The Secret Formula for Crafting Click Worthy Email Subject Lines

If you’re struggling with email subject lines – and who isn’t – here are a few tips to create ones that will entice recipients to open your email, read it and most importantly, act on it.

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The secret formula for subject lines has three ingredients:

  1. Define a clear, simple objective for your email
  2. Align subject line, email content and landing page
  3. Split test subject lines

(This formula is no secret, in the sense that it consists of best practices. On the other hand, it is a secret in the sense that few small businesses use it.)

Let’s talk generally about these three points and then get into specific examples.


  1. A Clear, Simple Objective

What do you want recipients to do after they read your email? In general, your conversion goal (sorry for the marketing lingo) is one of the following:

  1. Buy something now
  2. Investigate buying something
  3. Become more disposed to buy something

A clear and simple objective presented with a clear and simple subject line is vitally important. First, recipients have short attention spans; if your subject line is vague or confusing, few will have the patience to decode it. Second, clear plus simple equals persuasive; if you ask the recipient to do or read something complicated, your email will go to the bottom of the “to-do” pile or straight into the trash folder.


  1. Align Subject Line, Email Content and Landing Page

A basic principle of online marketing is that users should see exactly what they expect to see when they click on a link. Your email subject line is a promise. If, for example, the promise is an offer, the body of the email must explain it, and the landing page you take readers to must reinforce the explanation and enable them to obtain it.

For this reason, avoid sensationalized subject lines that exaggerate or have little relevance to the email’s content. You may get a lot of opens, but once the recipient is burned – i.e., your promise goes unfulfilled — he or she will never open another email from you.


  1. Split Test

Email subject lines are incredibly challenging because people are incredibly unpredictable. The only way to find out if a subject line works is to test it against another subject line and see which one wins (i.e., produces the best open rate). The winner becomes the benchmark; the next step is to test it against a new challenger – so on and so forth.

Split testing can be a challenge for small businesses if their house mailing lists are small or of poor quality. If your email goes out to only several hundred recipients, or to recipients who are not familiar with your firm, it is unlikely to provide statistically reliable results: The difference between two opens and three opens on a small base doesn’t tell you anything conclusive. Nevertheless, testing anyway is worthwhile, since one subject line may produce substantially more opens than another.


Subject Line Examples

Below are pairs of subject lines that could be tested for different types of objectives:

Direct Offers

  1. October Savings on Tree Trimming
  2. October Only: Tree Trim + Cord of Aged Oak Firewood

Loyalty Rewards

  1. New: Earn Value Points with an October Tree Trim
  2. Save with Our New Preventive Maintenance Plan


  1. Get Those Squirrels Off Your Roof
  2. 10 Ways to Keep Your Trees Healthy and Beautiful


  1. How Tree Trimming Protects Your Home
  2. Why Does Tree Trimming Protect Your Home?


A few comments/composition tips about these examples:

  • Direct Offers. Subject lines for direct offers are strongest when they are specific and descriptive. Note, too, that timing is everything with offers — a Valentine’s Day special in October would fall flat. Time limits also convey a sense of urgency.
  • Loyalty Rewards. Companies often err by gearing offers only to new customers. Reward existing customers and they will keep reading your emails no matter what the subject lines say!
  • Another basic marketing principle is that customers are more interested in themselves than in you. Subject lines that speak to their problems or aspirations are far more appealing than ones that drone on about your capabilities and expertise. Once you’ve convinced recipients you can help them, they will be more inclined to do business or discuss doing business.
  • People always want to get smarter — especially to protect their assets or save money. Once you’ve established you can help them in this way, recipients will be more inclined to do business with you whenever they need what you sell.


Bottom Line: Keep It Simple

If you remember nothing else about subject lines, remember this: Keep it simple Companies are always tempted to squeeze multiple messages into the subject line, but doing so only squeezes out their effectiveness. One simple message delivers far better results.


Brad Shorr is the B2B Marketing Director of Straight North, an Internet Marketing firm with headquarters near Chicago. Straight North’s services include email marketing, display advertising, and SEO.