Email copywriting: effective subject lines

The subject line is the first thing that people will see when it hits their inbox. According to Chadwick Martin Bailey, 64% of people say they open an email because of the subject line. Spending time on email copywriting and crafting the perfect subject line is an art form. A rewarding one, nonetheless, which can entice people to open the email and read the content.

Your mission: to write an appealing subject line that will make people want to keep reading. The subject line is really worth investing time and energy into getting right. This is going to be the device that encourages people to open your email and read it (and then, hopefully, click on the call to action).

Copywriting with specificity

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…subject line needs to indicate or foreshadow what is actually in the email…

Most importantly, a decent email marketing subject line needs to indicate or foreshadow what is actually in the email and what the readers can expect to get out of it. Be sure not to misrepresent your email’s content. Much like copywriting a headline the subject line will need to have a great hook in it. Give specific reasons why someone should open the email (as that one hundred per cent the aim of a great subject line). Which sounds more specific?

  1. Some great discounts in this email
  2. Here’s how you can get 50% off any purchase in February
  3. Buy this product now to get a discount

The answer is 2. Number one is too vague and number three is too “salesy”. Remember: it’s much more effective if you tell your readership what the email contains, rather than give them the “sell”.
Just like headlines, you might want to employ one of the psychological techniques in your subject line (as long as you adhere to the other success principles):

  • curiousity
  • offer/discount/promo sale
  • direct benefit
  • urgency/scarcity/time offer or limit
  • warning


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Although there has been some preliminary research into how many words affect the open rate of an email, there seems to be no consistent number of words that prove best practice when it comes to wheedling opens. An older study from Adestra suggests that subject lines fewer than ten characters long had an open rate of 58 per cent.


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This is more of a personal opinion than professional opinion but I detest the sight of an emoji in a subject line, no matter the industry or brand. It cheapens the look and detracts from the offer or information. This may not always be the case for your target demographic, however, so it is best to do some thorough research and understanding of your target demographic groups to know how to directly speak to them. If you’re doing any business to business copywriting I would strongly recommend not using emojis in your subject lines or email body copy. World Emoji Day  on 17 July might be the only exception to this rule. 

Split testing

Most email platforms have something called A/B split testing. This is the ability to send your email to your mailing list with two or three minor changes, so you can ascertain which gets more of a response. It’s worth your time to try A/B split testing for subject lines. Don’t just guess what people will respond to- test the waters! These test results will be useful for the next time you send out an email marketing campaign and you’ll be able to see whether your email list responds better to questions or giveaways or rewards or whatever you decide to test!


When it comes to email copywriting, try crafting the language to be personal (not at the expense of professionalism though). You may also like to include the recipient’s name in the subject line. Mailchimp discovered that including your company name in the subject line increased open rates. For example, Jones the Writer really wants you to learn about email copywriting right now

Email open rates

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Even if your email copywriting is magic, it’s vital that you understand exactly how many people are actually opening and reading your emails. How do you know if your subject lines are doing well?

64% of people say they open an email because of the subject line.

Although it is industry dependent, Mailchimp purports that between 15% and 29% of your entire mailing list opening your emails is standard. Check out where your industry lies here.
Here are a few industries that most of my audience fall within. These figures are up to date as at 1 February 2017.

  • Creative services/agency       22.41%
  • Ecommerce                              16.75%
  • Health and fitness                   21.93%
  • Marketing and advertising     17.81%
  • Media and publishing             22.14%


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Technically it is both correct if you capitalise the first letter of every word (known as title case) but my grammatical preference is to only capitalise the first letter of the first word (known as sentence case). I find it is easier read and promotes a flow that the eyes can follow easily. As with any great copywriting, avoid excessive capitalisation and overuse of syntax (keep the exclamation marks away) and apply good grammar.

Tidy and tight

Keep your email marketing subject line copy very clear, medium to short in length, professional and as a precursor to what the email contains. As with most copywriting, it’s better to aim for brevity and clarity over and above being to creatively “clever”. Although it may seem a little on the conservative side, it’s better to opt for something that works.

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