The secret of making people read your emails

6th December 2011 By Ben Locker in Copywriting

If you’re anything like me, you’ll filter the marketing emails in your inbox using only a glance at the subject line and a tap of your delete key.  Which is why I’m always surprised by people who invest time and money creating their marketing emails, but barely give the words in the subject line a passing thought.

Your email subject line has the same function as the headline in a newspaper advert or a billboard poster. And as the ‘Father of Advertising’ David Ogilvy said of headlines: "On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar."

In the same way, the handful of words in your subject line are worth much more than your email itself. If that subject line doesn’t grab your attention, you’ll bin the email without reading a word of it.

So how can you write a subject line that simply begs to be opened?

Simple. You study what makes good headlines work, and then apply the same techniques to your subject lines – with a couple of reservations (I’ll come to those in a moment). 

The best way to understand what makes good headlines is to learn from people who’ve measured the responses they’ve got from them.

Whether they’re direct mail copywriters, advertisers or email marketing specialists, they’ll tell you that the best headlines have one or more of these qualities: 

1. Benefit: headlines that promise a benefit to the reader are the best of all. Promise someone a benefit that interests them and their ears will prick up. Example: ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. 

2. News: People like to be informed and know about new things. News is an attention grabber in a way that obscure jokes and puns simply aren’t. Example: ‘New Shampoo Leaves Your Hair Smoother – Easier to Manage’

3. Curiosity: if a headline makes your reader curious, they’ll want to read on. Example: ‘Suppose this happened on YOUR wedding day’.

The best headlines of all combine benefits, news and curiosity – like the 1950s headline Drayton Bird mentions in one of his books on direct marketing: ‘Now, run your car without spark plugs’.

Change that to an email subject line ‘Now, run your car without petrol’ and you can imagine it being opened by a huge number of people – especially with more and more of them on tight budgets these days.

What makes email subject lines different

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that we have to write differently for the web and for email.

It’s not true. Sure, we have to nip and tuck our techniques to suit each format, but the basic fact is that human beings are still motivated by the same things. So if you put a blend of benefits, news or curiosity into your email subject lines, more people will open your emails than if you write something that has none of these things. 

Just beware of these two things:

1) Length. If you put more than about 8-10 words in your subject line, people won’t be able to read it all. It sounds hard, but remember that some of the most successful headlines ever have been short – like the classic ‘Do You Make These Mistakes in English?”

2) Spam. Some of the words that appeal to people the most are the ones that are most likely to get your email blocked by spam filters – ‘free’, ‘guarantee’, ‘cheap’, ‘affordable’ and so on. So write your subject line first, and then test it against email spam filters.

Get over these two hurdles and your subject line has a good chance of grabbing your readers’ attention. Your next worry is how to keep keep a look out for my next post for ideas on doing just that.

Ben Locker runs a popular copywriting agency in Colchester, Essex, and specialises in online and marketing copy for businesses.

Ben Locker
About the Author

Ben Locker

Ben Locker is a copywriter with an obsession about online and email marketing. He's head of a popular copywriting agency that's based in Colchester, where he and the team write with the same precision for multinational brands as they do for one man bands. Ben specialises in copywriting that earns its keep, and is a firm believer in David Ogilvy's advice: "If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative."