Question: How can I create an effective e-mail subject line?

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Answer: Oddly enough, the first step toward creating an effective e-mail subject line is to have an effective "from" line. That's because recipients overwhelmingly take into account who is sending them e-mail before considering the subject line and deciding whether to open the message.

To ensure recipients recognize your messages, always use the same "from" address, such as "[email protected]," and always send from your company name or brand. This will foster recognition and encourage response, as well as increase your chances of being added to recipients' e-mail address books or "white lists," which in turn can help deliverability.

With an impeccable "from" field in place, you can create a sparkling subject line. For effective subjects with zing, consider the four following key elements:

Branding. Although brand isn't necessary to a great subject line, we recommend including your brand or product name as a way to increase recognition, match message content and build your long-term E-mail Brand Value. (For more on this powerful concept, read "The Quiet Revolution in Email Marketing," by Bill Nussey.)

Brevity. People don't want to wade through long subject lines, so keep it short and sweet. Limit your subject line to a maximum of eight to 10 words. Keep in mind that anything more than 60 characters will get cut off, potentially discouraging readers from opening your e-mail.

Personalization. Using names in a meaningful way can increase response. For example, "Personality test: Grant scored a 46!" didn't use my name, but rather that of a colleague, and then added more personalization (in this case, my colleague's score) to induce a response. On the other hand, "Elaine, TMF06, ad serving, 10/07/04," used my name, but its lack of meaning failed to tempt me to open the message.

Intrigue. Entice recipients to open your messages by provoking a desire to learn more. Three ways to do this, alone or in combination, are to use:

  • Calls to action. Subject lines such as " Don't forget to register by Friday!" tell recipients exactly what they need to do, and convey a sense of urgency.
  • Value propositions. "Save 20% on MyStore's Summer Closeout," spells out the benefit of opening the message.
  • Hooks. Subject lines such as "It's headed your way …" can be irresistible because readers must open the message in order to understand it fully. (This e-mail from Lands' End opened to reveal "holiday hubbub," graphically represented by a train.)

How can you be sure your subject lines are doing their job? Test to find out. One easy method: Choose your top two contenders, send each to 10% of your list, and wait for results. Even a few hours will give you a good idea. All things being equal, the most effective subject line will elicit a higher response. Use your top performer for the remaining portion of your list.

Elaine O’Gorman is VP-strategy for Silverpop, a provider of permission-based e-mail marketing solutions (

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