Skip to main content

How To Write A Good Email Subject Line: Get Your Reader’s Attention And Avoid The Spam Folder

By April 13, 2012June 26th, 2015Email Marketing
How To Write A Good Email Subject Line: Get Your Customer’s Attention And Keep Your Email Out Of The Spam Folder

You do know that every survey, study and report ever published shows that email marketing has one of the single highest ROIs, right?

In a “go social” world email may seem passé, even “dead” but trust me – heck, don’t trust me, trust any one of these reports  – email is still alive, kicking and bringing in some pretty decent revenue for a whole lot of businesses.

Statistics And Other Tidbits To Convince You To Use Email As A Marketing Tool

As of 2011 (I know, eons ago in internet years) the Direct Marketing Association reported that for every dollar spent, here’s what you could expect to get in return on each of these:

Catalogs: $7.30

Search: $22.24

Internet advertising: $19.72

Mobile: $10.51

Email: $40.56

If that’s not enough of a “why” to get your email on, consider the fact that it’s also one of the most inexpensive marketing platforms and one of the easiest to do. If you’re willing to live with their logo at the bottom of your emails, you can use a management tool like MailChimp for free. If not, it’s a minimal investment for a monthly plan.

As for easy, well, no marketing is truly “easy” and it all requires goal setting, planning, execution and analysis. But in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty simple to set up a decent email template and send it to your list.

So we’ve got a free/inexpensive platform, an easy task and a pretty good track record on ROI. What could possibly go wrong?

Subject Lines Can Kill Your Email Campaigns Dead

Wouldn’t it be terrible if the only thing standing between you and your customer is a poor choice of a few words?

Poor subject lines can be ignored, or worse, end up in spam folders where they may never be seen. I don’t know about you but I check my spam folder about, oh, once in… never. Unless someone specifically tells me they’ve sent an email I haven’t received, I ignore the heck out of that folder.

Once, spam was a huge pain in the butt, until filters got a whole lot more aggressive. Now to be honest, I get almost zero spam delivered to my inbox. The downside is that spam filters have gotten a whole lot more aggressive, and that means even legitimate email, especially bulk and commercial emails, can end up in spam.

What if I told you that one of the simplest “quick fixes” to keep your email from being either ignored or filtered is to change your subject line? Bet you’d want to know how to do it!

How To Write An Email Subject Line That Evades The Delete Key And The Spam Filter, Too

Set Expectations

A subject line doesn’t have to be a work of art. Sometimes, simpler is better. If you send out monthly newsletters, there is nothing wrong with putting “Monthly Newsletter From [Your Company]” in the subject line. This lets readers know exactly what to expect.

Don’t worry that it’s boring. If you’ve built your list based on people who want your content, then they’ll want your content even without the clever headline. Sometimes people just want your newsletter.

Don’t Make It A Headline

Some advice you’ll find around the internet will tell you to mimic magazine or newspaper headlines to catch your customer’s attention. I disagree. Magazines and newspapers are not email. Magazines and newspapers do not spam us and show up unexpectedly in our email boxes to irritate us. You can say sensational things in headlines and get away with it (Lindsay Lohan tells you how she conquered Darth Vader with just a Prada purse?? Got to read that one!)

Sensational headlines get us to pick the publication up and check it out but more than likely we already know it’s sensationalized. A sensational email subject line just makes us feel cheated. This all goes back to expectations. We expect certain types of headlines in our print publications but find them spammy in email. Unless you can deliver on your “headline”, don’t use it.

Keep It Short

Most email clients cut off your subject line after a few words so if you don’t get your point across up front, it may not give someone enough of a reason to bother opening it. Try to keep it to a few words or at least put your key words at the beginning of the sentence so you can catch someone’s interest.

Describe The Content (Bonus If You Can Tell Someone Why It Matters)

Again, a subject line does not have to be an award-winning contest in creativity. It just has to work, and sometimes simple is best. If your email is a 10% coupon, tell people it’s a 10% coupon. If it’s a list of holiday recipes, tell people it’s a list of holiday recipes. I bet you get the point.

This is partly about expectations and partly about being able to put the benefit up front. If you’re sending emails, chances are you’re doing it for a reason. You’re not just throwing a bunch of junk into a template and calling it marketing. So describe the why and the what’s in it for me? Back to the recipe example; tell people it’s a list of holiday recipes that will make cooking a snap/are inexpensive/easy to clean up after/kid-friendly. Pick a benefit and use it to describe what your readers will get out of your email.

Make It Timely

We are a society very much “in the now”. If you’re sending out a webinar announcement, coupon, special offer, etc., you want to give people a relatively small window to respond. Do you know what I do with emails that give me a week to use a coupon? I save it, then I forget about it, then I miss the coupon and I don’t buy anything. But when I get an email that says “today only” or “ends tomorrow” I’m a lot more likely to act.

This is not a trick, it’s just human nature. We respond when we have to. If you want people to take advantage of a special offer then make it immediate and convey that in your subject line. It’s a bit Pavlovian. When someone tells us to “do this now”, many times we just do!

Make It Actionable

If there’s one thing even the most know-it-all among us want, it’s to know more. If you offer something that promises to be informative, people are more likely to respond. Take the recipe example again. A compelling subject line might read something like “10 ways to simplify work night meals.” Who doesn’t want to know that??

You can use this creatively whatever your industry. If you’re a retailer selling purple widgets, you might have a subject line that promises “5 ideas for using purple widgets to spruce up your décor.” This goes back to benefits, but it requires you to plan and market the benefit first.

And remember, you must deliver! Don’t promise 5 ideas and then give someone a 10% coupon .

Don’t Be My Friend

Nothing says “Ignore me, I’m spam” as much as a subject line that reads, “Hi! How are you today, Carol Lynn?” Once I hit delete, I’m usually just fine. This personal approach may sound like a good idea but it’s not professional and it’s a ploy used by so many spammers to get our attention that most people are immune to it by now.

Don’t Ask For Help Or Money

This is the exception to the “describe your content” rule. You may very well be asking for help or donations for a fantastic cause but you don’t want to say it in your subject line. For starters, people are busy. The last thing they want to do is go through the effort of opening and reading an email just to find out it requires more effort to help you. And I don’t know about you but ever since I donated five bucks to some charity twenty years ago I’ve been getting hit with solicitations from every charity imaginable to help, donate and support. Even the ones I do support unfortunately end up deleted if they show up in my inbox.

The word “help” has traditionally shown one of the lowest open rates when it’s used in a subject line, so don’t ask for it. Instead, get people interested in your content and add your help or donate link inside. You may do that by announcing a success story, making it a newsletter or even making it a soft sell – “3 ways to take action and wipe out cancer.” In the end you may just want someone’s money, but if you give them options and don’t specifically ask for money, your open rate will go up.

Avoid Caps, Exclamation Points And Other Symbols

So far we’ve talked mostly about how to avoid the delete key, but this one will also help you avoid the spam filter. Spammers to this day employ certain tricks to get us to open their emails. Fortunately, our filters keep those out of our way, but if you inadvertently do what they do, as legitimate as your email may be, it’s going to end up in the same place.

Your email may be pretty exciting but convey it in words, not exclamation points and absolutely not more than one!! All caps are also a no-no. Some senders that get away with this are news organizations that start a subject with “BREAKING NEWS” or “ALERT” but on the whole you should avoid this.

As for symbols, there’s nothing like a good old $ to get you filtered. You can usually slip one in somewhere if you really need to ($10 off today only) but be very careful when doing this and if you do…


If you don’t already have them, go ahead and set up a free email account using every service you can – Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo. Then before you send out your email campaign, send a test to each and every one of those accounts. See whether you received the email or if it got bumped to spam. If you’ve got a corporate account and use Outlook or are behind a company firewall, even better. You can see exactly which domains accept and reject your emails.

Watch Your Words

By now you probably know that anything with the word “Viagra” in the subject line, not to mention a few unmentionables, will end up in spam every time. But some seemingly innocuous words can trigger spam filters and you can thank the spammers for that. Words like urgent, increase, win and even free can get you filtered.

There are three things you can do to mitigate this:

  1. See above. Test. If you’re actually offering something free and want it in your subject line, go ahead and use it, but test first.
  2. Be honest. The less you try to trick or cajole people into opening your email, the better off you’ll be. Don’t sensationalize, hype or get too sales-y.
  3. See below…

Check Your Spam Folder

As of right now, there are 369 messages in my spam folder and that’s only because I emptied it a few days ago. But it’s a treasure trove of information. If you check your spam folder I guarantee you’ll get a whole lesson in “what not to do”. If you see subject lines with words like “performance” there repeatedly (oh, you will) then it’s probably a word you should avoid.

The Best Tip I Can Give You: For the Win

This one really needs its own category because it’s something you can and should do every day. You don’t need to be sending out emails or even thinking about sending out emails to do it.


That’s right, study. Start by subscribing to email updates and newsletters from everyone imaginable. If you’re neurotic about this, create a separate email account where you can have these emails delivered and sequestered. Then when you receive them, pay attention to the subject lines.

Which ones are interesting? Which ones sound like a load of hype? Which ones actually compel you to open the emails? Which ones sound unprofessional, stupid, clever, brilliant? (Which ones totally end up in your spam folder?)

True story: I once had a client who spent so much time agonizing over, tweaking and debating subject lines that many times the emails went out days late or not at all. At that rate, even a bad subject line is better than none at all.

This doesn’t have to be you. You don’t need to reinvent the subject line wheel every time you send one out. You just need to do what works and what many others before you have spent time studying and agonizing over so you don’t have to.

Create yourself a nice little spreadsheet of wins and losses and start building your own arsenal of ideas. All the better if next time you send out an email you pilfer someone else’s awesome subject line, tack on your company name or benefit and call it a day.

Now run off and start testing, studying and creating awesome subject lines. But first… got any other tips to share, or strategies that have worked for you?

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Adrienne says:

    This is a fabulous post Carol and such an important one because as you mentioned, email is STILL the #1 source for sharing information.

    I read a statistic last year and yes that seems so very long ago but it still rings true today.  I even implemented Tynt on my blog and it shows you how much content is being copied monthly.  But the majority of that being copied is being shared through email.

    Okay so anyway, your headlines definitely need to stand out because boring ones will be misinterpreted as spam since we are all so inundated with so many emails every day. Can I share a headline with you that has a higher than average open rate?  Learned this one from an 8 figure income earner and I’ve tested it many times.  Every single time I use it, fabulous open rate.  It’s “Staying In The Loop”.  I know but it works…Great tips and I’ll definitely be sharing this one.  My readers have got to read this post.  You’re the best!

    Enjoy your weekend Carol…


    • I wouldn’t have guessed that “staying in the loop” works as a subject line. I bet someone tested the heck out of that one! Great tip to know though, I’m going to have to figure out a way to work it in to one of my emails. I also haven’t tried Tynt but now that I’ve looked at it, I’m realizing now that when I copy and paste stuff off other sites, sometimes it comes with a link and I often wonder, how the heck did that get there? Now I know! I’m going to check it out for my site, it’s pretty interesting. So that’s two tips I got from you now, thanks! 

  • Hi Carol Lynn,

    What an excellent post, full of great tips and advice that I can start using straight away. I’m not very successful with my email marketing and my open rates are very low. I really do need to address this and will take your advice on board.

    I’m always careful of my subject lines and never use capitals at all. I do on occasion use the word free in the title but I never change the look of it. ie F*r*e*e as I’ve seen others do as I think it looks more spammy that way.

    I do send a test email to myself every time I’m about to send a broadcast but only send it one email address. I will now start sending to other email addresses of mine, that really is a fantastic tip 🙂

    I understand what you mean about study as well. I often look at the emails I receive and look at the layout and wording and try to apply the same to my emails but as I said my results are quite poor 🙁

    I really do think this is one of the best posts I’ve read on email marketing advice Carol Lynn and on the strength of this post I’m joining your list.

    Thanks Carol Lynn

    • Thanks Barry, I’m really happy to be able to help! You also might want to try A/B testing – it doesn’t have to be complicated, just come up with 2 subject lines and send one to half your list and the other to the other half. If your list is all opt-in, you may be having other issues, like your email going to spam. That can happen for more reasons than the subject line, such as how many images you’re using or even what words you use in the main content. Plus keep in mind you can’t track opens for text emails or people who don’t turn on their images. Start with the subject line and test a bit, and definitely make sure it’s not ending up in spam!

      • wow I didn’t know that plain text emails didn’t track the open rates, that explains one of my lists which was a major concern. Maybe my results aren’t as bad as I thought…… I say with hope 🙂

        It was one of the first lists I created and all the emails in the AR are plain text….. Guess what I’ll be adding to my to do list Carol Lynn.

        I do send my broadcasts in both Plain and HTMl but don’t include any images as yet, however i am thinking of getting some images created for them.

        Thanks Carol Lynn

        • Ah, well that could explain it! The tracking works by inserting an invisible pixel which is an image that essentially alerts you when it’s “viewed”. But since it’s an image it can’t be inserted in plain text. Plus if people have images off it’s not “viewed” either, even though the person may have actually opened the email. It’s also helpful to look at clicks, too. You may want to try not sending out any text email, but instead, send HTML and for your text version just put in a sentence that basically says “view this email in your browser”. Got to keep testing! Good luck 🙂

  • Nicky price says:

    Some fantastic tips here and I know just who Adrienne is talking about who uses “staying in the loop” – the problem is that so many people have now copied it, it has lost all effectiveness as far as I am concerned so I guess this is a lesson for all of us – to shake it up a little and just because a top marketer uses it, does not mean you should use it once a week!

    I was also surprised to see that “help”  in the headline has a low open rate as I have always had a high open rate when I have used this in the past, but maybe because I don’t use it very often and I have got to know some of the people on my list very well. I can imagine this would not work so well if it was the first in the AR sequence.

    Having previously analyzed my open rates, I can tell you that the highest open rate of all my emails has come when I have shared a story – people seem to LOVE stories.

    Great information Carol and beautifully presented as usual,

    • If you can get people to help, I want your secret! Like you said, I’m sure it has a ton to do with the relationship. I’m sure your relationship with your list is different than say, a retailer with 50,000 people on their list. You can’t exactly get close and personal with a list like that so you have to be super smart about how you try to reach people. And yes, people do love stories. I get a newsletter from a farm that I like and they never sell anything and their emails are always super long and just words words words, no HTML, nothing pretty… and yet I read the whole thing every time because it’s always a story and really interesting. and I buy stuff from them anyway!

  • Steveagonzalez says:

    Great info and suggestions.  Especially on testing your subject lines by opening different accounts and sending yourself messages to see which ones fall into spam folders.  Thanks for the tips.

  • This is awesome!! I used to struggle with my open rates and let’s face it if no one opens your emails then no one is buying. One of the main things I tell people is to make sure they consistently are emailing to their list. Because people forget about you if they don’t hear from you and also it builds relationships. I try to email my list atleast once a day even if it’s just to say hello and share a highlight about my day.  I completely agree with not seeming to salesy I hate being sold so why would I think someone else would. I am always careful and think what would I want to hear about or what would make me open a email. Trial and error like you said but most importantly just getting started and consistency is key. Everyone is bad before they are good. Thanks Carol for sharing your awesome wisdom! You rock!!

    • Thanks April, that was a nice compliment! You definitely have the right attitude – if there’s a subject line you wouldn’t want to read, why would some else want to read it? I agree that consistency is important. they say “out of sight out of mind”,  right? So true with all marketing! Believe me nobody is thinking about you (or me or any of us) if we aren’t reminding them! That’s really interesting that you email once a day. And nobody unsubscribes or gets cranky? It also has a lot to do with the type or email and relationship. If it’s a quick snippet or interesting story it could be compelling enough to keep people intrigued. Have you ever tried skipping a few days or weeks and then emailing, to see if the open rate goes up because people are suddenly reminded, “oh, it’s April! Let me check this out, haven’t heard from her in a while!” it might be worth a test if you still have issues with open rates.

      •  Hey Carol, thanks for your reply.. I actually get more unsubscribes when I don’t email for a while. I hate when I get out of the swing of mailing to my list daily. My open rates are sky high now and I even get higher click thru rates when I use my video email. Mailing to my list daily has allowed me to do so many things but most importantly be one of the top recruiters in my primary company. I figure if someone is going to unsubscribe they mys well do it sooner then later. After all they are renting space on my list if you know what I mean. I may even mail a few times a day just depends on what’s happening that day but as long as I focus on providing my list with things that are helpful to them they are very responsive and when it is time to sell something they are thirsty because they hear from me daily.

        • I like that attitude – they’re “renting space” on your list 🙂 It sounds like you have a completely different relationship with your list than most people. You have a pretty personal connection with everyone, which is fantastic. Plus your emails are not all about selling, which is what makes so many people unsubscribe – too much pressure. Since what you’re doing is working, good for you and keep going! Sounds like you put a lot of testing and thought into it, which is the best thing to do!

  • Hi Carol,

    Good informative post.  So many people think subject lines have to be like headlines.  True it’s good to have the “what’s in it for me” in the subject line short and quick with out all the bells and whistles of a newspaper or magazine but there is no need to go crazy trying to get a good subject line as you mention in your post.

    I like what you said about studying other subject lines in your spam folder so you can get a good taste of what is not good.  I also like the idea of checking other subject lines to see what hits your nerve endings and which ones don’t.

    In the end if you just keep it simple and effective without fretting too much, you will get to know what works best.  Thanks for sharing,

    Terry Conti

    • Thanks Terry, I appreciate your thoughts. There’s so much “junk mail” that it’s really easy to get blind to email sometimes, and so people think they need to be shocking, brilliant and clever every time. But they forget that if you’re sending out emails to people who WANT them, those people will be paying attention even if all your headline says is “my newsletter”. As far as I’m concerned, those “clever” subject lines are for spammers who want to trick us into opening something. Otherwise, be straightforward!