6 ways to make email ‘headlines’ relevant, useful
How can you write a subject line that drives opens? Show that your email contains useful information, suggest three professors at Carnegie Mellon University.
In a series of “think-aloud” studies, these professors asked participants to sort through emails in their own inboxes and in inboxes developed for the study.
The answer? Readers are most likely to open emails with subject lines that focus on utility, or relevance. People are most likely to open emails when the subject line focuses on “information I can use to live my life better.”
Curiosity, according to the research, was the No. 2 reason people opened their emails.
Share to be helpful
Those findings echo research by Chadwick Martin Bailey that shows that utility is among the top three reasons people share information via email or social media:
- Because I find it interesting/entertaining (72%)
- Because I think it will be helpful to recipients (58%)
- To get a laugh (58%)
So how do you write useful, helpful, relevant subject lines that get your message opened?
1. Highlight a reader benefit.
Best subject line ever? This one, from Dawn Grubb, got opened fast:
Margaritas today at 5? I’m buying
Opportunities, offers and discounts drive the most opens, according to Lyris Technologies. So focus on what’s in it for the recipient, not what’s in it for the sender.
This one, from Portland Monthly’s Shop Talk, had me at Tim Gunn:
Talk to Tim Gunn | Free Kiehl’s Product | Bad Mall Photos
These two benefits subject lines got opened by subjects in a Nielson Norman Group test — despite the fact that recipients didn’t know the sender (And overcoming sender unfamiliarity isn’t easy!):
Z100 Pays Your Bills!
Lonely Planet’s top 10 beaches
“When users are looking through their inboxes and dealing with vast amounts of email, any indication that a message with worth opening is helpful,” write Kim Flaherty, et al., in Marketing Email and Newsletter Design to Increase Conversion and Loyalty.
2. Write in the language of service stories.
Words and phrases like how to, tips and secrets suggest the kinds of value-added service stories that readers seek.
Just check out the service story words in Dan Zarrella’s list of the 17 words that get clicked most often: tips, latest and giveaway, for instance.
And Sally Ormond’s list of 10 Words That Will Make People Open Your Email includes:
- Advice: “Advice for getting your whites white”
- Why: “Why stains will be a thing of the past”
- At last: “At last a washing powder you can trust”
- How to: “How to get whites white first time”
- How: “How you can banish stains forever”
- Which: “Which powder banishes stains every time?”
- Now: “Now you too can have whiter whites”
3. Write to you.
We’ve known since 1934 that readers want to read about themselves. That’s the year Ralph Tyler and Edgar Dale conducted a study that proved that second-person pronouns — you — increase reading, while first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) reduce readability.
You is the most retweeted word in the English language, found viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella in one of his big data studies.
You is the most retweeted word in the English language.
— Dan Zarrella, viral marketing scientist
And Return Path proved the same thing: People are less likely to open and click through emails with first-person pronouns (I, me, our, mine) in the subject lines.
Folks, 85 years of research is in, and You won.
(I love how we keep “discovering” the same readership habits the classic researchers learned back in the day. These reader traits remain the same — over the decades, across media, throughout channels — because whatever else changes, our readers remain human.)
4. Ask a question.
When auctioneer Dick Soulis let his list know about an opportunity to help producers of a new TV series, his subject line said:
Do You Have A Piece of History?
National Geographic Channel Wants You
And Angie’s List sent asked this question in a subject line:
How long will your paint job last?
Why questions in subject lines?
When the facts are on your side, asking a question is more effective than making a statement, according to research by Daniel J. Howard and Robert E. Burnkrant at Ohio State University.
That’s because people receive statements passively. But with questions, they actively come up with their own reasons for agreeing.
And researchers at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo found that people are more likely to click on question headlines with the word “you” than on declarative statement headlines. (See tip No. 3.)
Their advice: Ask intriguing questions that make people think, rather than questions with a simple yes or no answer.
What question could you ask to draw readers into your message?
5. Add a number.
Email Labs ran a split test of these three subject lines. Which do you think was most effective?
- Using Link Click-Through Tracking to Segment Your List
- 3 Tips to Improve Your Newsletter’s ROI
- Build Your List Through “Piggy-Back Marketing”
If you guessed the second, you’re right. “3 Tips” produced both higher open and click-through rates than the other two.
Why? Numerals in display copy sell because they promise quantifiable value. So think 3 Tips, 6 Ways, 7 Steps.
Oddly, odd numbers sell better than even ones. So7 Steps is better than 10 Tips.
6. Choose a dynamic verb.
“A story is a verb, not a noun,” wrote one of the former editors of The New York Times. That means the verb is the story.
Same thing is true in email subject lines. Strong verbs in subject lines boost click, open and read rates:
- Benefits verbs like add, open and try increase email reading (PDF), according to a study by Return Path, a global data and marketing firm.
- Experiential verbs like celebrate and love performed best (PDF), according to a study by Phrasee.
- Verbs like buy and save outperformed adjectives, including free (PDF), according to Adestra. Its study found that the most effective words in email subject lines are verbs; half of the least effective ones are nouns.
Make the most of your subject line.
Some 35% of email recipients use the subject line to decide whether to open a message, according to a study by DoubleClick.
Which means that this teeny-tiny piece of copy does the heavy lifting when it comes to getting your email opened and read.
So make the most of your 25-40 characters: Show that your email is relevant, valuable and useful to your readers.
Sources: Kim Flaherty, Amy Schade, and Jakob Nielsen; Marketing Email and Newsletter Design to Increase Conversion and Loyalty, 6th Edition; Nielsen Norman Group, 2017
Loren McDonald, “March Intevation Report Subject Line Test — Obvious Wins,” EmailLabs, April 1, 2004
Jakob Nielsen, “Email Newsletters Pick Up Where Websites Leave Off,” Alertbox, Sept. 30, 2002