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How the Best Email Subject Lines Work

Written by: Kyle Edralin
August 14, 2017 • 8-minute read

how the best email subject lines work

Today, we’re going to talk about email subject lines - the first few dates in email marketing. You’ve found someone you want to engage with, and now the question is how to move forward. You need something that will catch the eye, but still be memorable enough for them to engage with you in the future.

Something along the lines of a pink gorilla suit. That would certainly get people talking on at least the first date, right? Perhaps, but it might not be enough for the ones that follow.

If you are like most people who use the internet, there are times in your life when you must face the question of what to write on the subject line of an email. It’s also likely you’ve seen your fair share of subject lines in your own inbox, ranging from lines like “CLICK HERE TO LEARN THE SECRETS OF GETTING A BIGGER DICTIONARY TODAY” to “Confirming that appointment at 6pm on Wednesday?”

Given our exposure to so many emails, there’s two things to consider when writing the best email subject lines you can think of:

  1. Why is writing catchy email subject lines so hard, and
  2. Are catchy email subjects lines the last word?

There are three different ways to answer these two questions. For clarity’s sake, let’s divide them into the first three dates between your pink gorilla self and your person of interest:


Simplicity has been the key to getting people to pay attention. There’s nothing quite like shouting “fire!” and having everyone turn around to look. This has been the key of email marketers for ages: that simplicity and just going straight to the point will be enough to get an email read.

And here’s how we answer a part of our first question: why is it so hard to do this? Quite simply, it’s because we’ve complicated things. We are complicated people, and that characteristic is apparent in everything we write, do, and create.

Think about how simple things were back then, with our dial-up internet and the one messenger/email app everyone had to use. Clickbait was king, and the flashier things were, the more likely you were to click on them. During the age of dial up, there were cat videos and fail compilations… everything was young back then, and young meant wild.

But we also realized “Hey, this internet thing makes business ten times easier!” So into that mix went meetings, corporate events, taxes, banking appointments and so on. We started reading texts on mobile. We started using segmented lists and personalization tokens. Entire apps were created to just automate your emails.

Simply put, the internet right now is made up of complex people, which makes it very complicated. A good email subject line is the line between simple and complex, one that makes a good first impression to set up for later dates. We need to think of what’s eye-catching, but avoid it becoming an eyesore. Because while showing up in a pink gorilla suit is definitely a talking point, you can’t wear the suit on your second date.


The second date should clarify more about what you’ve seen and heard on the first. It’s about being able to see what you’re in for, now that you’ve gotten their attention. Who is the person underneath the pink gorilla suit? Following this, an email subject line should answer three questions:

  • Why am I getting this email,
  • What is inside this email,
  • How am I supposed to respond/react to this email

A perfect example of the line separating this kind of simple from the “simple” email would look something like this. Let’s say Sarah has just come into work. As she opens her email, she can be greeted with one of these two different subject lines:



Hey Sarah, our new eBook on Email Subject Lines is now available for you!”

Note that these two subject lines convey the same thing: that there is a new eBook. However, the way they deliver this message, and how it arrives with possible other emails, will greatly affect what Sarah takes away from them.

The first one is urgent. The use of all caps, exclamation points convey catchiness and excitement - kind of like showing up in a pink gorilla suit. It tells her that SOMETHING is on the way, and that something is worth paying attention to. Simple? Yes. Informative? No. There’s nothing specific aside from the ebook title, and there’s a vague sense of alarm that could prove counter-productive to how Sarah begins her day, or just have her mark it as spam right off the bat.

On the other hand, the second header is about engagement. Using her name, you’ve already establish rapport with Sarah before she even reads the email. It gives the right amount of information needed: what’s in the email and what exactly is the ebook about. In addition, the usage of the word “our” gives a familiar tone to the communication, making Sarah feel part of a community. You give Sarah the chance to be partners, instead of a receiver.

So gaining attention isn’t always the best—especially for important emails. Aside from being catchy, the best email subject lines give the recipient value. Now it’s time for you to let them know exactly why you wore that pink gorilla suit, and prove that you aren’t just someone who wants attention.

Which leads us to the last point…


Catchy is good - but everyone in a relationship only gets one chance for a good opening line. If you keep calling back to the time that you’ve worn a pink gorilla suit, people will eventually get tired of it. And if you keep relying on the same approach of “Wow!”then people will get sick of you.

That’s the importance of writing the best email subject lines - they think ahead. They’re not concerned with getting a follow-up or being opened now; they want to keep going in the future. Unlike ones that just simply catch your attention, the best email subject lines are written with that idea in mind: building a reputation and a relationship that you’ll promise to uphold. That’s what’s the third date is about - commitment.

Aside from the tips available online, one thing should be followed when thinking about that perfect email copy: “who’s going to get it?” If you properly consider the circumstances of who’s going to get your email, you’re more likely to write a better email subject line.

Learn how to provide information, not spoon-feed it to your recipient. And while it may be tempting to go with your intuition, don’t underestimate the basics such as sending emails at the right time, optimizing your sender name to avoid spam, or not ignoring the power of preview texts. There are far better and simpler ways to catch curiosity and keep their attention. Sometimes it’s simply about how you say “look at me.”

Email marketing is a small part of a much larger campaign - and for something like that, you’ll need a plan. Our creative and project brief templates can help you get started on that. Get them here:

Download Project and Creative Brief Templates

Kyle Edralin
Kyle Edralin
Kyle Edralin is a content writer for StraightArrow Corporation. He happens to think that penguins are underrated.



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