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Do's and Don'ts for Email Subject Lines

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Email subject lines are  the most important element of an email campaign. They have a clear purpose: get the reader to open the email.

The purpose of an email subject line with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter

Unless a subject line does its job, there’s no point in sending the email at all. Because if you can’t get the reader to open the email, he won’t read it.

Use these tips to write a subject line that gets the Open click. (You can also get your own copy of our free downloadable checklist for writing better email subject lines ).

Bottom line best advice: use your email subject lines to tell, not sell.

Do This

Do keep it short
50 characters or less works best. In a study of 200 million emails by MailChimp, email subject lines with 28-39 characters had the highest click open rate.

Do identify yourself
Emails are more often opened when the From line specifies a person, not an organization.

Do offer a benefit
What is the advantage to the reader if she opens your email? Make the benefits clear.

Do use urgency
A deadline or a timely issue moves readers to click Open rather than wait until later.

Do ask a question
Subject lines framed as a question – one that addresses readers’ needs, wants, and desires – lift open rates.

Do ask reader to take a particular action
Invite the reader to take a simple step. Tangible commands over intangible concepts are easier for readers to understand. Readers are able to get their minds around one concrete task they need to do.

Do leverage locality
Send a specific email to a segment in a particular location and reference the area in the subject line.

Do be specific
Use the subject line to explain exactly what the email is about. Where possible, show how the email content will be useful to the reader.

Do keep your promises
Make sure the content of the email corresponds to what you’ve promised in the subject line.

Do try some tricks
ALL CAPS, exclamation points, and the word “free” are OK to use, within reason, to boost your open rate.

Do test
Use two lists, send them the same email campaign with different subject lines, and analyze which has the higher open rate to find out how your list responds to subject line structure and content.

Don't Do This

Don't use symbols and special characters
They might rouse curiosity and get a few readers to click Open, but overall they make your email campaign look cheap.

Don’t cheat
FW: and RE: may imply that the email is from a trusted source, but if not genuine in the end will breed distrust and suspicion. Don’t you want readers to open your email because they genuinely want to read what you have to say?

Don’t overuse numbers
Details of your special offers (50% off, for instance) can be useful, but don’t overuse them or you’ll earn the reputation of being someone who just wants to sell.

Don’t sound like an ad
Readers would rather hear from a friend than an advertiser.

The jury is out on ...

Using first names
Some experts say using first names in the subject line can reduce open rates. Others swear by it. Do your own split testing to decide which works best for your mailing list.

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