Imagine this:

You’ve spent hours writing compelling email copy, and worked out the perfect email strategy to convert your email subscribers into customers.

But despite your best efforts, your emails aren’t getting opened or read.

The thing is, we marketers spend a lot of time developing email strategies to increase revenue, but what is all that time worth if no one reads your emails?

Nothing.

The average email open rate for marketing and e-commerce hovers around 20 percent but that’s just not going to cut it if you want to be a key player in your niche.

Your email open rates are highly dependent on your subject line, but there are also other less known reasons your emails aren’t getting opened.

In this post, I’ll give you all my best practices for writing eye-catching subject lines, along with a few other tips and tricks that can have a huge impact on your open rates.

Want More Conversion Rate Optimization Strategies?

Increasing your conversions beyond killer subject lines are TOUGH. To help, we’ve put together a comprehensive CRO toolkit, including 100+ CRO techniques we’re using to improve Sleeknote’s conversion rate (ranked for your convenience).

Free Downloadable Bonus
Get access to our free CRO toolkit and turbocharge your organic traffic, on-page conversion rate and more (include resources not included in the blog post).

Writing the perfect subject line

Your subject line has exactly the same purpose as a movie trailer.

It’s there to convince your audience to open and read your emails, just like a movie trailer is there to convince people to see a movie.

Keep your promises

The perfect subject line is a short phrase that includes a promise about what readers can expect if they open the email.

Just like a movie has to live up to the expectations set in the trailer, your email content has to live up to the promise in the subject line.

I’ve seen many examples of poor subject lines that were enticing and made me open the email, only to find that the content of the email didn’t deliver on its promise.

We all know the story about the boy who cried wolf. It only works the first few times, but after awhile, you lose people’s trust (and in our case, end up with any subscribers who won’t open your emails or worse, unsubscribe entirely).

Customer Relationship Trust

Trust is everything when it comes to running a successful business. Even though your emails have individual purposes, they should all aim to build a strong relationship between you and your subscribers and customers.

And a strong relationship is always built on mutual trust.

What makes an irresistible subject line?

The best subject lines are those that evoke some kind of emotion in the receiver.

If you get people to feel something, they are much more likely to open your emails.

It’s all about how you phrase your subject line.

Many marketers (myself included) tend to write subject lines that tell receivers exactly what’s in the email but lack the creativity used in their content writing.

This is an email from MarketingProfs that illustrates my point to the tee.

MarketingProfs Subject Line

I haven’t opened this email because: why should I?

Yes, it probably delivers on the promise but it doesn’t provoke any feelings in me, and even though I’m interested in Instagram marketing, the phrase “Instagram Facts and Stats” just doesn’t do it for me.

The subject line is boring and it gives me no reason to open it. The email doesn’t answer, “What’s in it for me?”

So, what do you do instead?

Your subject line can still make a promise and entice the reader without being uninteresting.

Take this example from Brian Dean:

Brian Dean Subject Line

This is a great example of a subject line that ticks all the boxes.

It gets my attention (“Finally!”), then makes a promise (“An SEO approach that gets results”) which gives me value (don’t we all want results with our SEO strategy?). Finally, it rouses my curiosity by telling me that Brian Dean has a confession to make.

What’s not to like?

Most importantly, the email delivers on the promise:

Brian Dean Email

Curiosity is the easiest feeling to provoke when it comes to email marketing, but it’s far from the only one.

Your subject line can also provoke a sense of urgency, which in my experience, gets people to open.

Another option is to provoke the fear of missing out. For instance, instead of writing “Our latest updates”, you can write “Here’s what you missed this week”.

See my point? It’s all about how you word your subject line to provoke feelings, and there are so many different ways in which you can do that (I’ll even give you a bunch of templates for it later in this post—so hang tight).

The importance of A/B testing

As a marketing geek I really love split testing!

Anything that can be split tested—I split test.

It’s a great way to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and make improvements hereafter.

One of the things I love testing most (besides sleeknotes) is email subject lines.

Fortunately, most email marketing automation services offer A/B testing, so there’s no excuse not to do it.

Our weekly newsletter has fallen victim to my split testing needs more times than I can count.

After running hundreds of A/B tests for subject lines, I’ve realized that, while there’s no magic bullet for writing good subject lines, there are a number of best practices you can follow to increase the likelihood of getting your emails opened.

For instance, we’ve learned including numbers in our subject line increases our open rates quite considerably.

The reason numbers work is that they are digestible. Including numbers in your subject lines when possible can undoubtedly increase your open rates.

Here’s an example from Ryan Levesque:

Ryan Levesque Email Marketing Subject Line

It includes urgency,  numbers, and an irresistible offer (Who wouldn’t want a $29,728 bonus? I know I would!)

We’ve also learned that emojis increase our open rates a bit which is why we now use them in all subject lines for our weekly newsletter.

It’s important to note that when you use emojis in your subject lines, they should never replace words or phrases.

Some email service providers don’t support emojis which means your receivers will be left with a subject line that either misses a word or includes a weird sign and your message will most likely not be read.

However, emojis don’t work for everyone, so remember to test it yourself.

I’m a big fan of using humor in all content writing (thus, my extensive use of GIF’s wherever I can get away with it) and humor in subject lines will always make me open.

Check out this email sent to my colleague Sam from Ramit Sethi:

Ramit Sethi Subject Line

The subject line is humorous and mysterious, and when you open the email Ramit keeps his promise and shares how he helped a coworker get more matches on a dating site by rewriting the 400-word profile description.

The point of the email is to show people how simplifying copy can make it more effective which, of course, can be applied to writing as well as dating profiles.

So, what else has split testing subject lines taught us?

  • Subject lines can be too long (so don’t write an entire novel). Keep your subject lines short and to the point. In our experience, subject lines with around 50 characters is appropriate.
  • Specific words in your subject lines can cause your email to end in spam filters and never reach your subscribers’ inbox. These words are constantly changing so there’s no set list of words to avoid and ensure your emails don’t end in spam. However, words and phrases such as “big bucks”, “earn per week”, “free money”, “MLM” and “winning” are some of the words and phrases that are continuously detected as spam.
  • Don’t use all caps in your subject line. You might get people’s attention, but it will also look like you’re yelling at them—and no one likes to be yelled at.

Subject lines that will increase your open rates

Now to the moment you’ve all been waiting for—the templates.

I’ve created a list of subject line templates that can be used for various purposes.

The funny one

Using humor has continually proven effective in marketing and your subject lines are no exception.

Here are my suggestions of funny subject lines that will get people to open your emails:

  • “Ooooh I wanna dance with somebody—and the 5 dresses to do it in”
  • “5 pants that will never make your ass look fat—no matter who you ask”
  • “Boldest statement of the year: Get the 10 summer treats that are better than chocolate!”
  • Marketing: Top 10 email marketing strategies to be proud of (unlike your nephew Bob)

The one with numbers

I’m not much of a mathematician, but I do love a good subject line with numbers.

  • “How to increase open rates by 20%”
  • “14 gluten free recipes to get your mouth watering”
  • “8 jaw-dropping suits for this season”

The personal one

We all know it—personalization is the new black when it comes to B2C communication.

Adding a few elements of personalization into your emails and subject lines will make your automated emails seem less automated (even though we all know they are).

  • “Rikke – you forgot items in your basket”
  • “Don’t let your subscribers get away Rikke”
  • “Here are our top picks for you this week Rikke”

The one with the question

Asking a question in your subject line is a great way of rousing curiosity and getting people’s attention.

However, the question should, naturally, be relevant to the content in your email.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • “Want to get fit in just one month?”
  • “Want to improve your conversion rate?”
  • “Are you making these wardrobe mistakes too?”
  • “Want to wow everybody at your next party?”

The fear of missing out

We have a tendency to fear missing out on things whether it’s a social event or a work related meeting.

We want to know everything that’s going on at all times.

Thus, this tactic has great potential in your subject lines (did not mean for that to rhyme, but now that it did—I’m keeping it).

  • “Tick tock—Only 24 hours to get your 30% discount”
  • “Did you miss this week’s’ top trends?”
  • “Hurry up, the items in your basket are almost gone”

The mysterious one

Don’t we all love a good mystery?

I know I do!

Adding a little bit of mystery to your subject lines can have a great effect on your open rates.

  • “Want to know a secret?”
  • “The one strategy, all marketers must know”
  • “It’s finally here! Check it out…”

The simple, no-nonsense, one

There’s nothing wrong with a simple subject line. In fact, they can be just as effective as any other type.

What’s important when you write a simple subject line is that it answers the “What’s in it for me?” question.

  • “How to increase sales by 10% in 5 easy steps”
  • “Buy 2 of your favorite shirts and get one free”
  • “Here are the top 3 sun lotions to keep skin cancer away this summer”

Subject lines are tricky, and I want to emphasize the importance of A/B testing to ensure that your subject lines are just right for your audience and increase your open rates.

However, your subject line is not the only player in the field when it comes to increasing your open rates.

In the following, I’ll share my top five lessons learned when increasing open rates.

1. Segment your email list

Segmenting your email list will undoubtedly increase your open rates, but it will do so much more as well.

Lyris, Inc. (now Aurea) found the following advantages for email marketing segmentation:

Email List Segmentation Results

As you can see, increased open rates was the number one advantage of segmenting which is why I included it in this post.

You can write great subject lines, but if you don’t segment your email list, you risk sending irrelevant emails to your subscribers, which can increase your unsubscribe rates.

There are many different ways in which you can segment your email list so you only send relevant emails to all your subscribers and customers.

For instance, if you run an online sports store, you can segment your lists based on interests.

Upon signup, you can ask people to choose their interests (e.g, football, tennis, running, and so on), and then create personalized email campaigns based on these interests.

(Psst… If you need inspiration for which emails to send to your subscribers, check out this post with 11 e-commerce emails you need to send).

2. Keep your email list relevant

A sure way of keeping your open rate at a high level is to do a spring cleaning once in awhile.

Clean Your Email List

Get into the nooks and crannies of your email list and clean out the dirt.

Okay, I might get in trouble for calling your subscribers dirt, so let me explain…

We all have subscribers on our lists that signed up just to get a special discount, gift, or other “reward”, and never opened your emails after.

This is bad for your open rate, and your sender reputation in general (which determines whether your emails end in spam).

You need to remove inactive subscribers from your email lists so they don’t have any negative effect on your email marketing results (and don’t worry—you won’t lose any potential revenue here).

The average inactive rate for email marketing lists is 60%.

We spend so much time getting qualified email leads on our lists, so having 60% of those not engage with you in any way, is not only a slap in the face, but also a waste of effort and resources.

Well, I don’t want that to happen on my watch!

Now, I wouldn’t tell you to delete your subscribers and hope for the best, without having tried this tactic myself.

We recently removed all the inactive subscribers from our “Blog Email List” which is the list that includes everyone that signed up to receive our weekly newsletter with tips and tricks for email marketing.

We use MailChimp for our weekly newsletter, and created a segment with all the subscribers who hadn’t opened our last 20 emails.

Note: Remember that this number is very dependent on how many emails you send out.

If you send an email each day, it would make sense to increase the number as 20 unopened emails could easily be a result of people being on vacation or out of the office for other reasons and haven’t had access to their email.

Likewise, if you only send one email a month, you should lower the number to perhaps 4-5.

This is the result we got:

Sleeknote Email Open Rate

It’s quite easy to see the massive spike in open rate after we did our spring cleaning, and we now know that every person on that list is a highly valued subscriber.

One way of determining which subscribers deserve a spot on your list, is to send last-ditch-effort emails.

Ask inactive subscribers if they’re still interested in being on your list, or if there’s a reason you haven’t seen them for a while. Don’t forget to ask what you can do to make your email content better.

Why did they sign up in the first place? And what would they like to receive from you in the future?

There are a few more pointers on how to keep your email list relevant:

  • Don’t buy leads. It’s the deadly sin of email marketing. If you buy leads, you will have a list full of people who never chose to receive your emails. This will ultimately result in an incredibly low open rate, and a huge unsubscribe rate. Both a waste of time and resources.
  • Collect leads directly from your own website. People who visit your site have already engaged with you in some way, and if you give them the right incentive to sign up for your emails, you’ll have a list packed with high-quality leads that you can convert into life-time customers.

Send at the right time and from the right person

If you want your subscribers to open your emails, you must send them at the right time.

This should, of course, be the time when they are most likely to open your email.

Merry Streep Email Marketing Subject Line

(Couldn’t resist joining the Meryl Streep trend!)

We all have specific times a day where we set aside time to read and answer emails (whether it’s intentional or not).

Some people like to check their emails just when they return from a lunch break, or on the couch at night after dinner.

We’re all very different in that matter, so there’s no time or day that works for all.

Try scheduling your next 7 emails to go out on different days of the week, and split test different sending times to see when you get the highest open and click-through-rate.

Depending on the size of your email list you might need to perform this test more than once to get statistically significant results.

However, you’ll soon start to see a pattern in which days and times perform better than others.

Let’s say you run an e-commerce with clothing.

You’ve (obviously) segmented your list based on interests, so it might be worth testing if your segmented list of people interested in baby clothes are more likely to browse for new baby clothes at night after they’ve put the kids to bed.

4. Don’t be a robot

Another must-do in regards to your open rates is to always send from a real person.

Sounds so simple and yet I continuously receive emails like this one:

Welcome Email Awesome Screenshots

Email marketing is all about personalization, and sending from a no-reply email is what I would call the second deadly sin of email marketing.

We know that engagement drives conversions and increases revenue, so why would you send an email that people can’t respond to?

Always send from an actual person, and encourage responses.

My colleague Sam is the one who sends our weekly newsletters, and you always know that the email comes from him…

Sam Email Marketing Subject Line

…and that you can always respond to the email.

Sam Email Marketing Signature

It doesn’t require much but makes a huge difference in not only your open rates but your email marketing results in general.

5. Resend unopened emails

My final lesson for you guys is to try and resend unopened emails.

You can easily segment your list based on people who did not open your last email and try to resend it.

Neal Taparia did this and immediately increased his open rates by 54.7 percent.

We receive an average of 122 emails every day, so your email could just have gotten lost in the masses.

Maybe your subject line wasn’t attention grabbing enough, or you sent the email at the wrong time?

Try sending your email again but with a different subject line, or perhaps change the send time.

The more you try, the more you’ll learn (good and bad).

Want More Conversion Rate Optimization Strategies?

Increasing your conversions beyond killer subject lines are TOUGH. To help, we’ve put together a comprehensive CRO toolkit, including 100+ CRO techniques we’re using to improve Sleeknote’s conversion rate (ranked for your convenience).

Free Downloadable Bonus
Get access to our free CRO toolkit and turbocharge your organic traffic, on-page conversion rate and more (include resources not included in the blog post).

Wrap up

Your subject lines is the movie trailer of your emails, so make sure it’s interesting enough for people to view the full version (your email).

I know just how hard it can be to come up with creative subject lines (trust me—I almost pulled my hair out when writing the templates for this post), but the effort you spend will be well worth it in the end.

Higher open rates, means more people reading your emails and more potential customers reading your emails.

I hope you found a few goodies in the templates, and that you’ve been inspired to get creative with your email marketing subject lines.

Have you received any awesome OR horrifying subject lines? Share them in the comments below—I would love to hear about them (and so would everyone else I’m sure).

Rikke Thomsen
Rikke is Head of Email Marketing here at Sleeknote. Her expertise lies within copywriting, content marketing, and email marketing. When she’s not busy wearing down the keys on her keyboard, she loves getting creative in the kitchen, binging on Netflix series, and skiing in the Alps.

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  1. Great post but where are the 23 email swipe templates? I can’t find them.

    Reply
  2. Rikke Thomsen

    Thanks Jason.

    The templates are in the content under the headline: Subject lines that will increase your open rates.

    Hope you find some inspiration in there 🙂

    Reply

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