Doughnut Write Boring Email Subject Lines
Messaging on a dating app has at least one thing in common with composing a company promo email – there’s a pressure to be witty and engaging all the time.
And ugh, it sucks.
To aid our writer’s block when it comes to email subject lines, we searched for commonalities among ones that made us click. Specifically, we were looking to find more substantial takeaways than things like “don’t make it more than 40 characters” (or 50 or 70, or whatever standard we’re using these days).
You undoubtedly know that email subject lines matter because they’re usually how someone decides whether to click on your email. We hate to say it, but what we say and how we say it makes a difference; adding personalization to email messages can alone improve click-through rates by an average of 14% and conversions by 10%, according to Aberdeen Group.
The ones we loved most were indeed personal. They made us feel – we smiled, we smirked, we got excited. Like getting a funny text from a friend, we started looking forward to that unique personality in our inbox each day.
Here are seven ways to achieve that, plus a few examples of great subject lines to inspire you during the next newsletter slog.
1. Use humor or a colloquial familiarity
JackThreads and Buzzfeed have both nailed this voice, at least for my demographic (I’m a 28-year-old female). They know their audience is primarily millennials, so they’ve mastered the language we use between our friends and on social media – and they speak to us in the same tone.
To succeed with this, it’s helpful to have a specific person in mind rather than a general audience. How would you talk to your best friend? What might your younger cousin post on Facebook?
Here are a few examples from JackThreads, BuzzFeed, and Marine Layer:
- QUIT SNOOZING
- Who needs sleeves, anyway?
- THE SUN. IT BURNS.
- New gear. Who dis?
- Life, man
- For shame
- Seems legit
- Dope Spring Jackets
- We need a day between Sat and Sun
2. Surprise people
This is a no brainer and a page out of the journalism textbook (it’s one of Bloomberg News’s suggestions for creating a clickable headline).
Always start with the surprise. Here’s an example from Bloomberg’s stylebook. Note that this is a news story headline, rather than an email subject line, but similar rules apply:
Before: Robin Hood Counting on Wall Street’s Goldman-Led Bonuses for “Great Need”
After: Robin Hood Says ‘Hell Yeah’ to Wall Street Recovery Led by Goldman Bonuses
The small change above attracted more than 1,100 new readers to that story within minutes. Here are email subject lines from Thrillist that use surprise and conflict:
- Men & Women Tell Why They Cheated
- Women Hate This
And another from the Daily Beast (they’d do well to move “terrorists,” the most surprising word, to the beginning):
- Taxi Hero Shows How We Stop Terrorists
Speaking of beginnings…
3. Nail the first four words
Each word’s gotta pull its weight. Short words pack a punch, and short subject lines tend to do well. A few good ones:
- Woah (x3)
- 20% off, Danielle
- Double what?
And here’s another Bloomberg example. Changing the headline to make sure it packed a punch in the first four words improved the click rate.
Before: Mizuho Wall Street Coup Became Japanese Subprime Nightmare
After: Mizuho $7 Billion Loss turned on Toxic Aardvark Made in America
4. Use literary tricks or words that wouldn’t normally go together
This is another page out of Bloomberg’s stylebook.The organization’s founder, Matt Winkler, believed creating headline intrigue with unique word combinations would get more people to click, and it did. Fun literary devices like puns, non-sequiturs, or alliteration can achieve the same effect. Bloomberg became so well-known for this that someone created a Tumblr called “Strange Bloomberg Headlines.”
Here are a some examples from it:
- Your Salad Lunches are Killing American Leather
- For Putin’s Adoring Fans, When Might Pushkin Come to Shovekin?
- Grandpa’s Dentures Tame Inflation in Singapore, For Now
- Met’s Hot Dog Cart Infestation Calls For Assyrians
- Sick Grandmas for Sale, 15 Cents a Name
- Dumb Husbands Can Help Economy or at Least Macy’s Shares
I’d venture to guess that you that you haven’t read a sentence close to any of those before. And aren’t you curious what the heck is happening in “Sick Grandmas for Sale, 15 Cents a Name”?
Examples of email subject lines that fall under this category:
- Wrap stars (pun)
- Mod shape. Moto details. Must wear. (alliteration)
New York Times
- Cooking: Rise Up! Sourdough Nation
- Hard-wearing softness
5. Make it satisfying
The brands we trust most produce things that are valuable to us. On top of that, they’re fun, informative, witty, etc. Subject lines can have all the catchy uniqueness in the world; I need to trust that when I click I’ll be happy I did. In the examples below, I know that when I open the email, I’ll not only see products these companies want to sell me (in these cases clothes and makeup) but learn how to style and use the products as well.
- Two Takes on Timeless
- More ways to chambray-ify your life
- Let’s get dressed
- Get ready faster
And here’s one from Lyft that doesn’t overtly pitch any products but simply makes me feel good about their service.
- See how much you saved
6. Use superlatives
You’ve got to use these buggers carefully, because everyone out there is touting the best thing you’ll ever eat, wear, do. But used well and with the right audience, they can pack a punch. Thrillist uses these quite a bit, and as a reader, I know they’ve done their research; when they say something is the best, I trust that it’ll be good. Examples:
- The Best Beach Road Trips From San Francisco
- SF’s Best Irish Bars
7. Drop names
Last but not least, names make news. The bigger the name, the greater the chance people’ll click. Lenny letter uses this device in almost all of its emails.
- How Jane Fonda Found Her Feminism
- Isabelle Allende on Love and Death
- Lena Dunham Stands with Kesha
We hope this helps inspire your next email subject line. Have tricks of your own? Share them in the comments section.