Your primary goal in email marketing is to get results. That might be sales, client enquiries, offers to come and speak.
And, of course, the first step to getting people to take action is that they have to open and read your emails. In today's overcrowded world, that's no easy task.
Once you've established a reputation for sending valuable emails, your subscribers will begin to open them by habit. A bit like they might always open emails from friends and colleagues. But until that happens, and to catch the “swing voters” who might or might not open your emails t any given tine; you need a strong email subject line.
Decades ago, legendary copywriter Gary Bencivenga came up with the following formula for writing advertising headlines:
Or in plain English: Interest = Benefits + Curiosity.
The same holds true for your email subject lines. People are going to be motivated to open emails that promise something useful.
But if they think they already know what’s going to be in the email, they’ll skip it, especially if they’re short of time. So you need both benefits and curiosity in an ideal email subject line.
Some example from my own emails on winning more clients:
The Real Secrets of Linkedin. Benefits = learn to use Linkedin better. Curiosity = “just what are the real secrets?”
How I Increased Email Signups by 51%. Benefits = get more email signups. Curiosity = “what on earth did Ian do to get such a big increase?”
Why Honey Nut Cheerios get more word of mouth than Disney World. Benefit = learn how to get more word of mouth. Curiosity = “why would something as mundane as Cheerios get more word of mouth than something as amazing as Disney World?”
5 crippling beliefs that keep consultants and coaches in the poor house. Benefit = avoid those beliefs yourself. Curiosity = “I wonder what they are? And I hope I don’t have them!”
How do you come up with benefits for subject lines?
You head back to your customer insight map and look at all the goals and aspirations, problems and issues that you’ve identified your ideal clients have. That should give you quite a long list of different topics that you could potentially write about.
Take that list of topics and expand on it. Drill into some of them in more detail. There could be two, three, four, five points on each individual topic that you could write an email and an interesting subject line for.
So for example if you’re in the field of leadership and one of the topics that your client struggles with is their own self-confidence then in terms of expanding that topic that could lead to potential emails on:
- The causes of a lack of self-confidence.
- Different ways of overcoming a lack of self-confidence.
- Case studies from your own experience about working with clients who have overcome self-confidence issues.
- Examples of people who have suffered from a lack of self-confidence in the public eye. Film stars, TV entertainers, rock legends or sportspeople who have suffered and you can tell their story.
- Emails on why common accepted wisdom on self-confidence is wrong,
- Why doing nothing is not an option.
- The “dirty little secrets” of self confident people.
You can expand those original topics from your customer insight map by brainstorming or mind mapping to turn each one into five, six or more individual sub-topics that could form the basis of an email, each one of which would be interesting to your potential clients.
You can then add curiosity to the subject line in a number of ways:
- Pulling out something surprising about the topic or disagreeing with conventional wisdom. E.g. Why improving your selling skills will lose you sales.
- Adding some form of quantification or ranking. E.g. The top 3 reasons you’re losing sales. In this case curiosity is aroused because subscribers want to find out what you think are the top 3 reasons and whether they agree with them.
- Harnessing an emotion. E.g. 7 ways big corporates try to stop you succeeding. In this case tapping in to potential anger and suspicion about large corporates.
- Linking the topic to something unexpected. E.g. What Jeremy Clarkson taught me about marketing. The curiosity is in wanting to know what a TV celebrity could know about a topic they’re not usually associated with.
- Hooking in to news and current affairs. E.g. How to achieve Olympic performance in your organisation. Health warning: these can often go stale fast, especially if lots of people make the same analogies. If you’re linking to the news, try to make it a less common story or come at it from an angle no one else is using.
- Name drop a known expert in your field. E.g. David Ogilvy’s best performing adverts. People are curious to see behind the scenes of what a well-known industry expert thinks and does.
- Admit your mistakes. E.g. My WORST sales meeting ever. A mixture of wanting to know what to avoid themselves and a little schadenfreude at hearing what you did wrong means these emails often get a very high open rate.
(Note: I've created a detailed breakdown of my most effective 1-off email for getting meetings with potential clients. You can download the template and guide at the end of this post)
In terms of then writing the subject lines, often your completely original ones will work best as they’ll be in your natural voice. But if you’re short of inspiration, then building on a tried and tested headline formula like the following can help:
The How To Model
- How to <achieve benefit>
- How to <achieve benefit> even if <common barrier>
- How to <achieve benefit> in less than <time period>
- What I learned about <topic> from <surprising person>
- <surprising persons>’s guide to <topic>
The List Model
- <number> ways to <do something useful>
- <number> surprising facts about <topic>
- The top <number> reasons you’re <something bad>
The Secrets Model
- <number> secret ways to <do something good>
- What your <person in authority> doesn’t want you to know about <something in their field>
The Questions Model
- What would happen if you <big change/achievement>?
- Has <problem> ever happened to you?
- Do you know the top reason why <something good/bad> happens?
The Unusual Sentence Model
- “<surprising quote>” (e.g. “You’re fired, Mr Peesker”)
- <really unexpected sentence> (e.g. “Dripping blood, sponges and something that may be holding you back”)
Finding the Right Subject Line for Your Audience
Effective subject lines are one of the things that vary considerably by audience and are often difficult to predict.
Some marketers have reported very high open rates with subject lines like “Hey!”, “Open Up” and “Bad News!”. These are the sort of tricks that work for a while until everyone starts using them, or until your subscribers get wise and realise you’re just trying to trick them into opening an email that bears no relation to the subject line.
Best to stick to subjects that give a good idea of what’s in the email while still invoking curiosity.
Controversial subject lines can often work well to get clicks. But as I detail in The Right and Wrong Way to Use Controversy in Subject Lines – you have to be careful and make sure you really mean it. No one likes a controversial subject line that's just used to get the email opened followed by you backing down in the email body.
Try not to overuse specific subject line models. If all your emails are “How To…” or link an aspect of your business with a celebrity then eventually they become a bit predictable. Add variety to your emails by using a different model each time so that by the time you repeat a model it’s been long enough for it to seem fresh again.
And if you’re going to be using a specific email repeatedly (for example if it’s a standard email that all subscribers get as part of an autoresponder sequence) then split test different subject lines to see which one performs best, then use that one in the sequence.
And, of course, you won’t be able to come up with a killer subject line every time. That’s why it’s important to build up a great reputation with your subscribers so they open your emails regardless of whether they have a brilliant subject line or not.
Want to copy my highest performing 1-off email for getting meetings with potential clients?
I've created a resource with my “21 Word Email That Will Get You More Clients” template and detailed guide. You can download it below: