Tomas Laurinavicius8 min readPartner postsDecember 3, 2019

How to write unconventional subject lines that improve opens

How to write unconventional subject lines that improve opens

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.

  • They judge you. Based on the tone, style, and content of the subject line, the subscriber will make a judgment call on you, the sender. Are you austere and humorless? Goofy and playful? Compassionate? High energy? RaNDoM? You only have a few words to let them know.
  • They judge the content. A subject line doesn’t just reflect on the sender, it also hints at (or sometimes explicitly states) the content of the email. Based on your subject line, a subscriber might be able to infer that the email contains a promotional offer, a helpful tip, or an exciting announcement.
  • They judge whether it’s worth an open. The first two judgments will affect the ultimate judgment: whether it’s worth it to open the email, or leave it sealed for eternity.

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?

Word to the wise

Use custom domain email addresses (bunny@rabbit.com vs. bunny@gmail.com) to improve your credibility, further establish your branding, and cultivate trust.


Types of subject lines for different subscribers

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:

  1. Awareness
  2. Consideration
  3. Decision (and post-purchase)
  1. In the Awareness phase, people recognize a need or problem to solve and explore their options in a passive manner. We’ll call them The Uninterested Subscriber.

  2. In the Consideration phase, people start more actively researching, collecting information and comparing different brands or solutions. We’ll call them The Relaxed Subscriber.

  3. In the Decision phase, your subscriber actually becomes a customer. We’ll call them The Interested Subscriber.

  4. Extra: the Referral phase, your customer refers more customers. We’ll call them The Mutual Connection Subscriber.

The Uninterested Subscriber

unconventional subject line example 1

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 is what you need to find the perfect trampoline
  • We can help you find the best trampoline

The Relaxed Subscriber

unconventional subject line example 2

This subscriber has a problem, but fixing it isn’t urgent. Try to capture their interest by casting a broader net.

  • How a trampoline can make your life better
  • 10 ways that having a trampoline increases your happiness
  • 5 ideas to help you pick the perfect trampoline

The Interested Subscriber

unconventional subject line example 3

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.

  • Hey [subscriber’s name], did you find the trampoline you needed? 
  • Can I help you find the right trampoline?

The Mutual Connection Subscriber

unconventional subject line example 4

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.

  • Ulrich, your barber, recommended we get in touch about trampolines
  • Rinkydink, the Clown who Roller Skates, said I should contact you RE: trampolines
Word to the wise

For more info on how to create traditional subject lines that boost conversions, here’s a great guide.


What if that doesn’t work?

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.

Word to the wise

If you’re not already A/B split testing your subject lines, well, you should start. Here’s a great A/B split testing guide.


What makes a good nontraditional subject line?

Be universal

A strong untraditional subject line will resonate with the majority of recipients. For example:

“Ummm... what are you doing?”

What am I doing?

This untraditional subject line pops up in a lot of inboxes. So why does it work? 

  • The casual phraseology makes it sound like it’s from a friend. 
  • It’s vague enough to apply to just about anyone.
  • It’s such a universal question that no matter who you are or where you hail from, you’ll understand its meaning.
  • The recipient will probably answer the question in their head before they even realize it’s a cold email.

Be specific

Believe it or not, a strong untraditional subject line can be universal AND specific. For example:

“Upgrade your plan”

“Email marketing question”

“Netflix password?”

It's hotdog9... wait...

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?

  • Asking for someone’s Netflix password is something most of us have done at some point.
  • Such a short, innocent subject line stands out and piques curiosity.

Tap into the cultural moment

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)

Oh 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?

  • It retroactively makes the first part of the subject line funny.
  • Giving the nephew a name is specific and hilarious (of course his name is Steve).

Go for timeless

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?

  • It’s playful and self-aware. 
  • It mentions an animal that’s almost universally adored. (Who doesn’t love elephants? I’ll fight ’em!)
  • It prompts the question, “What could they be selling that could theoretically come with a free elephant?”

Takeaways

  • When standard subject lines aren’t working, untraditional subject lines might be the winning formula.
  • An untraditional subject line is something unexpected. It can be funny, weird, quirky, or even confusing. 
  • A good untraditional subject line can be universal or specific, can tap into the cultural moment, or remain timeless.
  • Try creating your own. If it makes you laugh, makes you think, or makes you curious, you’re on to something.


Tomas Laurinavicius

Tomas Laurinavicius is a lifestyle blogger and content marketing consultant from Lithuania. He writes about lifestyle design, entrepreneurship and self-development.