The Unintended Consequences of a Great Subject Line


Great subject lines are a great problem to have. Problem? That’s right. Stick with me.

There comes a time in every email marketer’s life when they craft what seems to be the perfect subject line. They sound out the email, and subscribers can’t seem to ignore it. Open rates jump to astronomical highs. Everyone in the organization cheers cries of success.

The problem is what happens next. For all those subscribers that open the email, only a few of them click through. And only a few of those clickers end up taking the desired action.

So overall, the impact of the email, or the return on investment for the company, is far lower than expected.

Who or what is responsible? Assuming that the company measures performance all the way through to conversion (and it should), how do we determine what went wrong? A few of you might already be saying to yourself, “this is not the subject line’s fault, its job is to get people to open the email, and it did.”

While it’s true that a subject line is primarily judged on open rate, that does not tell the whole story. It is very easy for me to craft a subject line that overpromises and gets people to open the email. If the content of the email, or the offer presented then fails to deliver on that promise, not only will I lose the sale, but I might lose a subscriber.

A great subject line must set the stage for the rest of the process. Opens are great. By all means, aim to get more of them. But don’t do it in a vacuum. The ultimate goal has to be conversions, and you accomplish that with a great subject line attached to a great email attached to a great offer. Only promise what you can deliver, and then promise it in the most enticing way possible.

Clickbait Subject Lines: Good or Bad?

The term “clickbait” is commonly used in the world of content marketing. It refers most often to the use of a headline created specifically to elicit more users to click through to the content from Facebook and other sources. Often it is painted with a negative brush, used as a way of demarking content not worthy of viewing/reading which relies on a catchy title (sometimes misleading) to attract attention.

More recently, the same strategies used to create headlines that draw more readers in to articles have been used to rethink email subject lines. It doesn’t take a lot of deep thought to recognize why this is happening. An article headline acts for the article in much the same way a subject line acts for an email. Both are designed to get clicks, to get someone to take the next step and start reading.

The Case for Clickbait Subject Lines

If the subject line gets more people to click on (open) the email, your open rate will go up. This can help your overall email campaign effectiveness. An improved open rate might improve your overall email deliverability in the future as well. But both of those are only true if the content of your email succeeds in holding subscribers’ interest. Which leads us to…

The Case against Clickbait Subject Lines

If the subject line is written just to get opens, and does not pertain to the content of the email, or is misleading in any way, people will respond negatively. Your subscribers are not dumb, and they do not like to feel duped. If the content does not interest them, they will be more likely to mark the message as spam, unsubscribe, and hold your brand in a more negative light.


You should definitely write subject lines that will get more clicks. But if we define “clickbait” as a false or misleading title solely used to “trick” people into clicking, the clear answer to the question of whether or not to use them for your email subjects lines is no.

The Best Email Subject Line of All Time

“You are invited”

That subject line lives in infamy as the single greatest subject line ever written. Why? Did it generate the most opens? Did it generate the most sales or highest response rate?

The why is the most important part. A subject line is meant to do one thing. It’s meant to get people to open the email.

So what makes someone open an email? What makes “You are invited” such a great subject line?

  1. It grabs attention
  2. It stands out from all the other subject lines I see in my inbox
  3. It makes me ask a question – what am I invited to?

Because it stands out and captures my attention, it already has a better chance than most emails do of being opened. But it really hooks me because of the information left out. I have to open it to find out what I am invited to.

So it’s a winner.

Does that mean it will be a winner for you?

Absolutely not. The idea of a universal subject line that will outperform all others is insane. Like so many other things, it depends on your company, your products, your offer, the content of the email, and the nature of your consumers.

The point is this, understanding what your subject line is there for is the first step in crafting the perfect subject line for every email you send out. Hook your readers, offer value, stand out from the crowd, and give them a reason to open your email and read it.

What’s your best subject line of all time?

A Year in Email Subject Lines

A post for all the email marketers out there.

It’s the start of a new year. Are you optimizing? Are you redesigning?

Email is one area where it pays to never be satisfied. Your current results might be as good as you’d hoped. You might have had higher open and click through rates in 2015.

But 2016 is a new year with new possibilities. And now is the time to be testing and learning more about your subscribers.

The best way to prepare for the future might be to look at the past. Over the last week or two, I went back over all the emails I sent in 2015. What I wanted to know – how did the subject lines impact open and click through rates?

You can do this too. All you need are the subject lines, the total emails sent, the opens and clicks for each email. List them all in one excel file and then group them in different ways.

  • Does the length of the subject line impact results? What’s the ideal length of a subject line?
  • Does putting a special offer in the subject line improve results?
  • Does personalization improve open rates?

Those are some of the questions I asked, and you can ask them too. You might have other questions you want to find the answers to.

Some of what I learned:

  1. For one brand, shorter subject lines worked (less than 45 characters). But for another, the length of the subject line seemed to have no impact.
  2. Including the phrase “Special Offer” at the front of subject lines lifted open rates higher than actually including what the offer was, e.g. $100 off.
  3. Including the subscriber’s first name in the subject line led to better open and click-through rates.
  4. Adding special characters, like brackets or exclamation points, into the subject line actually hurt the performance of those emails.

I’d be curious to see what you learn when you look at 2015 email results. Then you can use those learnings to optimize your emails in 2016.

Preheaders: The Most Underrated Email Component

We talk about email marketing a lot on this blog. It’s one of the most written-about topics in our history. It’s the subject of my first book.

But in searching back through old posts, I can’t find a single mention of the “Preheader”.

So I came to the conclusion that this is the most underrated email component. It’s underrated precisely because nobody talks about it. And most casual email marketers don’t even know what it is, might not have ever even heard of the preheader before.

The preheader is the text that appears immediately after the subject line when an email is previewed, before it is opened. It’s the only thing other than the subject line and sender that someone will see if they never open your email. And for that reason, it has a lot of value to you as a marketer. It’s almost an extension of the subject line, which we all agree is supremely important.

So now that we know what a preheader is and why it’s important, let’s talk about how we can use it to our advantage.

If you don’t specifically create a preheader, that doesn’t mean nothing will show up. What will show up is the first couple words of text in your email. You don’t want that. You have the control, so you might as well use it.

Use the preheader to expand on your subject line and give the person a reason to open your email. Tell the reader what they will get when the open your email.

Depending on how long your subject is and what your subscribers are using to read email, you might get 5 words of preheader text, or you might get none. So just like you do with your subject lines, be concise. Say whatever it was that you were not able to say in your subject line, or add to the subject line in some way. I’ve even see some companies basically repeat the subject line over again, which is a little strange and a wasted opportunity in my opinion, but better than nothing.

The key is, take advantage of the preheader. Don’t ignore it, like so many email marketers have for so long.