The Art of the Email Subject Line

Believe me, people tend to make snap judgements about incoming emails based in part on the subject line. Even if you’re not super busy, you’re likely to ignore and/or delete any email whose subject line doesn’t pass the “is-this-legit?” test.

I’ve been on both sides of the email subject line: the person crafting it and the person receiving it. For years, on the outreach side of things, I’ve been crafting email subject lines that got opens, responses, and content placement from places like Mashable, Entrepreneur, CNET, and Business Insider. While there is no scientific method or exact theorem, there is evidence that approaching subject lines in an experimental way—and taking risks—has paid off.

Now, for sales or marketing, the trouble is: you need people to actually read what you write. Very often, your emails are the equivalent of cold calling—asking a stranger to start a conversation. The good news: There is an art behind effective subject lines for sales and cold emails. Here are some subject line tips that will help you “warm up” your cold emails to potential prospects:

(Before we begin, it’s always good to limit your emailing to those who ARE actual prospects. Do some research before you send blindly to a list!)

  1. Educate yourself on what spammers do—and avoid doing that. Spammer subject lines tend to follow trends. A subject line that might have been OK for your emails last month may have become more “spammy” lately.
  2. Use the recipient’s first name in the subject line, but ONLY if it makes sense and flows naturally. (See Rule 1.)
  3. Make the subject line specific and concise. Highly personalized and specific subject lines have provably higher open rates.
  4. If you wonder if it sounds too much like “spam” or too “salesy”, then it probably is. (Again, see Rule 1.)
  5. Use questions in subject lines.
  6. Experiment with wit and current culture references in subject lines.
  7. Use words that relate to actual needs. If you’ve done your research, you should know what your audience’s needs are—so let them know that you get it.
  8. Make it clear you’re more interested in helping them than in adding a notch to your sales belt. Subject lines say a lot about your motives.
  9. (REALLY IMPORTANT!) Make sure that your email delivers on whatever the subject line promised. Clickbait does not live here.

It should go without saying that your email practices themselves must be above reproach. If someone objects to cold emails, always respect their wishes. There’s no surer way to trash a future relationship than to ignore (or forget) an unsubscribe request.

Everyone I know complains about email and spam—but we all continue to use it. Email is a fact of business life. Your prospect’s inbox is crammed with objectionable noise, and it always will be. Your job is to stand out from that noise, with something clear, relevant, and honest.