Email subject lines: How to hook without click-bait


Our #WriterInResidence, Sam Whitlock, takes a look through his email inbox to find out which subject lines are working and which ones are going straight in the virtual trash.

With 281 billion emails being sent every day, the need for companies to hook readers with effective email subject lines is only increasing.

Stand out from the crowd and you’ll still catch your quota. But resort to cheap click-bait and you might catch a few ‘unsubscribe’ clicks instead. So without further ado, let me welcome you to the email-subject-line appreciation society, at least for the duration of this blog post. You’ll also get a (hopefully not too embarrassing) insight into my inbox history.

The personal touch

“We’ve just added a film you might like…” is Netflix’s subject line that subtly suggests they know you personally. That they haven’t just run your data through an algorithm – even though that’s inevitably what they’ve done. They haven’t written anything wild, it’s a gentle nudge compared to some subject lines. It says “you might like this, you might not, but we think you will.”

Personally, I like it. It feels friendly. Compare it the Amazon’s sterile subject line in my inbox: “Amazon recommends Hamilton the Revolution.” They may have accurately understood my taste in rap musicals but everything about it cries algorithm. It’s not even particularly persuasive. The one thing it does is inform me of their stock, even if I never click on the email itself. But sometimes it’s better not to know everything upfront.

The curiosity key

“Priority Booking - Five New Shows for Summer / Autumn 2019” is Bristol Old Vic’s latest subject line in my inbox. It’s not wildly exciting. But it might make you want to know what those five new shows are. They’ve hinted just enough information to grab their target audience (me) and they threw the “Priority Booking” in to make the recipient feel a little special (I did).

The curiosity key can be turned too far. For instance, Magnet’s subject line, “What if…?” tries to be elusive to the point of being almost non-existent. Perhaps if they’d finished that question, my curiosity would have been engaged. Thought-leader-like companies sometimes do this very effectively. They put questions like “What if you never set another goal?” in their subject line and watch as the wave of intrigue washes in, meeting their click goals (except apparently they don’t even have goals!) for the week.

Handing out promotions (bribery)

“Win an acoustic guitar this April!” is Anderton’s shameless appeal to my desire to have more stuff. Specifically, sexy curved wood-with-strings stuff. While I love a good guitar, I’m probably not going to click this because I never click on promotions. Andertons will still rake in the buyers through this email though, because their target audience is wide enough to include those who love a competition. What they did well is give those people a specific reason to look inside.

Crack a smile

“This is a boring email” is Eventbrite’s latest offering in my inbox. It drew my attention. I chuckled. I didn’t open it. Other people probably would – because of the curiosity factor.

Humour isn’t enough in itself to crack an email open. But it can draw the eye away from the other dull, corporate phrases crowding an inbox. If you can use humour in combination with other tactics, you might just catch the multitudes.

Stay true to yourself

Perhaps most importantly, you want the subject line to sound like you. It needs to recognisably be your company, so there’s no point trying humour if everything else about your company is deadly serious.

‘Mad, bad Shakespearean comedy opens this week,’ is Tobacco Factory Theatre’s subject line in my inbox (you’ve probably guessed I’m a theatre-geek by now). It’s a tone of voice that has more in common with a grocer shouting in a market than say, a book-keeping company. It suits the loud, expressive, old-time theatre perfectly. Even if I only glance at that subject line, I’m going to understand a little more of what that company is about.

Similarly, Waterstones’ regular email always includes “Your Waterstones Weekly” in the subject line. The simple consistency of this inspires me to trust them a little more. It means I know they’re going to email more or less the same kind of content, every week, just from three words. If I read one and benefit from it, I’m likely to open the next.

Sometimes a simple subject line has a lot of underlying complexity. You don’t have to be wild to stand out. You only have to be yourself (or your company’s self). Push the boundaries a little, see what is effective and learn a little each time. I hope you have enjoyed being a part of the email subject line appreciation society. I don’t know if it’ll ever make a reappearance, but it’s been a fine thing while it lasted. In the meantime, go grab some subscribers.

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