Digital Marketing Insights

Email Subject Lines...Say What?

Here's an article I wrote for ClickZ:

Subject lines have been an email marketing topic of conversation for more than a decade, yet we still don't seem to have it figured out. In speaking with marketers, the actual act of composing a subject line is often one of the last elements considered and sometimes even just "slapped" on by the email manager as it goes out the door (confessed to me in confidence by a brand…but a secret is a secret). I imagine this is true at a number of brands - you just don't know it or don't want to admit it.

Consequently, it's an effective subject line that initiates an interaction with your recipients and should receive its due. So today we are taking advanced email marketing practices back to basics, providing some insights into elements we should all consider about the subject lines of the messages we send.

1. Write your subject line first. Like writing a good story or thesis, you need to have a clear and succinct objective. Your point needs to be clearly stated, and when it comes to your email program, the subject line serves as this statement. Too often, ample time is spent on the creative and copy that is contained within the email itself, leaving the subject line largely overlooked. Your subject line is critical to driving engagement and ultimately setting the appropriate expectations for your customer.

2. Why say it in five words, when you can say it in 55? You can find all kinds of advice around the proper length of a subject line. It's anecdotal at best and should be leveraged by brands as a rule of thumb - not a definitive guide. Realistically, if you don't follow rule one, then this is really moot. If you have nothing important or inspirational to say, it matters little how many actual characters you use to express that nothingness.

There are things to consider as it pertains to subject line length though. The number of characters that render in different email clients, on varying smartphones and tablets does limit the insight into the message. So do make sure that you are conveying the most critical information at the front end of your subject line. If you are testing percent off or dollar off offers, consider placing it at the front end of the subject line to best ensure it is going to render for most (if not all) of your recipients.

3. Say what you mean. Be direct in what you are asking the customer to do - tell her what you want her to do. Leverage some sense of action verbiage to drive the engagement you are looking for. If there is time sensitivity - tell her. If she is getting a great deal - share it. Whatever you do, make sure you mean it.

I spoke with a consumer once who acted on a "Last Chance" email because she didn't want to miss out. Two days later (after she converted), she got another "Last Chance" email from the same brand with the same offer. Needless to say, she felt duped. If it really is the last chance, make it so.

4. Carry the voice of your brand. Companies and brands all have different personalities and different voices. If you have a racy or fun brand, be sure to carry that voice and character through in your subject lines. It is typically that demeanor that the customer resonates with, so there is little reason to hide it inside the message. But be sure you are true to that voice.

5. Don't stop at the subject line. This is why starting with the subject line is important - it is where the conversation starts. It introduces the main idea of your email, and you need to make sure you provide the supporting content when the message is opened. Your subject line makes a promise to your recipient of what can be found inside. If there is a disconnect between the subject and the actual content, you may see great "open rates," but you may also find that the recipient doesn't follow through with the desired behavior. Be sure to deliver on that promise from start to finish.

6. Test your subject lines in real time. Subject lines are an element that work really well at a moment in time. Depending on what each recipient may have going on when they see that email will determine whether it resonates or not - right then and there. What works for a single consumer today may not tomorrow. So developing a methodological approach to composing a subject line may not be effective in the long run.

This all may seem something of common sense to you, but it is a critical piece of your email program and its success. I am finding that many marketers are squarely focused on how to innovate the channel, loop in video, optimize at the point of open, and on and on - but we are losing sight of the basics. I still only see 36 characters on my iPhone when I am triaging my email, and if those characters are - "Today Only. In Stores Only - Try Bea" your point may be missed because 1) I am busy today, 2) I have no intention of leaving my house for an in-store only offer, and 3) I don't even know what I am to be trying. Message deleted. Opportunity lost.

Posted by: Kara Trivunovic at 11:09 AM
Categories: email, email marketing, subject lines

Email Subject Lines and the Brain

Here's an article I wrote for ClickZ:

The inbox is a crowded place. Your message is competing along with hundreds of others that are from people who are likely more important to the recipient than your brand. How can you make sure your email marketing campaigns break through the arena of the inbox and stand out? Use your brain, or more accurately, use your recipient's brain.

The human brain is an interesting machine, filled with paradoxical mechanisms. It's so interesting that for almost 150 years many scholars have made it their primary focus. Years of study have revealed that the human brain behaves in certain predictable ways. These cognitive biases (i.e., a brain's bias, or preference, for one option over another) give us insight into how we as marketers can rise above the noise and truly reach our recipients.

Simply put, the objective of a subject line is twofold:

1. Get attention
2. Cause action (usually an open)

Most email marketers focus on the second step of the equation, but both pieces are necessary for a subject line to be successful. The remainder of this column will help focus your email marketing efforts on using cognitive biases and processes to get a recipient's conscious attention.

Get Attention by Lighting a Fire (Three Methods)

Taking a common-sense approach, we can best understand "attention" as helping the human to notice those things that will aid in survival and potentially increase pleasure or reduce pain. (Many more rigid models of attention have been proposed and studied, but the above simplification will serve for this column.)

If the fundamental unit of processing for the computer is the processor, then the fundamental unit of processing for the brain is the neural network. In the human brain, this neural network is made from 100 billion neurons. Each neuron works by "firing" an electrical impulse when it's "activated." The firings of the neurons combine to create human behavior. When we think of getting attention with subject lines, it helps to think about trying to literally cause the firing of neurons in the brain.

Note: Each of the methods below will help you get attention, but can be abused and become worthless if they aren't paired with a respect of the consumer's desires. These methods function to bring your subject line from the subconscious into conscious awareness. Once it gets there, it's still your job to make the subject line relevant and attractive (see the section on causing action).

Method 1: Use Certain Emotional or Personal Words to Grab Attention (the Cocktail Party Effect)

Have you ever been at a party, having a discussion, when someone across the room brings up your name? You suddenly shift your attention to that source, evaluating whether or not more attention is required. Is someone asking for your attention, talking about you, or merely discussing someone else with the same name?

This is called (appropriately) the Cocktail Party Effect. Before your name was spoken, the conversation was just background noise to you. Once your name was said, you immediately shifted your attention. You were already hearing the other conversations in the room at a subconscious level, but once your name was said, your brain brought the conversation to the level of attention to be processed and dealt with by a more powerful part of your brain.

Just like someone at a cocktail party, your subscribers' brains treat an inbox as a collection of noise, much of which is so unremarkable that it doesn't warrant conscious attention. To rise above the subconscious, you can leverage the Cocktail Party Effect.

Use a Name

The recipient almost can't help but pay attention when her name is used; it's hardwired in her brain after decades of programming. Putting a consumer's name in a subject line is almost guaranteed to get her attention.

Two caveats to this method: first, if you use it too much, the salience (see the next tip below) will be lowered so much that the recipient will learn to ignore you, or just unsubscribe to avoid further annoyance. (Imagine someone calling your name and then giving you nothing important…eventually you'd just ignore them.)

Second caveat: you'll need more than a name to get action. A name will get attention almost every time, but it's the rest of the subject line, and the use of the name in the subject line (e.g., there should be a reason for there to be a name) that will cause an action to occur.

Use Another Trigger Word

Though less effective than a name, words like "free," "limited," "urgent," "attention," "need," etc. also cause subject lines to rise out of the fog of subconscious to be attended consciously. If you're wondering what words count as trigger words (i.e., those that trigger conscious attention), simply think about what words cause you to suddenly shift your attention to something.

Just like with a name, you need to have a good reason to use these words, and you need to use them sparingly. Overuse will cause subscribers to leave and complain, even more so than overuse of a name.

Method 2: Increase the "Standoutness" of Your Subject (Salience)

Salience is the quality of how much one thing stands out in a group. Someone with red hair surrounded by people with brown hair can be said to have high salience.

Your emails sit in an inbox of tens or hundreds of other email subject lines. Humans can only effectively evaluate one thing at a time, but they group things together that appear similar to process them more efficiently. (Have you ever had a group of three coins that you thought were all quarters, but on closer inspection found one to be a foreign coin, or a dollar coin?)

If your subject line is similar in length, structure, and visual appearance as others, it's very likely to be grouped with those others and ignored.

To make your email marketing campaigns stand out, you need to be different. Try icons in your subject lines. Use only two words. Use all lowercase or all caps. Most marketers grasp this intuitively after years of experience, so you should be happy to learn there is some science to back up your intuition.

Method 3: Don't Habituate Your Subscribers (Operant Conditioning)

Think of a brand that sends you email. Now imagine that each one of their emails had the subject line "Stuff from Brand X." Right after signing up, you would open, since the original interest is still there, but this original interest will quickly fade. Unless you form a strong emotional connection to Brand X, you're unlikely to pay attention to "Stuff from Brand X" when you see it in your inbox unless you've got nothing better to do (equally unlikely).

Just like you've learned to ignore the particular smudges on that stop sign right next to your house, or the number of stairs you climb to get to your office, you've learned to ignore this subject line, since it's predictable and unchanging. Your brain is helping you by programming itself to ignore things that don't provide relevant information to your life.

This is an extreme example, but I see it (because I purposely look for it) in my inbox daily: brands that always start a subject line with "XX% off..." or "Breaking News…" These subject lines quickly get marked to be archived for later processing (which almost never happens) or deleted. My subconscious brain decided that there is nothing new there for me, and I've got other things to pay attention to.

To fight this, change it up. Drastically shift the number of words in your subject line. Use all caps if you haven't, and stop using it if you do all the time. You can even make a subtle change to your from name. These small changes will cause your recipient's subconscious to say, "Hey, something has changed; I better pay attention."

Note: Each of the three methods above requires tact and restraint to use effectively. A common theme is that overuse of any of these methods destroys their effectiveness.

Before you can get an open, your subscriber must pay conscious attention to your subjects. In order to do that, you must play to the programed tendencies of that subscriber's brain.

Posted by: Justin Williams at 12:25 PM
Categories: email, email marketing, subject lines

The Email Marketer's Letter To Santa

Here's an article I wrote for MediaPost:

As you may recall from previous posts, my family and I are currently in the process of building a house and are living in a rental during the interim. We anticipate moving around mid- to late December, and the kids are concerned that "Aurora" (our Elf on the Shelf) and Santa may not find us at this transitional location. So in order to minimize their angst, I had them write letters to Santa in advance so he has ample notice before the wish list rush begins. This pacified them. Thankfully.

Continuing on this theme, I have had some great "email marketing wish list" conversations with many of you during my recent travels, and I've taken the liberty to use all that insightful data to assemble this letter to Santa -- and his response.


Dear Santa,

I know it isn't even Halloween yet, but internally we’ve been focused on our plans for messaging with our customers during the holiday season. I know we’re not the only brand having these conversations. Our competitors and non-competitors alike are all in this planning mode -- which means that our customers are going to be getting a lot of stinking email in their inboxes really soon.


I want to use the right tactics to be as visible and relevant to subscribers as possible, and achieve optimal conversion. So while I would love to ask for a new car, an exotic vacation, or even a boatload of money, my wish list this year is a little more practical and grounded. Here it goes:

Please Make My Subject Line Sing and Dance
In an ideal world, I could make my subject line talk. It could sit in the inbox and prod my recipient with a gentle reminder to "open me first...please, I'm bored," but I don't think that’s likely to happen any time soon --at least not in time for this holiday season.


But I do know that in order to really stand out in the inbox, I need a compelling subject line to differentiate me from all the other holiday email campaigns. I know some folks are using those fun little icons in the subject line –but what else can I do? Discounts? Sales offers? Free shipping? Santa, I really need a hook here.

Haunt My Customers for Deleting My Email
If the ghost of Jacob Marley can haunt Scrooge, than why can’t I haunt my customers for deleting emails past? We put a lot of work and effort into those, email Santa, and for them to just disregard it feels, well, hurtful. Maybe I just send more email. What do you think?

Santa, is there any way you can make this happen? I wouldn't mind the boatload of money, either.

I hope you are keeping warm there in the North Pole!

Mary Marketer


Dear Mary,

Am I keeping warm? In the North Pole!? Clearly you have not spent any time here, but I appreciate the sentiment.


Basically you’re asking that I make your life easier and that of your customer more... annoying? I don't think I can help there, exactly, but based on my years of experience trying to find just the right gift for everyone, I might be able to offer up some usable advice. If this does help, Mary, consider it your gift this year. If not, I have you on my list, I've checked it twice, not quite sure if you are naughty or nice -- yet.

Subject Lines
I cannot think of anything more annoying than talking subject lines, but I do see value in them singing. Not literally, but figuratively. Since there is going to be a lot of clutter in the inbox this year (as is true of most years), it is important that you give your subject lines more thought and care than usual. Often, Mary, it appears that your subject line is an afterthought. And in order to make it sing, you really need to copy write it and make it stand out from the crowd. Don't just use $ off or % off or icons, really make it something that is going to resonate with your customer and align with the content of the email.

Haunt Your Customers?
Not a chance. But what you can do is set some expectations early on with them for your mailing plans for the holiday season. Are you going to have a special holiday program that they can opt into? Let them know you are going to be increasing volume, and provide an opportunity for them to dictate how often they are willing to hear from you. Most customers will be less likely to delete email if they feel they have had an active role in choosing to receive more.

While you're at it, make your content really compelling and engaging. It can't hurt to add a little pop here –perhaps some strategically placed animated gifs or video to provide some movement. Dabble in some unconventional layouts that sensibly scroll wide or long. Whatever it is, make it relevant and FUN. You will stand out in the inbox if you continually surprise and delight the reader. Why do you think I’ve been in business for so long? I may have a dud every once in a while, but you have to keep it fun and fresh so they'll keep coming back.

Mary, I hope this helps. As far as your boatload of cash, I wouldn't hold your breath.

Happy Holidays,


Man, who knew Santa had so much email prowess? I wonder what he's doing in the off season. So, what's on your holiday wish list this year?

Posted by: Kara Trivunovic at 10:24 AM
Categories: email, email marketing, subject lines

Kick-Ass Subject Lines and How to Write Them for Your Email Campaigns

Last month, I wrote an informative feature article for iMedia about how to write "kick-ass" subject lines.  You can check out the article below or read it on iMedia. Let me know if you have any feedback in the comments.

 Can I have your attention please?  Yes, you!  As marketers, we shout out to customers through our email campaigns in an attempt to grab the reader’s attention and get them to engage with, buy from and talk about our brand.  Cutting through the clutter is not an easy task and there are several components that have to be in place for your email message to work successfully.  Getting your message delivered into the inbox is part of the equation. But the ability to get your message across all really starts with one simple thing – your subject line.

Subject lines are typically the determining factor of whether the recipient opens your message or not, so you better make it good.  As basic as the concept is, this age-old conversation has continually confounded marketers when it comes to their email campaigns, particularly as mobile, social and other trends have shifted the way people attack their inboxes. And while subject lines are among the most widely tested component of an email message, what works for one company doesn’t necessarily work for the next. Even more explicitly, what works today for you – may not work tomorrow. Subject lines are very, well…subjective – for a particular individual, at a specific moment in time.

So how do you write a subject line that is so kick-ass that your audience simply can’t pass it up? Consistently coming up with good subject lines can be an art in and of itself, so here are a few tips to get you started.


Research suggests you have about 6 words to get your point across in the subject line. Therefore, Keep It Short and Simple.  Clearly indicate the purpose of the email. Remember, you are competing with dozens of other email campaigns in the inbox and the reader is scanning to see what is intriguing or relevant to him at any given time.  As demonstrated in our first example below, some of the most effective subject lines are straightforward and (dare I say) boring.     

Organization: Southwest Airlines
Subject: All California destinations on sale
Why it kicks ass: If someone recently searched for a trip to California on or indicated California as one of his preferred destinations, this email campaign could motivate the reader to book immediately through Southwest.

As a general rule of thumb, typically shorter subject lines – 40 characters or less (including spaces) – perform better.  Of course what works for one group may not work for another.  To that end, the reality is that most of the time, success has more to do with what you are saying as opposed to how many characters in which you say it.


Subject line truncation is an important consideration in the email space as smartphone adoption steadily grows in the U.S. and abroad. eMarketer projects that the number of U.S. smartphone users will increase from 90.1 million in 2011 to 148.6 million in 2015, representing 46% of the total U.S. population.

Smartphone Users

We know that widespread mobile adoption is inevitable, so here are a few technological considerations we can use as a guide.  Most email clients display only the first 50 characters in a snapshot view of the inbox. Many mobile devices clients show only 25 characters and Blackberry subject lines show only the first 15 characters.

With that said, get in the habit of front-loading your important content.  Putting what’s important at the beginning of your email campaign's subject line ensures that crucial information doesn’t get cut off in the inbox.


Crafting a kick-ass subject line means speaking the language of your audience. Pay attention to the searches run on your website and the organic searches from search engines – and consider using words from the most popular searches in your subject lines. Also, mind the subject lines of your closest competitors' email campaigns to get ideas for words and phrasings.

Organization: HubSpot
Subject: [New eBook] Top 5 Mobile Marketing Case Studies
Why it kicks ass: Mobile marketing is a hot topic right now all over the digital marketing press. While I can’t say for sure what search terms drive individuals to HubSpot, I can guess that “mobile marketing case studies” is a hotly searched phrase.


There’s nothing more effective in getting your customer’s attention than delivering a personalized message at just the right moment in time. The subject line of your email campaign is a perfect opportunity to flex your personalization prowess and instigate a spark in the recipient’s eye.  How, you might ask?

You’ve got to do your homework.  The “easy” part is populating the subject line with specific data elements, such as first name. But the practice has proven to become less effective over time. You need to take it a bit further. Show the customer how much you “understand” them by crafting subject lines for particular audience segments: younger athletes, mothers on the East Coast, students interested in video games, you name it!  Find the common thread within a certain group – geography, interests, age – and jump on it.

Many times this comes down to business history.  Referencing a specific brand/product with which the customer has an affinity ($40 Crocs) as opposed to sending out an email campaign to everyone about the “$40 shoe sale” will increase your chances of getting the open that you want.

Organization: Mountain Dew
Subject: Rachel > Get Your Game Code for Double XP from DEW!
Why it kicks ass:  It’s fun!  People can purchase specially marked cans of Mountain Dew and Doritos that will boost Double XP codes for multiplayer time spent in the video game, Call of Duty. This email campaign is targeted to those who expressed interest in video gaming (presumably,  as this information is collected in the preference center). The subject line incorporates:

* first name personalization
* enticing call to action – get your game code
* what value you get from it – Call of Duty double experience points and other sweepstakes prizes
* current event – Dew sweepstakes and promotion that leverages Call of Duty game launch this fall


When considering subject lines, talking about real life, current events, hot topics and the like can be a real attention-grabber. I have seen many marketers attempt to display key words from each newsletter article or brand item on sale within the subject line – but that is not always a good approach, especially given the fact that most email campaign subject lines over 40 characters will be truncated.  Instead, sum up the message content with the email’s most compelling feature, top story or primary promotion to entice the reader to open it.

Organization: Conservative News Alerts
Subject: Video: Justice Clarence Thomas Speaks Out On Obama's Birth Certificate
Why it kicks ass: Tapping into a major news topic and the endless speculation on where Obama was born grabs attention for those who are subscribed to this newsletter, getting them to open and potentially read more articles.

In fact, in the spirit of personalization, try referencing a different “top story” for different audience segments depending on their past readership habits!


A kick-ass subject line does not always have to be daring, but indeed there are times when a little creativity helps.  Go outside the box and experiment with actionable and informative subject lines to determine the best one for each email campaign that you send. 

Organization: J&R
Subject: Free Shipping DAY? People Puhleeze, We Have Free Shipping All Holiday Season!?
Why it kicks ass: J&R pokes a little fun at other retailers while announcing their holiday shipping promotion. It’s playful and communicates the entire message right there in the subject line.

Organization: Eddie Bauer
Subject: 90 Years in Seattle - We Know Rain!
Why it kicks ass: Eddie Bauer humorously promotes wet weather gear during the rainy season and uses their heritage to demonstrate expertise of the product line.

Just a word of caution – you may want to do a little pre-campaign testing on highly creative subject lines to ensure your entire audience does not get a message that bombs.


Sometimes you have to spell it out. Describe the benefits of what you’re offering and include value statements that your audience associates with your brand.  Highlight a particular topic of interest, belief or attitude – and don’t assume that your entire audience feels the same way.  Be sure to change the subject line depending on differing values of your unique email campaign audience segments.

Organization: The Nature Conservancy
Subject: Eat Local and Support the Planet
Why it kicks ass: Earth Day action item to eat food grown close to your home and the importance of eating local and seasonal ingredients. Focuses on TNC constituents’ interest in the environment and uses motivating words that demonstrate how someone can participate right where they are

This subject line could be even stronger if the local region was referenced in the subject line (e.g., Eat Illinois-grown food and Support the planet)!


Go on and do it – you know you should!  Make your email campaign recipients feel like you value them and want to offer nice rewards or elite status because they are such a valued customer. 

Organization: Goldstar
Subject: You're Now Eligible for Red Velvet Member Status
Why it kicks ass: Goldstar's new invitation-only service for “our members who go out the most.” Makes the customer feel like she is part of a new, exclusive, vibrant and fun group. Where do I sign up?


You knew it was coming.  Testing is a crucial part of email marketing success and most marketers embrace subject line testing as an easy, effective strategy for optimizing campaign performance. In fact, Marketing Sherpa reports that 72% of marketers test subject lines and 35% find it to be a very effective strategy.

Subject line testing is typically an easy feat, which is a good thing.  But keep in mind that deriving a long-term methodology out of a single subject line test is a dangerous course of action. Are you forever going to include your company name at the front of your subject lines?  It may work for the time being, but the effectiveness may diminish over time.  Rather than taking your learnings and automatically applying them to all of your email campaign subject lines, the most effective strategy is to test in real-time to determine what the right subject line is for one specific message at any given moment.

Take Travelocity for example.  They had a relatively mature email list with a significant percentage of users who had not had any email or website engagement in the past 12 months. They could have just launched a winback email but instead decided to do a little bit of testing in order to optimize it first.

Subject Line A:
“Save an additional 10% for a limited time only.”

Subject Line B:  Winner
“As our valued customer, get an extra 10% off for a limited time only.”

Customers responded to the “you’re a valued customer” message over the generic one by about 10%. Not only did the pre-campaign testing help improve results for the rest of the email campaigns that went out, Travelocity also learned the point discussed above that a little flattery can go a long way.

So what can we learn from all of this?  Writing subject lines is a skilled craft and there are a number of ways to attack it.  Using relevant, personalized information is the start, but testing is the key to figuring out what resonates with your audience at any given time.  A good subject line stands out in the crowd but a kick-ass subject line is like a diamond in the rough – getting you that open and one step closer to an active, engaged reader.

Interested in reading more about email marketing best practices? Try giving one of our other blogs a look.  

Posted by: Kara Trivunovic at 4:17 PM
Categories: email, email marketing, subject lines