How to write a winning subject line

How to write a winning subject line

September 4, 2015

Do you ever find yourself stuck at the final stage of drafting your mailer, pondering the empty subject line box? You might wonder, how important can it be? Here’s the thing: it’s very important. There are a limited number of factors that affect your open rate metric. Who you are, and your subject line.

Two subject line tactics

We have limited influence over who you are. So let’s focus on your subject lines, inspired by this post last week on the Return Path blog.

The data solutions provider suggests two approaches to help brands cut through overstuffed inboxes.

First, use humour. Return Path offers examples of companies doing “a great job of having their subject line focus on their product while also drawing in their subscribers in with a comical punch.” The main caveat on this approach is to ensure that your humour doesn’t offend.

Second, stress urgency. Cultivating FOMO, or fear of missing out, can be a great tactic for your promotional strategy.

Let’s check out some music subject lines

With these tools in mind, we searched through our “artist mailers we’re subscribed to” folder. And one thing we note is that by and large, subject lines for artists’ newsletters are dull, dull, dull.

Here’s some subject line examples:

  • [Album] – out now
  • Free [album] download ends tomorrow
  • July update
  • [Track] – new video
  • Autumn tour dates


Not a shred of humour, and only one vague nod towards urgency. In effect, these artists are relying on the power of their name alone to encourage fans to open the mailer. With all the messages you’re competing with, that’s not always enough!

These subject lines fail on two counts. Either they’re too specific: “Album out now”, “New video”. Or they’re too vague: “July update”.

Create a curiosity gap

If a subject line states “new album – out now”, the fan has all the information they need to decide whether to open the email. They might just go straight to a streaming service or YouTube and check it out, and ignore your message, regardless of any other info that might be in there.

If the subject line is non-specific, like “July update”, there’s no hook to entice the casual fan.

One answer is to place your subject line within the curiosity gap. This theory was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. Loewenstein explains curiosity as our sense of a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”.

That’s what we’re aiming for!

Why not work a little harder on the subject line and give yourself a better chance of success? Why not use humour, build curiosity, stress urgency, or appeal to your fans?

Subject lines that work

Here’s the best we’ve seen in the last few weeks, and what makes them great:

  • Asking a favour, from the Edinburgh Fringe – please vote!

This is quite clear: She Makes War is appealing for help, at the Edinburgh Fringe. She wants our votes for something unstated, and as a fan, I’m curious to find out what, and willing to oblige.

  • everybody wants you to just

This fragment from Half Moon Run might be a song lyric, we think, when we catch sight of it in our inbox. It hangs without capitalisation; we’re intrigued. The email content rewards curious fans, linking to the lead track Trust from the band’s forthcoming album.

  • Cobblers’ UK headline tour – Support announced

The preheader text saves Keston Cobblers’ Club‘s subject line from the dull pile, asking “Who’s it going to be……”. Who IS the support act going to be? Suggesting the question is smart and we’re betting that made for a strong open rate.

Remove the guesswork with a test

You can A/B test your subject lines on a subset of your users, to see how they fare. Return Path suggests ensuring your sample is statistically significant; they even provides a calculator here. Many email service providers simplify the testing process, meaning you can make an informed choice and get the best possible results.

Are you wondering how to create subject lines that inspire curiosity? Unsure how to run an A/B test? If you’d rather let someone else figure it out, get in touch. We love this stuff.

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