Four Big Tips for Better Subject Lines

Fiona O'Connor

Senior Content Marketing Manager

subject linesIf your subject line doesn’t stand out in your audience’s inbox, they won’t engage. They’ll never see the informative message you wrote or the valuable content you’ve spent all that effort creating for them. And yet, too often, subject lines become hastily written phrases, afterthoughts really, rather than carefully crafted elements of your communication efforts. It’s time to stop shooting yourself in the foot.

We’ll be the first to admit it: Subject lines aren’t easy to write. An effective subject line has to catch your audience’s attention and convince them to open the email – and it’s best to do it in 50 characters or less. Critical to our business model, at TechTarget, we write thousands and thousands of email subject lines every year. We do it to make sure our audiences always find our essential buyer-focused editorial and our vendor-clients’ enterprise tech content assets. Our business health literally depends on doing this well, so we’ve come to rely on a few core strategies to consistently create subject lines that increase open rates and improve overall outreach. Here we share four of these.

#1 – Variety: One great construction (and certainly one great line) is never enough

Getting a subject line right can feel like magic and, especially when you’re starting out, it can take plenty of tries to find something that’s clearly better than average. Even the real pros are a bit like ducks – calm above the water but paddling like hell underneath. As they know, and you’ll probably find, even the best rarely write something better than basically serviceable lines in only a few minutes. While on any given day, serviceable may be the best you have time for when you’re under the gun, our pros make time to spend intense periods, say 30 minutes or more, to scribble down dozens of tries when they can. They then edit their work to show their best five or so and share them with a trusted colleague. They take the best ones to market, but even when they find a clear winner, they know that it’ll wear out quickly. So, this process never ends. The last thing you need is for your target audience to think they’ve seen what you’re sending before! Don’t fall into the clickbait trap of too many top ten lists, “three keys to” constructions and the like. While those are shortcuts that definitely work some of the time, in serious B2B, your content strategy deserves better. Meaty content should yield strong subject lines without your having to rely on clickbait gimmicks.

#2 – Tonality: B2B doesn’t have to be boring

In B2B, you may be expected to maintain a serious tone. And being clear is always a valid objective. But you still need your subject lines to stand out from each other and to stand out from the crowd. So, don’t get stuck in the quicksand of boringness and business jargon. For a writer, subject lines are an opportunity to think and scribble outside of the lines. Often, we’ve found, that’s what will help your open rates really pop. Try writing subject lines that are funny, witty, technical, dramatic, etc. Experiment both within the context of what has already worked with your audience and keep trying new areas that haven’t been explored. What works with some targets may not work at all with others. And what works now may not work later. Thinking about your audience across time, changing up your tone will refresh you and your audience alike. Leveraging different tones at different points in the holiday or events calendars can reap rewards with every change in the season.

#3 – Think big and small: Small adjustments can have a big impact

While I’ve mentioned that we make an effort to steer clear of the clickbait trap, making simple tweaks to your subject lines can have a dramatic effect on open rates. When you use this approach, remember that your reader expects you to deliver powerfully on the promise you’ve made. The trap happens when you promise quality but deliver recycled material or worse.

Use numbers. Our brains are naturally drawn to numbers, so by including them in a subject line, your audience often pays more attention.


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Include the offering. Give your audience a taste of what you’re sharing in the actual download or sign-up, whether it be a webinar, white paper or other offering. People like to know exactly what they’ll get.


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#4 – Revisit, rework, resend

If you want to do really well with this, you’ll become maniacal about reviewing email performance data, particularly the open rate! Begin the process by first establishing a set of benchmarks for how different categories of your email streams perform overall. Think about top-, mid- and bottom-funnel types. Think about different types by target persona or assets. Look for high performers and low performers, both within and across categories. Compare and contrast, and then document what you’ve learned to inform how you’ll move forward. With low performers, consider whether they need to be changed immediately or should be tested again. With high performers, consider using with different topics and audiences, but avoid wearing them out.

Commercial writing is without a doubt both a science and an art. That said, true greatness in subject line writing, like so much else in life, benefits greatly from the thought and time a writer is willing to devote to it. The more you read about it and related topics, the more you will know about it. The more you work at it, refine your own efforts and learn from your colleagues and your peers’ efforts, the faster and better you’ll generate results that will make you proud and help your company. Remember this: whole careers are still being built on the power of headlines alone (after all, that’s what subject lines actually are)!

B2B content creation, content development, content marketing, email marketing, email marketing tips, subject lines

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