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Getting subject lines right - let's get back to basics


If you ever want to understand or admire great copy, you can do a lot worse than to look at tabloids. When Celtic was defeated by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the sharp-as-a-tack Paul Hickson wrote the famous headline - Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious.


It explains the whole matter at hand in 7 words. It delivers it in such a funny and quirky way - it's a winner. Every marketer, business owner and copywriter would love to have a Paul Hickson moment and pull something like that out of the bag. Still, for most of us, when it's time to create the perfect opening line, it's important to focus on not being too clever - but being customer-centric. Accolades aren't what you should strive for; opens and clicks are.

That being said, without the perfect subject line or opener, you're leaving custom on the table.


Let's look at the top ways to maximise your chances of being seen in a crowded inbox.


Tap into emotion with your subject line

A good headline or subject line has to tap into human emotion - fear, excitement, curiosity - and use that to draw people in.


You probably know this - but do you do it?

  • Don’t open this email - curiosity

  • You might be missing out on this one - fear

  • James, your boss will think this took hours - sloth

  • We think you deserve more - greed

  • This is what they do in London - excitement

  • James, your custom proposal is ready - excitement/ personalisation


Use power words

Power words just sound great to when you hear them and feel punchy. The more evocative and powerful descriptors you can use - the better. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of 'new' you can say 'revolutionary'

  • Instead of 'different' you can say 'unbelievable'

  • Instead of 'trusted' you can say 'proven'

Here are some more:

  • Guaranteed

  • Explosive growth

  • Limitless possibilities

  • Unlock

  • Ambitious

  • Explode

  • Breakthrough

  • Explosive

  • Genius


Words that help open rates in general that I keep in a document are:

  • Available

  • Better

  • Brand new

  • Breaking

  • Can

  • Celebrate

  • Easiest

  • Expiring

  • Fastest

  • Find

  • Important

  • Information

  • Introducing

  • Limited time

  • Really

  • Today only

  • Try

  • Won’t

  • You /Your

And avoid some words in case of spam filters

Spam filters always look for words and phrases that could indicate spam, and there is no point in me listing out 1000 of them - you can read this very large list here and see what to avoid.


What about real life examples?


Many moons ago I worked at an email provider who dealt with clients sending thousands of emails daily to consumers - that's millions sent each year. My data at the time showed the following.


Emails with 9% click-through rates and above went to themes around subject lines that said:

  • Your Invitation

  • Sharing

  • Join Us

  • Get involved

  • Take Advantage

(All very inclusive words.)


80%+ of these emails that were un-opened were associated with these words:

  • Our Award winning

  • FREE

  • *Last Minute*

  • Let Us

  • We Are

  • Our Latest

(All about the company, not the reader)


How to check your subject line before you commit to the send

There are many free online checkers that can analyse a subject line for you. Here are our top 2 freebies.



When is the best time to send an email?

To demonstrate that this question will never be answered correctly - let's share some of the common advice.

  • "According to the data, 11AM Monday is the peak time when people open their emails" - MailerLite

  • "The three best days to send out emails are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Data analysed from 10 different studies indicated that Tuesday reigns supreme for shooting out marketing emails. " - Engine Mailer

  • "Friday is the best day to send emails, with the highest open (18.9%) and click-through rates (2.7%) (MooSend)

So - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thurdsay and Friday then.

What about the weekend?

  • "It turns out that the best time to send B2B emails is actually during the weekend; specifically on Saturday at 10 AM." - Tidio

As every platform uses its own data, it's too hard to explore what works best with any real clarity. As with any marketing effort, it's important to test different subject lines to see which ones perform the best for YOU. What time is best for YOU?


Unfortunately, only doing the work will allow you to improve the effectiveness of your email campaigns continually.


The last bit of advice - don't focus on the subject line!

MailChimp ran a 2022 analysis of click rates and found averages across all sectors of 2.62%. It's never been so important to focus on the recipient experience when the email is opened. It's alright having a great subject line that makes 100% of people open, but if what is inside is rubbish, you lose their trust, waste your shot and make it far harder for yourself next time.

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