Writing Email Subject Lines: 6 Ways to Improve Your Open Rate

These have been the basic rules of subject line-writing for a good 10 years:

  • Keep the length of your subject line to 50 characters with spaces (CWS) or fewer
  • Lead with an action word
  • Include your brand name somewhere in there
  • Avoid spam-trigger words, exclamation points and odd punctuation
  • Avoid being cutesy or clever

Then there’s the bonus “fancy” stuff.

Like personalizing the subject line. Ooooh, fancy…!

And putting an expiry date for your offer in the subject line.

And choosing, sometimes, to use spammy words – like “free” – strategically.

And considering pre-header text, which is the line of copy that appears in ‘preview’ views in Gmail and other email clients. (Pre-header text warrants a blog post of its own.)

Those are the basic and fancy rules.

As much as the rules are good to follow, simply following them won’t necessarily get you the open rates you’re looking for.

Because the rules are just the beginning.

In everything.

And especially in email marketing.

I’ve learned exactly that in my time as a copywriter, driving email optimizations in-house at Intuit and running my own newsletter. My newsletter open rate is, on average, 29.5% higher than that of others in my industry, with unique opens coming in just around 44% week after week AND multiple repeat opens.

A great open rate is important because – Obvious Police – your recipient needs to open the email in order to increase the likelihood that they’ll click your link or share your content.

So, what can you do to improve your open rate so you stand a better chance of converting your list?


OPEN-BOOSTING TACTIC 1: Get Permission – Clean Lists Are Worth the Work
A guy from a cool new startup reached out to me last week.

He has an intelligent solution to a problem for his prospects. But he has an open rate of <0.01% (yes, you’re reading that right) for his email.

How can that be?

Easy. The guy never asked anyone to opt in to his list.

He simply goes out, scrapes emails from the “Contact Us” page of clients he’d like to have, and cold-emails them.


Not advisable in any way, shape or form.

(NB: If this is what you’re doing, keep reading – because the following tips can, in fact, help you… even if your list is shite.)

You must get the permission of your prospects. This is not new; this is permission marketing, and, yes, it can work for you.

Follow ye olde rule of “double opt-in”, wherein someone has to indicate 2x that they are interested in receiving your email communications.


Because you need a “clean” list. Yes, this takes time. And patience. And diligence. There is no special trick here and no skipping the line.

I would rather have a healthy list of 5,000 avid readers – who are likely to read, forward, recommend, and buy – than a dirty list of 25,000 people who never asked me to contact them and don’t want to hear from me. You’d do yourself a big favor to ease up on trying to grow your list and instead seek a clean, qualified list of double-optin awesomeness.


OPEN-BOOSTING TACTIC 2: Only Send Emails Where There Is More Value for the Recipient Than for You
In most cases, your subject line should pinpoint the greatest value your recipient will receive if they open the email.

In the copywriting world, this is referred to as the WII-FM (what’s in it for me) statement.

You may think it’s really important that people upgrade to the latest version of your software or shop your Fall 2012 line. But chances are that, in comparison to the many other things in their inbox, that doesn’t sound that great to them.

What do your customers and prospects want?

What pain is grating on them that you can solve right now?

What was of such immense value that you had to email them RIGHT THIS SECOND to share it with them?

Position the true value of what they’ll find inside your email in the subject line.

This may sound obvious… but go check out the subject lines of the emails you’ve sent and see if you’re using this tactic or not.


OPEN-BOOSTING TACTIC 3: Use Words the “Lizard Brain” Hears
Colin Nederkoorn over at sent out a great email this week on triggering responses by speaking to the “lizard brain”.

If you’ve read Neuromarketing, you’re familiar with the concept of the old brain or reptilian brain:

The old brain is a primitive organ, a direct result of the basic evolutionary process. It is our ‘fight or flight’ brain – our survival brain – and is also called the reptilian brain because it is still present in reptiles today.

The old brain has been around for 450 million years and still powers our actions. Written words, on the other hand, have only been around for 10,000 years.

Notice the gap?

So, as literate as we all may be, written words and logic aren’t the way to get through to the lizard brain. They’re the worst way.

Problem is that, when it comes to subject lines, you can only communicate using the written word. (Unless there’s an app for that.)

Accordingly, what’s written has to make its BEST POSSIBLE EFFORT to communicate to the lizard brain.

Which means you need to write subject lines that are more raw, emotional and instinctive — lines that would make your little lizard head whip around and stare all googley-eyed at ’em…



How to avoid chemicals and toxins


Is there a better way to show what you’re worth?


Proven approaches to getting what you want at work


Toxic Nation News: It Looks Like Estrogen
(Subject line by Environmental Defence Canada, Aug 10 ’12)

Are you charging enough for your services?
(Subject line by Ruben Gamez at Bidsketch, Aug 9 ’12)

Salary negotiation secrets revealed — Live webcast tonight at 9pm Eastern
(Subject line by Ramit Sethi, July 16 ’12)


According to Neuromarketing, there are 6 rules for communicating the way the lizard brain wants you to:

  1. Self-centered-ness – The lizard only wants to hear about itself
  2. Contrast – The lizard understands things in context: before/after, with/without, not/but
  3. Tangibility – If the lizard could talk, he’d say, “Goodbye soft, fluffy marketing messages!”
  4. No “Middle Muddle” / Beginning & End – For the lizard, the stuff in the middle isn’t as important as what bookends it (with Ramit’s subject line above as a great example of removing the “middle muddle” completely)
  5. Visual Stimuli – The lizard likes bright, shiny objects
  6. Emotion – The lizard protects, gets curious, gets scared and reacts to defensiveness and aggression

How would you communicate with a lizard (assuming you’re not from Slytherin House)?

You’d expect it to react to shiny objects. And loud pops & bangs. And speed. And flashes of light. And even eye contact.

So think of those things when writing your email subject line.

Intrigue your recipient. Or explicitly state the offer. Or make it feel urgent. Or do all of the above!


OPEN-BOOSTING TACTIC 4: Make Sure They’re Expecting Your Email
Every Tuesday, I send out my email newsletter.

Every Tuesday, I get an email from Marie Forleo.

When you sign up for my newsletter, I tell you you’ll hear from me every Tuesday.

When I signed up for Marie Forleo’s newsletter, I was told I’d get an email from her every Tuesday.

None of this is accidental.

If your subscribers are expecting to hear from you, that alone can increase the likelihood that they’ll open your emails.

BONUS: A set mailing schedule can minimize unsubscribes. People don’t think you’re spam and they don’t feel overloaded by you when your communications to them arrive on the same date.

FAIL: If your communications are boring or low-value, then they may still be unlikely to open. Even though they were expecting to hear from you.


OPEN-BOOSTING TACTIC 5: Remind Them That They Know + Trust You
Y’know what’s BS?

Y’know what’s the worst idea ever in the history of subject lines?

Fake “RE:” and “FW:”.

Those are the WORST! Why? Because they’re trying to trick recipients into believing that this email is part of a conversation they’re already having.

It’s a tricky way in the door.

It’s like showing up at the door dressed as a refrigerator repairman only to come in and try to convert me to your JW religion.

(I talk a lot about conversion, but that kind of conversion is not what I mean.)

If you have to trick your way in, you suck. Stop emailing. Rethink your whole marketing strategy.

The way to get people to open your email is NOT to trick them into it.

That said, a “FW:” or two can be helpful when it’s legit, as in this case:

FW: Download Your Social Media Publishing Schedule
(Subject line of email from Jessica Meher at Hubspot, Aug 10 ’12)

Although I hadn’t directly communicated with Jessica or HubSpot via email, I had downloaded their schedule, so Jessica actually had a previous email that she was ‘forwarding’ to me. It wasn’t a fake forward.

There’s a fine line between being tricky and clever, and Jessica definitely leaned toward the clever side.

To help people remember that they know you, it’s usually best to use your brand name and/or the name of the most recognized person at your business in the From and the subject line. (For starters.) Other ways to do this include writing subject lines like:

  • Did you like that whitepaper I sent you?
  • Is there anything more I can do, like personally invite you to our webinar?
  • You signed up 2 weeks ago — how’s it going?
  • Since you asked to be notified of our launch, here goes…


OPEN-BOOSTING TACTIC 6: Keep It Short and Casual, Like a Friend’s Subject Line
Take a look at your inbox.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

K, assuming you did – and assuming you’re not like Lance, emptying out every email as it comes in – what did you see?

In most cases, people who do this exercise tell me they see almost all of the following:

  • Emails from their friends / family
  • Emails from coworkers
  • Alerts and updates from social sites (e.g., “Joanna, you have notifications pending”)
  • Emails from important coworkers, like senior leaders
  • Emails from companies they order from
  • Bills and electronic statements

Some emails they have to act on. Others they don’t.

Some emails they have to keep for their records. Others they don’t.

Some emails they want to act on. Others they don’t.

…What are the chances your email falls into the “others they don’t” category?

Probably pretty good.

So do yourself a favor and repeat after me:

“Nobody actually wants to hear from me.

They only want to hear from their friends.”

Your task, then, is to sound as much like their trusted friends, colleagues and/or clients as you can… without being tricky… or gimmicky… or lame.

The more you sound like them, the less you’ll scream, “I belong in the ‘others they don’t’ category! Delete me!”

Here are the subject lines of a few personal + work-related emails in my inbox:

Just bike ridin’

Crazy home page

Can we conference to discuss Garrett tomorrow morning?

Something for you, me and Beenie to do…

Joshie (sans 2 teeth)

Try this instead

What do those subject lines have in common? They:

  • Use lower-case or sentence case – not Title Case or, even worse ALL CAPS
  • Keep it to 4 or 5 words, max
  • Ask questions
  • Lack almost all punctuation
  • Get to the point in a “lizard brain” sort of way – no questions asked

Your email subject lines can and should do all of the above.


A final note on increasing your open rate: pay attention to the emails others send you.

I sign up for every email and/or newsletter under the sun — just to see what these people are sending out and how frequently (and seemingly successfully) they’re doing it.

I recommend you do the same.

You should start what’s called an “email swipe file”, which I recommend you divide into folders in Gmail, Outlook or whatever you use like so:

  • Email Swipes – Welcome & Thank-You
  • Email Swipes – Transactional
  • Email Swipes – Commercial
  • Email Swipes – Newsletters
  • Email Swipes – BAD

Then, when emails come in that you like (or, in the BAD case, don’t like), you simply file them into the right swipe file, and Bob’s yer uncle.

When it comes time for you to write a welcome email, you can swipe from the great subject lines AND the great body copy.

So, what are you going to do differently to boost your open rate?

You don’t have to do all 6 of the above… but you should commit to yourself to at least TEST 2 of ’em.


PS: Sending on the right day for your audience (e.g., Tuesday) and at the best time on that day – preferably when other email marketers aren’t reaching out to them – can also help your open rates. Worth testing.

About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • Pingback: Email Marketing for Vacation Rental Owners()

  • Wow, Joanna … If this is the free stuff, how freaking good is the ebook gonna be???

  • Very interesting post, recently tested a free trial of a service which gives lists of potential clients who have opted in to receive communication from partner sites.

    Personally feel will get more success from those looking for your services as opposed to you chasing them, however worth a try and if done well has a lot higher chance of success.

    • Joanna

      That’s interesting, Tom. I heard about a service like that, and I thought about it briefly, but I opted not to go for it largely for the same reason you mention: I want people to *want* to hear from me. I don’t want to force anyone onto my list or keep them on my list if they don’t want to be there.

      It’s hard work to sell your solutions to people who didn’t reach out to you first. So it feels like you’d have to put in a ton of work to try to convince your ‘purchased’ list that they should open your emails and stick around; if you’re going to put so much work in — if a purchased list doesn’t actually make your work easier — why not put that effort into trying to attract more people *to your awesome content* so they’ll want to sign up AND so they’ll be more likely to tell others about you?

      • Josh Kellett

        I think consumers (and marketing to a large degree) have been moving away from that marketing/advertising model for years. It seems that with the information firehose that is the internet, relevancy has taken the place of ubiquity as the factor we should focus on. People get inundated with so many marketing messages these days that almost every consumer is an expert at tuning out the noise. Personalized ads like AdWords and Facebook ads usually provide a much higher conversion rate because they’re hyper-targeted to the people that will care the most about your message. There’s some very strong examples of how ineffective irrelevant traffic is at converting. I agree with Joanna that organic content-driven growth is the best place to focus our energies; it also has the added bonus of helping you cultivate a strong and passionate community!

      • Joanna

        That Reddit/Kameoka example is a good one — and very illustrative of what a lot of my clients and contacts are seeing with StumbleUpon and Reddit traffic. (And, unfortunately, for Facebook ads, too. That you’ve seen them perform well is awesome, Josh; I wish I could say the same.)

        Of course, in discussions of conversion, we have to consider not just relevant or quality traffic but also what the motivation of that traffic is. When people click links that they’re curious about on Reddit, they’re not indicating that they’re motivated enough to buy something; they’re just entertaining their curiosity.

  • Best line: If you have to trick your way in, you suck. Stop emailing. Rethink your whole marketing strategy.

    • Joanna

      hahaha —- Sometimes tough love is the best love.

  • Great stuff. Loved the “Whats in it for me” and Lizard Brain parts. As e-mail marketers, we’re always looking for good stuff to share with our clients. Subject lines are the most commonly overlooked thing. People should create a check-list from your points to ensure high conversions, let alone higher open rates.

    • Joanna

      I was thinking of adding a checklist. I think I will… soon enough. 🙂 Thanks!

  • James King

    Great article. The part about the “lizard brain” is something I’ll definitely start focusing on now. I never thought about creating an “email swipe file,” thanks for the tip.

    • Joanna

      Cool —- email swipe files can start simpler than I recommended in this post, but I find these folders helpful.

  • Loic Jeanjean


    this has to be the single best article I’ve ever read about email subject line. I run a lot of email marketing cmapaigns for my company and also liaise with partners on co-branded webinar email invites. Your post is giving a lot of great ideas to try and experiment with and do some A/B tests.

    thanks a bunch,

    P.S. where are the social media sharing buttons?

    • Joanna

      Thanks, Loic! Great to hear you’ve found my article valuable. I hope it helps you in your role! If you do any split-tests, I’d love to hear the results —– win or lose (though hopefully win).

      As for social sharing buttons, I hesitate to put ’em on my site until I see if people like you want to share. Sounds like you do. 🙂

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