Classy - Allison Guass-avatar1
Allison Gauss

Better Open Rates: How to Write Killer Email Subject Lines

Trick-or-treating wouldn’t be much fun if no one opened the door when the ghosts and vampires knocked. No yelling “Trick or Treat!” at the top of your lungs, no running around to visit all the houses, and no candy.

Stick with me, I promise this has to do with email subject lines.

If no one opens the door, no one is getting candy. And if no one opens your email, nobody’s going to click-through to your site, no one’s going to read your newsletter, and no one’s going to make it to your donation page. The subject line of your email is the front door to your message, and you need your subscribers to open up. If you can’t execute this step, then it’s game over for your carefully crafted email and the calls-to-action within. You’ll never achieve better open rates without mastering subject lines.

Unfortunately, you can’t use a cute pirate costume to get people to open your email. All you have is a few words. Years ago, when direct mail was the primary means of communicating with donors, you might be able to stand out from the junk mail by varying the size and color of your mailings or including some kind of gift. But with email, it’s just you and the keyboard. To help you open more doors, this blog will cover some of the research that has been done on subject lines and show you how to write lines that get clicks.

Useful and Timely

It’s no wonder people skim through their email and delete tons of messages, the average subscriber receives more than 400 emails every month. And lots of those emails just don’t matter. There is the straight-up spam messages, the confirmation emails for all kinds of things, updates from social media, along with a ton of other junk mail. When subscribers skim through their inbox, they are looking for what they need to know.

So if you want people to open your emails, the subject line should tell them…

1. Why this matters
2. Why it matters right now

MailChimp explains, “The best email subject lines are short, descriptive and provide the reader with a reason to explore your messages further.”

Brevity is Beautiful

Like we said before, when people look through their email inbox, they are trying to quickly identify what they need/want to read. You don’t have much time to make an impression and you don’t have much space either. After analyzing more than 200 million emails, MailChimp recommends limiting subject lines to 50 characters or less. From their inbox, your subscribers probably won’t be able to see any more than that.

ActiveCampaign, an automated marketing company, points out that with many people checking email on their phone you may have even less space to play with. This is why you should front-load your subject lines, meaning putting key descriptive words at the beginning so they can’t be missed.

Do You Believe Every Child Deserves a Home?

This subject line is 43 characters, but what if you were reading it on a smaller screen?

Do You Believe Every Chil

Definitely not as effective. Let’s front-load this subject line and cut out the fluff.

Kids Need a Home, We Need You

This subject line is 29 characters total and the most important idea is delivered in the first 16. The overall message is the same: children all need and deserve a home and we are asking you to help. The biggest changes we made were word choice (for character count) and order of ideas (for front-loading).

When you write a subject line, every word is an investment, not just for you but for your reader as well. If a word doesn’t help you get your message across and doesn’t help the reader see why this email matters, then cut it out.

Delete These Words

And as long as you’re cutting words, there are a few more you should definitely toss. In their analysis, MailChimp also found that the following words were bad for open-rates

• Help
• Reminder
• Percent Off

Unless you’re selling branded merchandise, you probably don’t need to worry about that last one. But how many times have you used the word “help” in appeals and other communications? The inclusion of “reminder” on this list should be a reminder not to be repetitive. The data showed that every subsequent email with the same (or very similar) subject line was opened less than the one before.
If you send the same message over and over again, your subscribers won’t feel any need to read it. If it’s the same idea as your last email, they don’t need to open this one. That’s why the subject for your digital newsletter shouldn’t be “August Newsletter.” Remember, you want to give them a reason this email matters and tell them what they’re getting.

Instead of…

August 2014 Newsletter

…you can try

Our Big Win – Also Meet Jon and his Cookies!

These subject lines are promoting the same newsletter, but one conveys much more information and personality. Subscribers’ curiosity is piqued by the suggestion of big news and the introduction of Jon. Did they receive a big grant? Is Jon a volunteer? Staff? What do cookies have to do with it? In 44 characters, readers know enough to have questions but not so much they can just move on.

The Little Things

Part of what makes subject lines so important is that it’s one of the only ways people can decide whether to open an email. There are a few other details, though, that could make a difference in your open-rate. The most important pf these is the “from” line. It sits right next to the subject line and tells the reader where this message is coming from.

Subscribers should know what organization is sending this. If your supporters know the staff well, you can include the name of the sender. You should also be aware of the time of day you send your emails. It could be worthwhile to test out different times and sender names to see which perform best.

In the end, your subject line is all about telling people what they’re getting in a way that grabs their attention. To truly optimize your subject lines, you would need to spend some time A/B testing different options. For the moment, you can use some of these tips and guidelines to help you catch a reader’s eye.

Write Emails that Activate Supporters

peer-to-peer fundraising emails guide

Image Credit: Flickr User TMAB20013

Where social entrepreneurs go to learn and grow

Join over 20,000 leaders just like you who get their weekly dose of technology, innovation, fundraising ideas, and the latest industry trends.

Subscribe to the Classy Blog