Molly Ploe

Writing an email subject line is easy to procrastinate on — the email copy is where the meat is, so it’s best to do that first anyway.

But there eventually comes a time when you can’t put it off any longer, and you have to come up with something eye-catching and witty and intriguing and, on top of all that, concise.

It’s hard to know the right words to choose. Sure, you could A/B test every single subject line (and maybe you should), but even then, you still have to choose carefully which two options you’ll test.

Every week, we come up with new email marketing subject lines that we think will capture interest and attention. A lot of the time we’re right, but there are also plenty of times we’ve been wrong.

So, we tend to obsess over cracking the email marketing subject line code to the point where we’ve conducted several unofficial studies that have shown us the light — or so we believe.

Let’s dive into our observations and dig out some insights:

Unofficial study #1: LinkedIn Poll

First up: Our LinkedIn poll on the topic. We asked our audience (mostly marketers) what types of email subject lines entice them to open.

linkedin poll

Did we get a ton of responses? No. Did we learn something anyway? I believe so!

Of the dozen people who took the survey, half said they’d open an email for how-tos, guides and step-by-step instructions. This feels right to me — our how-to emails tend to get pretty good open rates.

Coming in second place, chosen by 4 of 12 responders, was the discount or offer. Sometimes the deal you find in your inbox is just the one you need.

Only a single responder said they’d open the one with their first name — maybe personalization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or, more likely, personalization is most effective when you’ve gone the extra mile and created something actually customized for that person or segment’s reading pleasure.

Always remember: Personalization is so much more than a tag.

Finally, the bundle, template or worksheet idea also only got a single vote. Who needs homework coming into their inbox?

I’d suggest emailing these types of resources only on request. You can do this by setting up a landing page for your resource, adding a form, and building an autoresponder email that includes the asset in question. This is gated content 101.

Unofficial study #2: ChatGPT analysis of 52 Saturday emails

Every Saturday, we share thoughts, insights, commentary — or sometimes just jokes — about content marketing with our audience.

And every Saturday, people read those emails! Some Saturdays more than others, though, so we decided to feed ChatGPT one year’s worth of subject lines along with their open rates to see what the AI would glean.

First, here were the 10 most opened subject lines from our Saturday series:

  1. Can you guess whether a human or robot wrote this email?
  2. Rosie, create a content marketing strategy, please
  3. Michael Scott wouldn’t use this, but you should.
  4. 10 content planning resources you can use today
  5. Marketing lessons from a 70-year-old guitar retailer
  6. How do you make content marketing work for you? (3-min survey)
  7. What Marge’s Chanel suit taught me about content marketing
  8. Pros (and a big con) of being a remote marketer [study]
  9. Can the Yandex leak help you rank?
  10. The one thing you should never say to a content marketer

The common factors ChatGPT spotted?

  1. Curiosity: Capturing interest is a sure way to get people to read more.
  2. Benefit: Sharing useful or valuable information can encourage opens.
  3. Cultural reference: Mentioning favorite characters or stories creates a sense of connection with your audience.
  4. Timing: Tackling a trending topic from a unique perspective adds value to your marketing program.
  5. Eccentric comparison: What does a fictional storyline have to do with my day job? You’d be amazed by how many interesting emails you can write by following this approach. 

Unofficial study #3: Manual analysis of 50 software promotional emails

When we launched the Brafton Content Marketing Platform, we knew it’d benefit marketers far and wide. So, we decided to tell the world — via email, of course.

Over two years, we sent 50 emails to thousands of folks who we believed (based on our data) would find true value in the Brafton Platform.

For my manual analysis of these 50 subject lines’ performance, I compared the number of leads each one produced. These were our most lucrative 8 Platform promo subject lines:

  1. Seeking feedback on content marketing software I just launched
  2. We made content marketing simple: See our new software
  3. Finally! Content marketing software on monthly plans
  4. It only takes $100 …
  5. We’re simplifying content marketing … for $0
  6. Introducing: The first REAL content marketing platform
  7. Fewer marketers are stressed today thanks to this tool
  8. We’ve solved the No. 1 content management challenge

What does this all look like to me? Here’s what I see:

  • Personal outreach and invitation: By carefully selecting our email list, we were able to create an outreach invitation that felt personal. Our emails asking for feedback were fairly long (a risk in email marketing) but had tons of information about our product and why we thought the recipient would particularly benefit from it. (I’ll say it again: Personalization is so much more than a token).
  • Announcement or exclamation: Using openers like “Finally!” and “Introducing:” demonstrated our excitement and the newness of our product.
  • Address pain points directly: When you can speak directly to your audience’s concerns, they’ll listen. We aimed to do just that by alluding to challenges and stressors.
  • Include pricing details: When considering a purchase, people are often put at ease when they know what the cost will be (especially if it’s affordable). We were upfront about our pricing details, so people could proceed confidently.
  • Imply our awesomeness: We know we’re the best, but what we need is for our audience to know it, too. Without being too boastful, we carefully positioned our superiority in our subject lines and email copy.
  • Be a little bit mysterious: By alluding to further interesting information found within (e.g. “It only takes $100 …” to do what?) we made this email almost irresistible.

Closing Thoughts on Marketing Email Opens

Email marketing is an incredibly versatile channel, which means your subject line strategy needs to be tailored to your specific goals. Subject lines that work for one brand, or one campaign, may not work in other contexts.

That said, I notice three strong commonalities between our three mini, unofficial studies. Namely:

  1. Pique curiosity.
  2. Offer value.
  3. Be personal and personable.

You’ll have to experiment to find your email subject line brand voice, but with some trial and error, and meticulous collection and analysis of your results, you’ll narrow down what works for your email marketing strategy, and what just doesn’t jive with your audience.

Practice, patience and repetition is key when it comes to finding success through email marketing. Don’t stop experimenting 💌