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Email 101: Write a Subject Line to Boost Your Email Open Rate

Last Thursday, I tried a new method of sorting my email.

The 4 Ds Model, developed by productivity consultant Sally McGhee, lets you do one of four things with an email: Delete it, Do it, Delegate it or Defer it.

I had 33 emails in my Outlook Inbox when I sat down at my desk. Based on subject line, 22 were quick Deletes. Even the one from Alexei with an offer to Add 3 inches to my [undersized body part] got trashed.

Four were quick Dos, requiring only short answers to clients Armin, Ed, Tanya and Stripe (yes, Stripe).

None were Delegates, I’m sad to say. This is one of the downfalls of being self-employed with no assistants.

That left six Defers (including New York Times online and Delancey Place) and one Dessert.

Some of you will say I’ve cheated by adding a D. Others will argue that Dessert isn’t a verb. (Silly people.) Point is that I hold some emails for the end of my sorting session, like a tantalizing morsel you wait for all during the main meal.

And just like the description on a restaurant menu, these emails have subject lines that pique my interest even when I think I’m satisfied.

That’s what you want when you try to woo prospects or customers. Everyone gets too much email. And if your readers-to-be work for a fer-real company, with cubes and water coolers and meetings with stale doughnuts, they probably have far more than 33 messages in their Inbox.

So the email you send is only slightly less intrusive than a cold call. And that means nothing is more critical than your opening line.

Today’s topic: Email subject lines

Your subject line has only one job—to get the email opened. Unfortunately too many subject lines are collecting unemployment. If it doesn’t work, forget the rest of your message.

And trust me: You already have some idea what works and what doesn’t. For example, I’ll open the one from pal Gabe Silverman at Gecko Designs that says Flathead Brewing Company Monday? (my dessert email on Thursday) and ixnay the one offering me a great deal on a box of Cuban cigars.

What you want to avoid is a subject line that sounds like spam or a hard sell. Avoid all caps, more than one exclamation marks (!!!) and the word “Free” first.

So what subject lines give customers a compelling reason to open your message?

Subject lines that offer a clear benefit, offer interesting news, pique curiosity, include a number or a mix of these. You don’t have to be clever, just to the point. Here are a few examples of subject lines that got me to open and read on:


Zama Massage: Buy one, get two massages free

Shermans Travel: Bargain Beach Getaways from $48


SkiNet SnowMail: 2 Feet of Fresh

Wildwood Restaurant: Open for Brunch on Mother’s Day and Easter!


The Motley Fool: Should You Buy Apple Before the iPad Launches?

Robert Middleton, Action Plan Marketing: Are You a Marketing Martyr?


HubSpot: 99 Tools for Social Media Marketing

AWAI: The Top 5 Regrets People Have On Their Deathbeds

How long should an email subject line be?

Short! In general, use 51 characters or less—and yes, that includes spaces. More than that and your subject line will get cut off by many email programs. Stack the most important content first, because many handheld devices trim those 51 characters down to a paltry 35.

Remember also that your targets will likely see the “From” line before the subject line, so these can work together. No need to use valuable real estate repeating your name if the recipient already knows who sent the message. But make sure the sender sounds credible or you don’t need to worry about the subject line. (No, I won’t meet just anyone at the brew pub to chat about work.)

How do you know if your subject line will work?

First, give some thought to your customers: What would you say to them if you had three seconds to grab their attention? Don’t be generic: You want to stop them while scrolling through their Inbox and keep their grubby hands away from the Delete key.

But do be fair: Don’t mislead your readers. Make sure your subject line relates to your offer or you’ll get an open email and a quick delete once they realize they’ve been duped.

Second, write a dozen or more candidate lines. Try a few using all four techniques above to see what works for you. Then try your proposed subject lines out on a few prospects. That can help you weed out some no-go lines in a hurry.

And third, test your subject lines and see what the open rate is. You don’t have to use the same subject line for every prospect, so don’t. Do a random test with two different subject lines and see which one performs. Find out what works for your target audience, so you can feel confident they’ll move right on to your meaty body copy.

Next up …

Email 102: Write Email Content that Compels Your Customer

PS—So did I switch to 4 Ds for sorting mail? No, although I think it works well. But it’s actually pretty close to 1 D (for Diana), which I’ve been using forever.

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