Email subject lines: a copywriting conundrum

Five or six of the hardest words

One of my most challenging copywriting tasks is coming up with email subject lines. Getting cracking on the content itself is no problem for me. But it can take as much time as a whole article draft to pick a catchy little phrase that instantly tells the recipient what the email’s about, why it’s good, why it’s important or interesting and why it’s different from and better than 100 other emails they’ve received this morning.

I have a twitchy finger myself on the delete button – like most of us I don’t spend more than a second glancing at the subject of whatever commercial emails have dropped into my inbox. Most of them don’t even get an open.┬áSo I know what I’m up against.

Short and sweet?

One of the most common directives about email subject lines is to keep them short – so mobile-based recipients can see all the words on a small screen. It’s a good principle as long as brevity doesn’t mean failing to get across what’s contained in the email, so that people who could have been interested miss the key point. I’ve heard it argued that a long subject line that bleeds off the screen can in fact tempt people to click to find out how it ends. Risky perhaps?

The goalposts keep moving

If your email distribution software has analytics, the best way to figure out the most effective subject lines is by A/B testing them and finding out evidentially what works best for your particular audience and content. But you have to keep trying and testing new things or you risk turning off readers with a single repetitive device that will bore them. People are attracted by different things at different times and in different contexts, so it’s not an exact science. Word and topic trends change all the time. Sometimes a cheesy pun or a silly emoji in an email title amuses me – sometimes I find it annoying.

Plain vs fancy

There’s an argument for keeping it simple. MailShake’s survey showed that clear, straightforward subject lines that just say what’s in the email achieved better open rates than sophisticated, quirky or creative ones.

In a situation where I don’t have analytics evidence to work with, I try to follow some simple principles for subject lines. Clear, concise, personal, linked to a current topic or with an offer or action if possible. Writing in Forbes, Annabel Acton’s short summary strikes a chord for me.

The pre-text sentence that appears in the line under email subjects in many browsers is a big help in explaining a bit more about the content that follows. Not every recipient will see it, so the subject line needs to stand alone, but it can make the difference between a click and a trash for those who do get the extra line.

Want to know more? Recommended…

Inbound marketing specialists Hubspot have this great article with detailed insight into how best to tackle subject lines.

Popular e-marketing platform MailChimp has some practical tips too. They’re particularly useful if you use MailChimp for creating and distributing your emails: the article walks you through some inbuilt features that will help you test your subject lines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *