work together to produce a result greater than the sum of its parts.

If you want to grab someone’s attention and interest quickly, then get to the point with bold, powerful statements that instantly resonate with a person’s primal motivators and top-of-mind pain point.

Tip #6. But Don’t Overdo Hyperbole

There is such a thing as “too much”.

When analyzing the email campaigns with the highest Unsubscribe rates, we noticed a pattern of hyperbole. For example:

  • IMPORTANT: News about FixCourse…
  • How to “FAIL-Proof” Your Marketing
  • Why Comments are Useless
  • Why You Should NOT Track Metrics Regularly
  • How to Avoid Getting Penalized for Looking like a Spammer

There’s a fine line between incorporating powerful language, and overdoing it.

Tread carefully, and quickly try to identify or pick up on what elements don’t work with your subscribers (like using ALL CAPS!).

Tip #7: Business People Expect Business Case

Most contemporary copywriting or email marketing experts will tell you to use informal language to make it seem like your email is a letter from a friend.

While adopting a casual approach and using personalization still works well in B2B, most business people still expect a certain degree of professionalism.

For example, most of these experts talk about using informal word in all-lowercase lettering.

Or they’ll use some whimsical, clever question that doesn’t really say anything.

I’ve tried many, many variations on this and old fashioned, “Title Case + Benefit” still works best.

Apparently, Conductor’s data agrees:

headline capitalization preferences pie chart

(image source)

Personally, I believe most of this comes down to the people you’re speaking to.

Our demographic tends to skew older, in the 40-55 age range.

And while they may be early adopters or early majority with technology, they’re definitely not in the “innovator” stage.

But no matter who you’re trying to reach, don’t forget to humanize your brand and inject personality in the copywriting and tone.

Tip #8. Use Templates and Formulas to Save Time & Boost Performance

If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. Right?!

Two of the top three email campaigns with the highest Click Rate use a nearly identical subject line:

  • 50 Ways to Get Customers in 2014 – 9.10%
  • 10 Ways to Get More Customers in 2013 – 7.37%

(Guess which subject line we’re going to use for our first email marketing campaign in 2015?)

Another trick that works well is to use the PAS formula (Problem, Agitate, Solution):

  • Why You Have No Social Media Engagement (And How to Fix It) – 7.96%
  • Why You Need to Start Using Google+ (Even if You Could Care Less) – 6.49%

Tip #9. Creativity is Overrated


This next tip is further proof that debunks the myth of creativity.

Take a look at the top 10 email subject lines below — in order of highest Click Rates which are all 2X industry rates — and notice what you see…

  1. 50 Ways to Get Customers in 2014
  2. Why You Have No Social Media Engagement (And How to Fix It)
  3. 10 Ways to Get More Customers in 2013
  4. Why You Need to Start Using Google+ (Even if You Could Care Less)
  5. 3 Killer SEO Resources
  6. Why Comments are Useless
  7. Why You Should NOT Track Metrics Regularly
  8. 4 SEO Mistakes that Kill Rankings in 2013
  9. 3 Reasons Why Instagram is Worthless

The best performing email subject lines are a combination of Tips 1-3, specifically:

  • Negative messaging
  • Lists posts
  • “Why You”


Capitalize on trends and patterns.

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Tip #10 Polarization is Alive and Well

Some of the most successful emails (in terms of Opens and Clicks) also resulted in the highest unsubscribes. For example…

Why Comments are Useless (1946 Deliveries)

  • 33% Open Rate
  • 6.17% Click
  • 0.82% Unsubscribe Rate

50 Ways to Get Customers in 2014 (1922 Deliveries)

  • 36% Open Rate
  • 9.10% Click Rate
  • 0.68% Unsubscribe Rate

3 Killer SEO Resources (1883 Deliveries)

  • 38% Open Rate
  • 6.21% Click Rate
  • 0.58% Unsubscribe RateWhat’s the lesson?

Should you tone-it-down to lower unsubscribes? HELL NO.

Because when you do, you’ll immediately blend in with everyone else.

And when you blend in, you’ll get the same average Open Rates, mediocre Click Rates, and stagnant sales.

Embrace polarization.

You can’t stand out and fit in at the same time.

Bonus Tip: WIIFM?

Three of the top 5 email subject lines with the highest Unsubscribe Rate mentioned our brand.

What does that mean?

People don’t care about us.

They care about their own goals and problems.

Your company is no different.

No matter how hard we try, our companies aren’t THAT interesting or special to people who barely know us.

So don’t Tweet about your brand, don’t write blog posts about your new product, and don’t use email subject lines with your company name (unless it’s simply reinforcing who the email is from).

Instead, double down on customer research, figure out where these people are in the buying cycle, and craft email subject lines that specifically address your customer’s point of view, pain points and ambitions.

If you can do that, while combining a few best practices from this list, then it’s entirely possible to increase your next email campaign’s performance by 30-50%.

And stringing together those incremental wins over the next few weeks, months or years will begin to add significant profitability to your bottom line.

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