Planning A Winning Subject Line

35% of email recipients open emails based purely on your subject line. On average, 8 out of 10 people will read an email’s subject line and headline copy. Only 2 out of those 10 will actually read the rest of your marketing message.

Typically, a subject line is around 50 characters long. So how can marketers craft a snippet of text that not only entices a recipient to open, but also encourages them to take a desired action?

Before you consider fancy wordsmithery and snappy sales spiel, you’ll need to get back to basics. First identify the purpose of your email and clarify what it is that your potential readers needs are. It is this that will give you the context upon which to craft your subject line.

What Is Contextual Marketing?

Anthony Muller, on the Forrester blog describes context as being ‘derived from a wealth of signals pulled from environmental, social, emotional, cultural, and economic factors.’ Hubspot say that due to technological advances, ‘rather than marketing to one audience with one message, we can now market to an audience of one. We can deliver a consistent, personalized message to each individual across every medium.’ And that includes an emails subject line.

Subject line – Read All About It!

Subject lines provide context for the entire email, much like a headline within a magazine or a newspaper. When reading a newspaper, typically we glance at headlines before deciding whether to read on. Similarly to a headline, whatever the style, a subject line should relate clearly to the body of the email.

Getting the context of your email right from the get go will help to put your readers into the right mindset for when they read the body of your email. It will help them mentally shift to the right context before they read the rest of your message. It will act as a virtual ‘prompt’ in the direction of your call to action that they will likely encounter later on within their journey.

Right Message, Right Person, Right Time

First things first, decide on the objective of your campaign. Ask yourself what action you want your reader to take upon receiving and reading your send.

Do you want to…
  • Move leads along the purchase path, nurturing them towards a sale?
  • Build awareness of your brand or product?
  • Change the perception of your brand or product?
  • Serve content to your existing customers?
  • Cross-sell or up-sell to your existing customers?
  • Generate new sales leads?

Once you’ve established this you will be better placed to lock down your subject line’s keywords. Keywords like ‘buy, learn, read, save’ for example.

Now that you’ve decided on the purpose of the email, consider the recipient data that you have in your armoury.

Why Does This Matter?

Context is all about delivering the right content, to the right people, at the right time. The more data that you have about your recipients, the more targeted subject lines you can tailor for individual audiences.

If Content Is King, Context Is Queen:

Context will give your recipients a more personalised and relevant experience. They’ll be more likely to give your email message the time of day when the subject line is pertinent and interesting.

SEO technology company Conductor recently reported that 2 million blog posts, 294 billion emails, 864 thousand hours of video are created daily. Because of this content bombardment, when it comes to email, the subject line is a marketers chance to get the context right. To ensure they reach people who are likely to have a million and one other things on their mind.

Many marketers are guilty of delivering the same message to prospects regardless of their relationship with the business and/or their purchase history. But clever marketers know that any data they have about contacts interests, history or behaviour is an extremely powerful tool for segmenting their contacts. As a result, their marketing messages and subject lines.

Subject lines can be personalised and given context with previously collected data including recipient’s names, geographical location and/or their purchase history. Plus of course any other data that you might have collected from previous campaigns.

Ok, so by now you should have decided on the purpose of your email and thought about the data you have about your recipients. Ready to move on?

Seasonal Awareness:

What time of year is it? What’s going on at this moment in time? Why am I asking you this? Well, marketers should take advantage of events, trends and seasons. This will add some personalisation and context to their subject lines.

Although I mentioned seasonality, I’m not just talking about the weather here. Think about whether there are relevant business orientated seasonal factors too. For example:

  • Is it appraisal time?
  • Tradeshow season?
  • Are budgets being finalised?

Or if you operate in the B2C space, is it the school holidays? Is there a relevant sporting event going on? Marketers could have a field day with Wimbledon, Tour de France, F1 and The Ashes all within the space of a couple of weeks.

When telling me about their latest app offerings, iTunes used their subject line to recently inform me about their most timely new additions including the latest ‘great tennis apps.’ They told me about it via an email subject line the week of the Wimbledon final).

Subject Line Newsjack:

Newsjacking is another great way that marketers can add context to their subject lines (and of course email copy).  The Content Marketing Institute says that ‘newsjacking is the process of injecting your brand into the day’s news, creating a twist that grabs eyes when they’re open widest.’ Newsjacking is about tying your email campaigns to current events that are top of mind.

The content Marketing Institute recently wrote a post about how budget airline Spirit Airlines harnessed the ‘fiscal cliff’ debacle. This was the popular term used to describe the budget challenge that the U.S. government faced at the end of 2012. They used this news event to craft eye-catching subject lines.

They sent an email in which the subject line read ‘So, about that cliff everyone’s talking about…’ Then they added within the body of the email that ‘when it comes to travel, spirit is always fiscally responsible’. At the time this story was dominating the news headlines, I’d certainly have been more inclined to open an email that talked about something that was already front of mind rather than a ‘save 50% on your next flight.’

State of mind:

Next, consider what frame of mind your recipient might be in at the very time that they receive your email. What do I mean by this? Well, consider how far along your sales funnel they might be. Have they previously purchased from you?

Lessons From Amazon:

There is no denying that Amazon is an absolute master of this! If you’ve ever shopped with them you’ll have probably noticed that they know a fair bit about you and they manage to deliver it cleverly in a helpful manner.

On their website they use their collected data to show shoppers suggestions of items similar to those they are considering. Amazon also show online reviews by others who purchased items they are looking at. They use this data to send email reminders of sales specifically targeting items a recipient has previously expressed an interest in along with emails regarding incentives related to previous purchases.

I recently received an email from Amazon in which the subject line read ‘Trade in “Alternative and Activist New Media (DMS – Digital Media and Society)” for a gift card’. I’d purchased the book a few years ago, read it and it was now sitting on my bookshelf not doing very much. Because Amazon’s subject line hadn’t simply read ‘trade in a book for …’ and had related specifically to a purchase I’d made, I took them up on their generous offer and traded it in for an Gift Card, which they told me I can use on millions of items across the store.

Would I have still acted if they’ve not added relevant context to their subject line? I guess we’ll never really know, but they certainly harnessed the potential of contextual marketing within their emails subject line to edge the bets in their favor. Bravo Amazon, bravo indeed!

Online habits:

Next, ask yourself what you know about your recipients online habits that could influence the timing of your send? In a previous post we spoke to Francesca, head of editorial for Fresh Business Thinking. She told us that they’d been sending their newsletters daily at 8am on the dot for as long as she could remember. Their open rate had been pretty consistent during that time.

In an effort to improve their stats she opted for shaking things up a little. Francesca ‘trialled a month long test for each of the new times she wanted to try sending at and was pleasantly surprised that their open rate increased by almost an entire per cent when they opted for sending at just gone midnight.

She said that ‘we chose 3 times to trial based on what we thought our recipients might be doing at those times. Midnight was one of the times we chose because we send (in the main) to business directors, owners & entrepreneurs and we know they work late, often past midnight or else start very early. We also know that almost all of them use smartphones. So even if they’re not at their computer they’re likely to still be ‘switched on’.’

‘4/5 years ago 8am sends worked for us but we knew that as our recipients were changing we needed to adapt to keep up.’


By thinking about the timing of your send and the reasons that you have chosen to send at that time, you might also be able to add some relevant context to your email’s subject line text. For example, if you’re a food retailer and you’re sending emails at lunch consider asking your recipients what they are having for lunch today or whether they fancy something a little more satisfying than the sandwich they packed this morning. Similarly, if you’re a florist, consider your send time around key events (like mother’s day) based on when customers are likely to make decisions and purchases. If this is a week before the big day, use your subject line to ask recipients whether they are spoiling mum this year or about what her favorite flower might be. I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea J

And we’re done!

Now, I’m aware that this might seem like an awful lot of thought to put into a adding some context mere 50 characters of text. Subject lines really do have the potential to make or break your email campaigns.

The effects of cleverly adding context to your subject lines are vast. By delivering more relevant messages to your prospects based on what you know about them, the world around them and their habits, your results will only go one way, and that’s up! Click here for 11 tips on writing subject lines that get opened.


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