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Great Email Subject Lines Explained!

Great Email Subject Lines Explained!

by Pace Lattin2011-01-10

Despite repeated proclamations of its extinction, rumors of the death of email marketing have been greatly exaggerated — especially since email and social media are a powerful combination. You might not reach the average college freshman, but for slightly older types (you know, the ones with the money), email is still the way to go in many lucrative mainstream niches.

You must first, of course, get your emails read. And it all starts with the subject line.

Email subject lines are a form of headline. They perform the same function as a headline by attracting attention and getting your email content a chance to be read.

So, headline fundamentals still apply. But the context is different, with the email space having its own funky little quirks that need to be accounted for.

Here’s the good news — email also implies a special relationship with the reader; a relationship that will get more of your messages read, even with subject lines that wouldn’t work in other headline contexts. Let’s take a look back at headline fundamentals, the specifics that apply to subject lines, and the “secret sauce” that makes email your top conversion channel.

1. The Fundamentals:

When you’re writing your next subject line, run it through this checklist, based on the Four “U” Approach to headline writing:

  • Useful: Is the promised message valuable to the reader?
  • Ultra-specific: Does the reader know what’s being promised?
  • Unique: Is the promised message compelling and remarkable?
  • Urgent: Does the reader feel the need to read now?

When you’re trying to get someone to take valuable time and invest it in your message, a subject line that properly incorporates all four of these elements can’t miss. And yet, execution in the email context can be tricky, so let’s drill down into subject-line specifics for greater clarity.

2. The Specifics:

Beyond headline fundamentals, these are the things to specifically focus on with email subject lines:

  • Identify yourself: Over time, the most compelling thing about an email message should be that it’s from you. Even before then, your recipient needs to know at a glance that you’re a trusted source. Either make it crystal clear by smart use of your “From” field, or start every subject line with the same identifier. For example, with our own Internet Marketing for Smart People newsletter, every subject line begins with [Smart People].
  • Useful and specific first: Of the four “U” fundamentals, focus on useful and ultra-specific, even if you have to ignore unique and urgent. There are plenty of others who work at unique and urgent with every subject line — we call them spammers. Don’t cross the line into subject lines that are perceived as garbage. But do throw in a bit of a tease.
  • Urgent when it’s useful: When every message from you is urgent, none is. Use urgency when it’s actually useful, such as when there’s a real deadline or compelling reason to act now. If you’re running your email marketing based on value and great offers, people don’t want to miss out and need to know how much time they have.
  • Rely on spam checking software: We all know that certain words trigger spam filters, but there’s a lot of confusion out there about which words are the problem. Is it okay to use the word “free” in a subject line? Actually, yes. All reputable email services provide spam checking software as part of the service or as an add-on. Craft your messages with compelling language, let the software do its job, and adjust when you have to.
  • Shorter is better: Subject line real estate is valuable, so the more compact your subject line, the better. Don’t forget useful and ultra-specific, but try to compress the fundamentals into the most powerful promise possible.

3. The Secret Sauce:

Getting someone to trust you with their email address is not easy. Twelve years ago when I started in email publishing, people would sign up for anything remotely interesting.

No longer.

But if you do gain that initial trust, and more importantly, confirm and grow it, you can write pretty lame subject lines and people will still read your messages. Just as with that ditzy friend from high school who nonetheless always has something interesting to say, trust and substance matter most.

Don’t get me wrong, writing great subject lines combined with the more intimate relationship email represents is much more effective. And you have to get your initial messages read to establish the relationship in the first place. Regardless, your open rates will improve based on the quality of your subject line.

But there’s something special in this jaded digital age about being invited into someone’s email inbox. You just have to over-deliver on the value to ensure you’re a treasured guest who gets invited back.

The inbox can be a stressful place. How do you make it brighter?

Learn More About How to Generate Free Traffic Here.

About The Author
Pace Lattin
Pace Lattin is one of the top experts in interactive advertising, affiliate marketing. Pace Lattin is known for his dedication to ethics in marketing, and focus on compliance and fraud in the industry, and has written numerous articles for publications from MediaPost, ClickZ, ADOTAS and his own blogs.
  • 2011-01-11 at 22:36

    Great article. Email marketing has become super important, especially since there has been (and will continue to be) a major increase in smartphone usage, which allows users to access email via their mobile device. The subject line is of the utmost importance when working with such a limited space, like a phone.

    Check out this article, written by a member of the Direct Agents team, for more helpful tips!

  • 2011-01-12 at 21:07


    Thanks for the post about Email Subject Line. The same is also applicable for Article Writing Headers.

    Without the 4Us, no one will read emails unless they know you well.

  • cherrillsflowers
    2011-01-12 at 21:43

    I get emails that go on for ever. Well said.

  • 2011-01-12 at 21:58

    While the above info is a very good start on email marketing, there is MUCH more to know. Andre Chaperon has put together the highest level course on the subject to date. He provides a structure to follow that mimic's Hollywood's greatest writers as they utilize nested and open loops to keep your readers hanging on the edge of their seat begging to see your next email. His powerful course has been the game changer for my HCG diet site as well as my PPV built email lists. I suggest Offer Vault contact him and do a webinar to reveal some of his strategies. Powerful stuff…..

  • sallehawang
    2011-01-12 at 23:29

    4Us. I can apply talking to my mother-in-law too

  • 2011-01-13 at 00:38

    Great checklist!!

    I'm always on the hunt for any way to get more open rates. 🙂

    One thing I would add, is that I've found that when I send an email with the person's first name in the subject line, it doesn't get opened as much as it would if I would just take it out…

    So I no longer use the first name in the subject line of my emails… Don't know why, but it helps my open rate. 🙂

    Hope that helped anyone reading this! 🙂


  • 2011-01-13 at 23:41

    Emails with interesting subject lines are always more important and are viewed and read more often by the people that really do read emails.

  • Steve Lorenzo
    2011-01-15 at 22:26

    Interesting blog post. I am always in the look for various angles to this topic.
    Yours stands out. Congrats!

    Writing catchy email subject lines – designed to draw the attention of the reader in nowaday's crowded Inboxes – is more of a mixture between a scientific approach with a savvy technique and a piece of art, almost…

    There is a GREAT tool designed to assess a score for email subjects and other type of headlines.

    I have provided an indepth view in one of my own blog posts here:

    What do you think?

  • 2011-01-26 at 16:13

    The most important thing about subject lines and open rates… is don't oversell it. Deliver only what you promise… if anything. I don't promise too much and over deliver. Once your list understands that, you can't screw up a subject line. John Alexander

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