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For Better Email Performance, Keep Subject Lines Short and Personal

email subject lines

Email marketing is one of my favorite [marketing] topics to talk about. Not only is email still as effective and valuable a communications tool as it was decades ago, it offers numerous ways to engage with and deliver relevant content to your target audiences.

I read somewhere recently that the average worker receives more than 100 emails per day.* How many of those get read? How many get sent to the spam or trash folder? And what determines an email’s fate? Is there a statistical link between subject line length and open rate?

One could google “email marketing tips” and find a whole slew of useful stories on optimizing your email marketing strategy. But this recent headline caught my eye: “Email subject lines under 21 characters generate the highest open rates.” Previous research has pointed to subject lines with 50+ characters as optimal so I was curious what data Yes Lifecycle Marketing was presenting.

The company analyzed 7 billion emails, sent in quarter two of this year, and found that a) subject line length impacts email performance and b) personalized email is hugely effective. (If you haven’t jumped on the personalization train, I’ll briefly go into it below and convince you to incorporate it into your next email marketing campaign in another post.)

Subject line length impacts email performance

A successful email campaign begins with a strong subject line. You want to grab recipients’ attention. Often subject lines are personal and descriptive, incentivizing subscribers to open the email and read your awesome content.

This first key point about subject line length seems like a reasonable assumption, no? But finding that sweet spot in length can be tricky.There are somewhat conflicting reports of what the optimal subject line looks like. Mailchimp says 28-39 characters is best. HubSpot advises aiming for 50 characters or less. And now Yes Lifecycle Marketing found that 1-20 characters resulted in a 31% higher open rate. Messages with subject lines of 20 characters or less had 18.5% average open rate, 2.4% unique click-through rate, and a 12.9% click-to-open rate.

Less than 20 characters?? That may strike you as fairly short (it did me) but think about it: on mobile, most people won’t even see beyond 50 characters. The subject should be scannable. If it’s hard to decipher what your company is offering, busy working folk will press delete. Conveying your message succinctly (but clearly) is crucial. Practice getting your message across in as few words as possible! Write one version. Then chop it down. Then edit some more. And then, before scheduling the email, cut the subject line down a little more.

Example: “With this subject line you need to grab the attention of your subscribers.” → “Use subject lines to grab the attention of your subscribers” → “Say something to grab your subscriber’s attention.” → “Grab {recipient’s name}’s attention!”

If subject lines under 21 characters generate 31% higher-than-average open rate, how is it that less than 5% of all emil subject lines are that length, hm? (You can download the Yes Lifecycle Marketing report here.)

Personalized email subject lines are hugely effective

Shorter subject lines might help your emails stand out in an box but there are lots of other practices to consider. Give subscribers the information they need to encourage them to click to open. The top reason to open an email from a brand is for deals; personalized subject lines help prompt people to open one.

Yes Lifecycle Marketing found that of those Q2 2017 emails they analyzed, only two percent included personalization in the subject lines. However, those emails generated 50% higher open rates than those without. Additionally, relevant, personal subject lines generated 58% higher click-to-open rates and approximately 2.5 times the unique click rate of subject lines without any personalization.

Personalization is key in email marketing and in this case, refers to either including the recipient’s name in the subject line or incorporating the name of a recently purchased or browsed item. Really, anything that reflect the subscriber’s shopping preferences, location, or purchase history is useful. You’re collecting that kind of data so why not use it to your advantage by sending messages when and where they will resonate best.

The retail industry is proving the most adept at such personalization but any brand can do it if they are keen on sending relevant, accurate emails.

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Rise above the clutter with an eye-catching subject line! Word to the wise, the most effective ones are brief, descriptive, and have a compelling reason to open. Whatever you choose to write, keep your target audiences in mind and test keywords and phrases to see what resonates.

Want to learn more about how marketers are using email marketing to maximize ROI? Download the full State of Inbound below. New Call-to-action


*This seems accurate to me. The first thing I do when I wake up? Grab my cell phone and open my email for any deals or newsletters that look click-worthy. And the first task I do every morning at work? Open my email and scan the Subjects of all the new messages, looking, of course, for ones that need immediate attention and then for ones that might have interesting articles or an ebook worth downloading. How many emails do you think you receive daily?

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