Do questions make effective subject lines?

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Answer:  Sorry to say, there isn’t a cut-and-dried answer to your question. The truth is some questions make terrific subject lines while others fall flat.

The role of the subject line is to get recipients’ attention and compel them to open and read the e-mail, much like the role of the outside envelope in traditional direct mail.

Because it plays such a pivotal role in the success of an e-mail campaign, there is a great deal of pressure on marketers to get the subject line right. There are a finite number of words that have equal weight with everything else that appears in a recipient’s e-mail box. Traditional direct mail "differentiators" such as color, typography and envelope size cannot be combined with the text to create more impact. You are relying completely on text.

Using a question as a subject line can produce strong results if you follow some simple guidelines.

  • Know your audience. If you understand what makes recipients tick, what their priorities are and what motivates them, you will strike a chord with them by asking a question that speaks directly to their specific interests.
  • Be provocative. Pose a question that demands an answer. Ask about a controversial issue or industry trend—something that they could not help but have an opinion about because it affects them in some way.
  • Be brief. Fewer words are easier to read. A quick question will actually stand out more in the list of subject lines that appear in recipients’ e-mail boxes. Use strong words that pop off the screen, but stay away from hype.
  • Get through the filters. E-mail must make it through two filters—the institutional SPAM filters and the human filter (the recipient). In this regard, traditional direct marketers have an advantage: Postal workers do not sort your snail mail and throw away anything that looks like junk. To get past SPAM filters, familiarize yourself with the words, phrases and punctuation they look for, and post a list next to your computer. Even the most innocent "free offer" can land your e-mail in the SPAM folder, never to be seen again.

Marilou Barsam is VP-client consulting services for TechTarget (, an information technology media company based in Needham, Mass.

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