How to write a great email subject line

McKenzie Gregory


Our advice for crafting the best email subject lines 

At Emma, we’re marketers, too. 
So when it comes to your day-to-day marketing challenges (like writing email subject lines), we get it. There’s nothing more frustrating than working long and hard on an email, only to get abysmal open rates because the subject line didn’t hit the right note with your subscribers. 
It’s a ton of pressure, and it can give the best of us a nasty case of subject line writer's block. Plus, since every audience is different, you can’t just rip off someone else’s idea and expect it to work for your brand. So here are five quick, actionable tips for when you get stuck on your subject line. 

1. Use character count to stand out. 

Take a look at your own inbox and see which subject lines draw your eye. Many marketers aim for 40-50 characters in an email subject line, so chances are, the ones with character counts that fall either above or below that range will stick out most. 
In an interview with Litmus, Joanna Wiebe of Copy Hackers said, 

"For clients, I’ve written insanely long subject lines that push right to the end where the tool won’t let you add any more characters. And that’s purely so that it looks different in an inbox.

Of course, you’ll want to front load the really long ones. You don’t want your subscribers to have to read the whole thing to care, front load it with the most interesting stuff in order to do the job of getting noticed while not having to read the whole thing."

At Emma, since a good portion of our audience opens on mobile, we tend to gravitate toward shorter subject lines. iPhones cut off subject lines around 35 characters, so keeping it brief ensures our recipients get the full message and can quickly digest what we're trying to say. 

2. Tell them what they’ll get (and make it valuable). 

This one’s a bit of a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how few brands consider it when writing their subject lines. They get so caught up thinking of great puns and picking out emojis that they forget the point of a subject line: To tell their recipient what’s inside their email. 
That doesn’t mean you can’t jazz things up with humor or compelling language, but make sure that above all, you:
1. Explain the actual contents of your email.
2. Demonstrate the value a person will get when they open.
3. Never trick your subscribers with misleading messaging
And hey – if you do want to use an emoji, just be sure it makes sense for the message you're trying to get across.

3. Consider your preheader text. 

An invaluable (but often overlooked) piece of inbox real estate, your preheader text can actually be what make or breaks the success of your subject line. Case in point: If you’ve worked in email marketing for a while, you’ve probably seen disaster stories about preheader text gone wrong: 
An example of preheader text gone wrong
Scott Stratten of UnMarketing calling out a brand on Twitter
Mistakes like that are cringe-worthy, for sure, but they also showcase a valuable lesson: People pay attention to your preheader text, so be intentional about how you use that space. Not only will it help you avoid catastrophe, you can use it to amplify and enhance your subject line. More characters to work with means more opportunity to compel your subscribers to open, and according to a survey by Litmus and Fluent, 25% of your audience will use your preheader text specifically to make that decision. 
Pro Tips:
• Apple Mail allows 140 characters for preheader text, but Outlook for Mac only displays 35-55, depending on which version you're using. 
• The iPhone 6 Plus Mail app displays three lines of preheader text. Use them! 

4. Be yourself. 

Best practices are a great starting point, but ultimately, you know your audience better than anyone. If you aren't sure whether or not you should use an emoji, or if you think you should pull a Chubbies and throw email marketing best practices to the wind, simply think about your brand and what you already know about your subscribers. 
Chubbies knows their brand and owns it, even though their choices often defy conventional wisdom.
If you work for a retailer with a conversational brand voice, your audience might appreciate a punny subject line. If you work for a funeral home or doctor's office, probably not. 
Which brings us to… 

5. Test, test, and test again. 

You can make assumptions about your audience all day long, but you’ll never truly know exactly what your audience likes (and what they'll open) if you don’t test.
Since their preferences are constantly changing as the industry shifts, technology evolves, and you grow your list with new and different people, it’s important to keep testing, learning, and iterating as you go. 
Testing can be a ton of fun, so don't be afraid to get bold and try something new. If it's a clear miss, the majority of your audience won't even see it, which means minimal risk for a great reward – new data to boost the success of your email marketing. 

Have any of your own subject line tips to share? Sound off in the comments! 

About the Author

McKenzie Gregory

McKenzie Gregory is a senior content manager on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

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