Open Secrets: What Makes Email Subject Lines Work?

In a series of “think-aloud” studies in 2011, the Carnegie Mellon professors asked participants to sort through emails in their own inboxes and in inboxes developed for the study.

The results? Readers were most likely to open emails with subject lines focusing on:

1. Utility, or relevance: People are most likely to open emails when the subject line focuses on “information I can use to live my life better.”

2. Curiosity: Carnegie Mellon is heavily invested in “knowledge gap” research. That is, once people know what they don’t know, they’re eager to close the gap. So this study tested emails with vague subject lines, not entertaining ones.

Curiosity worked when recipients:

  • Knew who the email was from but were uncertain about the contents
  • Understood the contents because of a detailed subject line but were unfamiliar with the sender

Utility was more effective than curiosity in getting emails opened. And the more emails recipients received, the less effective curiosity became.

The researchers did not look into the effect of interesting, or feature-style, subject lines. I suspect that engaging subject lines that raise interest in the topic, but don’t spell it out clearly, would also be effective.

But unless your reader knows you personally and will be driven to open your message solely based on your relationship, I do not recommend using vague or empty subject lines.

Given the research, here are three ways to make your subject lines more effective:

1. Focus on readers’ self interest.

The best subject line I received last year came from Portland Monthly’s Shop Talk e-zine. It said: “Talk to Tim Gunn | Free Kiehl’s Product | Bad Mall Photos.”

You had me at Tim Gunn!

Opportunities, offers and discounts drive the most opens, according to Lyris Technologies. So focus on what’s in it for the recipient, not what’s in it for you, the sender.

2. Make it interesting.

Among the most popular subject lines for my e-zine, Wylie’s Writing Tips:

  • “Pleading for shorter sentences”
  • “Don’t commit verbicide”
  • “Can you read me now?”

Why did these lines get higher click-through rates than usual?

Because they focus on what the reader will learn and they sound intriguing.

3. Make it easy.

EmailLabs studied 23,475 email campaigns of more than 650 companies. They found that:

  • Recipients opened email messages with subject lines of less than 50 characters 12.5 percent more often than those with 50-plus characters.
  • The click-through rates for the shorter subject lines were 75 percent higher than for the longer ones.
  • Some email platforms truncate subject lines after 5 words or so. So limiting your subject line to 50 characters or less will also ensure that it displays fully in inboxes and on mobile devices. Plus, shorter subject lines are easier to understand at a glance.

Copyright © 2014  Ann Wylie.  All rights reserved.

AnnWylie_headshotAnn Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com
Email: ann at WylieComm.com

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