Here is what the Promotions tab of my inbox looks like today.
It’s insanely crowded and cluttered! None of these subject lines stand out to me.
It only takes a tenth of a second to make a first impression. So when we talk about email marketing, an email subject line isn’t an elevator pitch. Heck, it’s not even an escalator pitch. An email subject line is a teleporter pitch. Once a subscriber opens their inbox, you need to capture their interest before they atomize into an energy pattern and beam across the stars.
In my case, I’m already in a new galaxy. Sorry, inbox.
When an email recipient sees a subject line, three things happen.
With thirty-five percent of email recipients reporting they open emails based solely on the subject line, nailing those first few words is so important. But how do you know what will work and what won’t?
Your email subscribers are not all in the same mindset.
As customers, we go through a series of experiences when we interact with any company or brand. This process is known as the customer journey.
The customer journey can be divided into 3 main phases:
This subscriber has a problem but hasn’t tried to do anything about it. Since you have less information about what this subscriber needs, try to be specific in your subject line.
This subscriber has a problem, but fixing it isn’t urgent. Try to capture their interest by casting a broader net.
This subscriber has already shown interest in your product or service. They might have filled out a contact form or used an email signup form (to optimize your signup form, here’s a great guide).
Since they’re already somewhat invested in what you have to offer, leverage that interest to make your subject line more impactful.
This is a subscriber with whom you have a mutual connection. That connection might be a co-worker, a friend, or a barber. You might go to the same butcher or use the same children’s clown for your kids’ birthday parties. Whoever they are, you can incorporate the connection into your subject line.
In other words, weak ties matter. Find the weak ties that bridge to new networks, do customer development to learn where to add value, then ask for referrals.
You can match the right subject lines to the right subscribers, send them at the perfect time of day, and nail the follow-up email. But despite your best efforts, sometimes traditional subject lines just don’t work. Maybe the subscriber secretly hates the barber you both see. Perhaps they only wanted 9 tips for choosing the best trampoline, not 10.
When traditional subject lines don’t work, it’s time to employ the untraditional. These subject lines are designed to cut through the inbox clutter, capture the recipient’s attention, and encourage them to open the email out of sheer curiosity.
Untraditional subject lines work because they’re out of left field. They’re unexpected. They can be funny, weird, quirky, even confusing. The only thing they can’t be is too salesy.
A strong untraditional subject line will resonate with the majority of recipients. For example:
“Ummm... what are you doing?”
This untraditional subject line pops up in a lot of inboxes. So why does it work?
Believe it or not, a strong untraditional subject line can be universal AND specific. For example:
“Upgrade your plan”
“Email marketing question”
Streaming services are a universal concept, and Netflix is pretty much a household name. But Netflix is also a specific streaming service. Why else does it work?
Current events are ephemeral (and often divisive), but tapping into the cultural moment can do wonders. What are the joys, anxieties, and dreams shared by you and your peers? What about the humor? The art? Netflix password? flirts with the cultural moment, but you can go further.
For example: Deals That Make Us Proud (Unlike Our Nephew, Steve)
The trope of the disappointed father (or in this case, uncle) is a comedic well that never seems to dry up. Using the trope in a subject line also makes us forgive the sales-oriented preamble – which is a feat in itself. Why else does it work?
Untraditional subject lines don’t always have to be zeitgeist-specific. There are plenty of ways to be funny, weird, or quirky without boxing yourself into a particular era. “Ummm... what are you doing?” fits here. So does something like:
“Free elephant with every purchase!!”
This gem is just as at home in a Gmail inbox as is it would have been in a fold-out newspaper ad from the 20s. Why does it work?