The Subject Line Strategy That Gets 541% More Response

The original title of this post was going to be Turns Out This Particular Post Title Sucks. Turns out, that particular post title would have sucked.

See, as good marketers do, we recently sat down to analyze how well our approach has been doing – meaning, how well you guys like our posts.

The first thing we found was that you guys do like them – all your comments, tweets and the like made us feel pretty appreciated. So thanks for them, and we appreciate you back.

The other thing we found was a trend regarding post titles, which often become our email subject lines.

It surprised us, especially me, because my favorite way to write subject lines is apparently not what you guys find appealing and want to click through to read.

How NOT to Write Email Subject Lines

I like to play with words, to get creative with their combination, their presentation, their rhythm.

I love alliteration and rhymes, and I’ll definitely click any subject line that’s got good wordplay. Turns out, most of you won’t.

After all, you’re not here looking to be entertained by puns (although they are fascinating, aren’t they?). You’re here for marketing tips, to see how others build their businesses and to find out about new tools that can make your marketing easier.

Which means you like subject lines that tell you that’s exactly what you’re going to get. So the thing we found out that you need to remember is:

Clarity Trumps Creativity

See for yourself.

Here’s a list of subject lines that we judged to fall under each category:

Clear

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“Creative”

Customer Spotlight – SEER Interactive

AWeber’s AWesome Anthony A.

Selling Digital: The Perfect Last-Minute Christmas Gift

Getting Earth-Friendly Beyond Email

Threadless’ Frequency Alert: Hot or Not?

Why You Want Your Emails Filtered

The clear subject lines performed better than the cutesy subject lines no matter what metric we looked at. To break it down by channel, these clear subject lines beat out the cutesy ones by:

Comments Tweets Facebook Likes Traffic Email Subscriptions
1107% 315% 331% 617% 366%

I didn’t really believe the numbers when I saw them myself, either. I didn’t want to, but I had another team member double-check them. (The 541% in the headline is an average of the above.)

It would appear that while creativity and clever writing are very good things in general (and I still cling to the fact that they’re good in the body of a post), they have no place in post titles and subject lines. People want to be told directly what they can expect to find inside, and they don’t have time to puzzle out what an overly creative subject line could mean.

Which Do You Prefer?

I mean, the numbers tell us which you prefer to read. But what about when you’re writing emails?

Do you tell your readers in plain words just exactly what they’ll find inside? Do you use a template, or formula, that’s supposed to work even though readers have seen it hundreds of times before?

Or do you try to get cute?

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By:
Amanda Gagnon is the former Education Manager for AWeber and has started a number of small businesses.

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42 Comments

  1. Joy

    Thanks a lot for this tip :)

    6/20/2012 10:16 am
  2. Makes a lot of sense. People are always pressed for time in this fast-moving day and age and appreciate the clarity. The clear subject lines instantly say “this piece of content has value.” Some thoughts running through the recipients head – “Tell me why you’re telling me what you’re telling me.” OR “What’s in it for me?” The cutesy subject titles all seem like they’re more about pushing an agenda than providing value to the recipient. Pushing of product is just clutter, and gets filtered before ever entering our stream of consciousness.

    Great research Ms. Gagnon!

    6/20/2012 4:09 pm
  3. I half-expected more comments and likes. Guess the headline wasn’t enticing enough.

    Good post though. Really helpful tip for someone like me who has no idea what to put in the subject of emails.

    6/21/2012 8:59 am
  4. Spot on post, you can get cutesy and have fun in the body of your mail, but not in a subject line. By the time they have clicked and opened up, you’ve got permission to have fun and be yourself with a customer..

    I’m 83.5% this post has been useful for me in curbing my creative tendencies – thanks :)

    6/21/2012 9:35 am
  5. Personally, I always try to write subject lines that give a clear message and – where possible – a benefit for the reader. This ties in with your Clear subject lines. As Danny says, the subject line should aim to answer the reader’s internal question of “Is this of interest to me?”.

    It is the question I ask whenever I see your emails and up to now the answer for me is usually “Yes!”

    Thanks for sharing your research Amanda.

    6/21/2012 10:36 am
  6. Thanks for the honesty of showing us exactly what worked and what didn’t with your headlines. Being a writer, I’m tempted to be witty and original. This post provides statistical proof that many times that backfires.

    I dig on the simple statement: CLARITY TRUMPS CREATIVITY.

    6/21/2012 10:37 am
  7. Hey Amanda,

    Great post! I certainly clicked on the email in my inbox because of the subject line. It definitely told me what it was about. Very clear. But what it didn’t tell me was the answer. The subject generated curiosity. I wanted to know the answer. I think generating curiosity (in the right people) is also a key factor in getting people to click through.

    What I’d be interested to know your opinion of is whether the subject line of the email and the title of the post should be the same for the best performance or if there is some leeway or even advantage in them being different? I’m guessing this would be easy to determine over a number of split-tests?

    Thanks again for your illuminating (and clear) post.

    6/21/2012 10:37 am
  8. Good post.

    I clicked on this e-mail because the topic of “Subject Line Strategy” is important to me. It’s something that I spend time on when writing my group e-mails. I also like to write creative subject lines.

    One thing is that I’m not sure some of the subject lines listed under creative versus clear are really so: “Customer Spotlight – SEER Interactive”, for example. That strikes me as clear rather than creative. It tells exactly what the post is about.

    Same for “AWeber’s AWesome Anthony A”. It’s perfectly clear that that will be about one of your employees. It is creative but in a lame way ;-) It could just be that most people on this list don’t care about Anthony A. No disrespect. I am sure he is a great guy. But subscribers to this list want e-mail marketing content.

    Similarly, some of the other subject lines under “creative” are ambigous. Even after thinking about them, I still don’t know exactly what the e-mails will be about. For example, “Selling Digital – The Perfect Last Minute Christmas Gift”. That is confusing to me. What exactly is selling digital? And what does it have to do with Christmas gifts? Similarly “Getting Earth Friendly Beyond E-Mail”. What does being earth friendly have to do with e-mail? I have no idea.

    The one that I am going to read after writing this is “E-Mail Timing”. Now that’s interesting to me and I know exactly what it will be about.

    But don’t give up on creative subject lines so quick. Done right, they can work. Who says you can’t be creative and clear!

    6/21/2012 10:38 am
  9. Excellent post and comment above. Thanks!

    6/21/2012 10:48 am
  10. Rachael

    Glad to see this article. The subject line was compelling, and that is why I opened it. Many times I open these emails because I like the information and the simple reminders of how to write effective emails in marketing. It makes it easy to research it because it shows up in my IN box. However there are times when the subjects/content of the article seem to clever and trendy – I don’t actually get the joke or what the author is comparing my email campaign too. So the whole article that might have been useful ends up going over my head and I don’t utilize the information.

    This has been useful for my own campaign as well. Subjects where I just give the straight-scoop of what they would want in their lives is better than using play-on-words. For instance, I’ve noticed when we offer a new video online each month, we get more opens if we say exactly what it is – New Video Online + a quick 2-3 word description. Instead of saying some interesting little thing to intrigue them to open it, and then tell them later it’s about a new video online inside of the email itself.

    6/21/2012 10:58 am
  11. Sachin – You must have been one of the first to see it. :)

    Greg – True, if you can pull off creative AND clear, that’s ideal. The problem is when ambiguity gets in the way.

    Paul – You know, that is definitely something to test. Going off my own opinion, though, I would say, you’ve got two different spaces to fill with text, which means two opportunities to pull readers in. While you need to keep them closely related so readers can see they’ve clicked through to the right thing, you might as well take the opportunity of presenting two compelling arguments for reading the post instead of one, twice. Just my two cents. If you test it, let us know what happens!

    6/21/2012 10:58 am
  12. I am stunned, just as you were, at these results. I’m going to immediately review my subject lines. I wonder if holds true for all niches. What appeals to readers for business vs non-business emails might be different. Any thoughts on this?

    6/21/2012 12:09 pm
  13. The clear is what I’ll go with as I myself don’t open emails with titles that are hard to understand or are not clear. Even the reason why I reached this blog post is because of the clear and attractive email title – “541% More Opens With This Strategy”. What grabs the readers attention in the shortest time span possible is what matters. Creativity usually fails to convey the message clearly and quickly.

    6/21/2012 12:56 pm
  14. I like clarity but I also like numbers and tips.

    6/21/2012 2:01 pm
  15. I am not entirely surprised by the result but wonder, as someone above already asked, if that applies to all niches.

    I tend to write clear subject lines for my non IM list but try to get more creative for my IM list. I certainly do not use the subject lines that you are given for affiliate promotions that everyone else is using.

    At the end of the day I think it very much depends on what people are looking for at the time.

    6/21/2012 3:09 pm
  16. John May

    Hi Amanda, One of the key messages in this blog is to put your own ego to one side and put yourself in the minds and office seats of your target market. Whilst we might all think of our writing skills as the second coming of Shakespeare, that is not what our audience likes, wants or comprehends. For a start, they’ve got very busy lives, pressing projects, meetings, and commitments. So you’ve got a split second to grab them, and deliver something of value to them specifically. The risk of getting it wrong and not delivering is great; it’s called the Unsubscribe button! It really is your choice; Deliver or Unsubscribe. So, amongst all the gems you’ve offered in this blog is the fact that you’ve kept an open mind and listened to (but more importantly) acted upon the resounding message that your customers have provided in those stats.

    6/21/2012 3:13 pm
  17. Great post – there’s a time to be creative – in your copy, but subject lines shouldn’t be overly smart – because we scan them and need to see a benefit in them otherwise I hit delete

    6/21/2012 3:38 pm
  18. Making headlines with numbers and percentages makes the headline more believable, by adding credibility and weight to the content beyond it.

    That’s a great idea. It adds to the uniqueness of the content too.

    6/21/2012 5:43 pm
  19. Jen

    Amanda, well done. Writers need to squash their creativity when it comes to subject lines. As a copywriter who writes a lot of email and subject lines (and receives 100s of marketing messages every day), I sometimes give myself the 60 second sniff-test and click on only the best subject lines. My intuition agrees with your research.

    That said, why not use that creativity in your email header?

    6/21/2012 5:59 pm
  20. Nice post. Yep looking at the lists of clear v creative, clear is definitely more appealing. Clear is to the point and there is a potential to open the email and get that subject line ‘itch’ scratched very soon. Cheers

    6/21/2012 8:46 pm
  21. In reading both sets of subject lines I was definitely more drawn to the one that told me what I would be reading about. In fact, I clicked on the email leading to this blog post in part because it made a specific promise – to show a way to get 541% more opt-ins. And since I trust Aweber’s data I believed it was more than just hype.

    6/22/2012 3:15 am
  22. I’m going to put this to the test! Having been a lazy email marketer for months I’m going to try and change starting from July 1st and this theory is where it begins.

    6/22/2012 10:05 am
  23. Amanda,

    Thank you. Lately it seems that email, and post, titles have taken a turn for the confusing instead of the curious. Many are trying to be creative and cutesy and it gets a little annoying. Your statement, “they don’t have time to puzzle out what an overly creative subject line could mean.” could not ring truer.

    I hope more people read about your findings – Theresa :)

    6/23/2012 10:15 am
  24. When creating subject line, we need to ask ourselves what makes readers open our email?

    David Ogilvy once said, if it cannot sell, it is not creative at all. As long as your subject lines sell, then it is creative.

    We don’t have to separate subject lines sell and subject lines that are creative. As long as it sells, it is creative.

    6/24/2012 4:25 am
  25. Internet marketers don’t have lots of time to fool around with “cutesy” subject lines. We’re overworked, overwhelmed, and despise people who beat around the bush.

    6/24/2012 4:42 am
  26. Well hello Amanda, this makes perfect sense in a world where time is the only resource that is finitely limited and email is a massive time killer, I would guess that this applies to all niches as they are all linked to real people.

    I now start each subject line with a branding acronym to make it easier for the subscriber to spot the messages and it reduces the need for a clever phrase. Your advice follows on nicely from this negating the need for a clever phrase and letting them know instantly whether the content is relevant to their specific needs and interests.

    Time to change my approach to email writing.

    igor

    6/25/2012 5:32 am
  27. I’m guilty of not putting enough thought into my subject lines, and even testing them to a portion of my list. Not good I know! I agree, people don’t have time to figure things out. Tell them what they’re gonna get and “give it to them”.

    6/25/2012 4:37 pm
  28. Hi Amanda,

    It appears you’re attempting to reinvent 100 years of study and testing about advertising. One of the major tenants is “Don’t be clever for the sake of cleverness.” Study the great masters of direct mail advertising and you’ll know clarity is always better. Men see a picture and nothing happens. Women see a picture and get a message. Keep things simple. Make a promise. Prove why we should buy. Then ask us to buy. Go out and do some face-to-face advertising space or time sales and find out what sales is really about before you attempt to develop new psychological theories about how to sell. I don’t mean to be nasty, but we’re talking about real money and real people’s lives here and let no one be deceived.

    6/26/2012 3:59 pm
  29. Stephen, that’s exactly what the post says. Clarity is what people want, and it doesn’t waste their time.

    James, that’s one more reason to keep it clear. Better for you and better for your readers.

    6/27/2012 8:10 am
  30. Now this was a very informative post.
    Since I started using email marketing my figures have shown some slight variation in the above percentages but always tend to lean towards the favour of the K.I.S.S methodology for subject lines (Keep It Simple Stupid).

    I think the best balance is obtained through simplicity of the words but ALSO raising curiosity with your readership, no matter what market they are in.

    If you can’t be creative with your subject lines, at least keep them precise and easy to read.

    Another good trick I use is putting something in square brackets at the start to denote the content of the email, so like:

    [SEO] or [List building] or…you get the idea.

    Thanks again for a wonderful post!
    Paul.

    6/27/2012 7:32 pm
  31. You hit it on the nail. I have seen so many random headings to posts that I usually pass up because they aren’t clear enough. If it is clear and relevant to the article not only are you going to get more people reading the article but you’ll get more people commenting on the article because those who clicked in the first place are more qualified.

    6/29/2012 11:57 am
  32. Amanda,

    I love creativity with language also, but on this kind of site I’m looking for clear action and results, at least in the subject line. Like many of the others have already said, in the body, creativity can really sing, but the header has to be clear and to the point.

    Great post!

    7/5/2012 4:23 pm
  33. I would like to choose the Clear Subject Lines during composing my newsletter because I never thinks beyond the real numbers or say percentage like you and your team have checked already before publishing here.

    In my blog posts I also found that peoples likes to read those article which are clear in their title line, so the same rule should also be effective at the newsletters – isn’t it ?

    7/6/2012 7:31 am
  34. Tina Evans

    I prefer clarity – - with the limited time I have available I need to make the best of it. If the subject line presents a clear statement of content to follow, I open it. If not,,,into the trash without opening…

    8/9/2012 8:52 am
  35. Absolutely prefer the clear email titles.

    It was actually the first time I’ve read this blog and it was a gem :)

    Thanks!

    9/20/2012 5:27 am
  36. This post mades my mind ” click ”. thank you!

    12/25/2012 3:30 pm
  37. I’m glad I came across this. I always have difficulty with subject lines, and strain myself trying to be clever.
    Not any more! From now on, I’ll definitely be making my subject clear and concise. Thanks for the tip.

    The emails that always get unsubscribed by me are the ones which obviously lie, such as; “I was talking about you yesterday”, or “This is for your eyes only, don’t tell anyone else”, and so on.
    They are simply insulting my intelligence.

    The other ones that go are; “This expires at midnight tonight”.
    As I don’t check my emails every day, I figure they can’t be that important.

    1/5/2013 5:46 pm
  38. Amanda this was a very interesting and informative post! It came handy as I was debating what to use on my “Very first newsletter”. I launched my website for New Years eve, but used an app on one of my social media sites to “subscribe to my future newsletter” and to my surprise I checked last week and I already have quite a few prospects. I have a few ideas of what to write about, but I am debating whether to start with tips or a welcome email? Definitely wont push anything until after a few newsletter with free goodies. (my niche is Alternative Medicine).
    How is this for the first newsletter’s subject:
    ~ 12 home remedies to help you tackle the Flu {Naturally}
    ~ 12 reasons why you’ll love our newsletters.

    I’d love to hear some feedback from all of you-the pro’s :)

    1/19/2013 12:55 am
  39. IP

    Keep up the good work, love posts like this.

    9/9/2013 10:37 am
  40. Fantastic information. I generally sum up what is inside the email in a line. I think it also depends on the person you are emailing.

    11/23/2013 9:10 pm
  41. I like writing creative headlines but prefer reading clear headlines. I’ll leave the creative stuff for my journal or other writing projects but leave my headlines clear and compelling!

    7/19/2014 7:29 am

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