Creating winning subject lines

By Published on .

You can craft e-mail content guaranteed to inspire recipients to click through on the links within. But if the subject line falls flat, your reader may never get to your enticing message.

“Marketers obsess over the content of the e-mail, and the subject line often gets slapped on at the last minute,” said Jeanne S. Jennings, an e-mail marketing strategy consultant based in Washington, D.C. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Only a couple factors will help you get that e-mail opened and the subject line is one of them, said Jennings, whose namesake firm,, works with b-to-b companies. Because inboxes are overflowing, you get only a few seconds to grab recipients or you’ve probably lost them forever, she said.

Jennings offered the following dos and don’ts for creating subject lines:

  1. Don’t use the same subject line over and over. Some e-mail marketers send out regular e-newsletters, for example, and attach an identical subject line each week or month with the assumption a regular subscriber will open that e-mail regardless. Think again, Jennings warned. “Even if someone has a deep relationship with a brand, you need to give them a reason to stop right now and take a minute to read that e-mail,” she said. “Simply stating the e-mail has arrived usually doesn’t do it.”
  2. Devise a formula and use variations of it. If you’re sending a regular e-newsletter, choose the most interesting article headline among the items in that issue and make that your subject line, Jennings said. Or if you are promoting a product in your e-mails, any incentive offer—such as free shipping or 25% off—should be touted in the subject line. “You can use the same process repeatedly, but each time the copy will be different,” she said.
  3. Make sure your message is within the first 25 characters. Not everyone will see your entire subject line, but it’s almost a guarantee that most people will view the first 25 characters, Jennings said. Be certain the key part of your message is there right away, she said. And don’t get hung up on complete sentences or perfect grammar. “Phrases are fine; just make sure there are no typos,” she insisted.
  4. Personalizing subject lines is passé. The trend of personalizing subject lines to stand out is over, Jennings said. Spammers are the ones most likely to adopt personalizing tactics these days, and most people agree it doesn’t look professional anymore, she said. “It has a Publisher’s Clearinghouse kind of feel, and you want to stay away from that,” she advised.
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