Best Practices for Email Subjects That Don’t Suck

By: Jeff Nolan | May 22, 2018 | Smart Messaging

It’s no secret, if you cannot get your customer to pay attention to your subject line, your email marketing efforts have been wasted. People devote seconds to your well-crafted email before they decide to delete it or act on it, the subject line is the door opener.

These best practices have been developed by Kahuna after feeding millions of subject lines and associated performance analytics through the AI system powering Kahuna’s Subject Line optimization solution.

Keep it short

While there is no definitive research correlating character length to performance, MailChimp has determined that subject line length has no impact on performance.

That being said, an increasing percentage of emails are being read on mobile devices and the reduced screen size of a typical mobile device creates a usability challenge.

Every character matters. Make it count with 30 character email subject lines that draw targets in with action words and targeted pre-header text.

Create urgency

Words create urgency by connecting the perception of need with immediacy. Urgency leads to activity that drives revenue. If nothing else, focus on creating subject lines that convey urgency.

A couple of helpful techniques you can use include:

  • Setting a deadline: “Today only, 50% off”
  • Offering scarcity: “Limited edition, only 17 left!”
  • Using urgent + active word pairs: “Act today!” and “Deadline fast approaching”

Use emojis with caution

Adding emojis to subject lines is a popular trend that has been reported to increase open rates. They convey emotion and differentiate messages in a way that words alone simply cannot achieve.

That being said, it’s critical to come back to basics when using emojis and seriously consider your target demographic, and business culture before inserting emojis in subject lines.

In addition to knowing your market, it is important to have awareness of how emojis are rendered in different platforms. A grinning face with smiling eyes emoji in Android can appear as an unhappy or sarcastic face in iOS.

Avoid trending cultural and political references

Beware of inserting that Kanye quote, #metoo, or Avenger movie reference in your email subject. In addition to possibly attracting attention for the wrong reasons, your email targets may not have the same awareness of trends that you do, or may simply not care.

Political references should be avoided at all costs for the simple reason that you are guaranteed to offend at least half of the people you are trying to reach.

Don’t be spammy

Spam filters are constantly changing to adjust to actual spammer behaviors. Avoid excessive punctuation and seemingly clever tricks, such as beginning your subject line with “RE:” Words also matter and overtly promotional words like “free” will potentially run afoul of such filters.


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Author: Jeff Nolan

Jeff Nolan is a proven Bay Area based marketing executive with a track record of transforming marketing teams and strategy in enterprise software growth companies. Jeff leads the marketing team at Kahuna, which includes the four corners of successful marketing teams: content, product marketing, demand, and brand.

With extensive experience in security technology and CRM companies, and a founding partner at SAP Ventures, the venture capital affiliate of SAP AG, Jeff is well-equipped to manage the complex tactical and strategic marketing challenges facing companies today.

Fun fact:

Bay Area native, Jeff lives with his family on the mid-Peninsula where he has transformed his home into an urban farm featuring gardens, orchards, chickens, and a thriving beekeeping operation.

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