Mastering Subject Lines in 49 Characters or Less

Email messages are the steam engine behind much of your marketing these days. They’re cheap, they’re fast, and . . . they’re completely ineffective unless recipients open them and act on the message.

Recipients are tempted to open messages, in large part, based on what they encounter in the subject line.

©SuZan Alexander, Come Fly With Me V. Photograph. Used with permission.

©SuZan Alexander, Come Fly With Me V. Photograph. Used with permission.

Your subject line is almost more important than the content of the email. If the message is never opened, you might as well have not sent it.

To the point: The purpose of your email subject line is to get the recipient to open the email. It’s not a space-filler and should never be an afterthought. You can’t take a subject line for granted. Follow these 7 tips for better subject lines.

1. Make it personal.

Think about your subscribers and readers. Which ones are your strongest prospects? Which are your loyal collectors?

Write directly to these people as you’re crafting your message and your subject line by opting for the words You and Your over Me, My and Mine as much as possible. Write to them in a conversational, authentic tone.

The words You and Your are powerful. Did you notice how many times I’ve used them in this article? I’m writing to you, not for or about me. Examples of You-centered subject lines include the following.

  • It won’t be a party if you’re not there
  • Can’t wait to show you the 3rd photo from the left
  • Picture yourself sipping wine and looking at art

2. Be specific.

©Marnie Pitts, Oblivious. Oil and egg tempera on wood. 80 x 60 centimeters. Used with permission.

©Marnie Pitts, Oblivious. Oil and egg tempera on wood. 80 x 60 centimeters. Used with permission.

Don’t use the same subject line for every email to your list. If we see the subject line News from Diane Jenson’s Studio every month in our inboxes, we begin to think it’s the same message over and over again.

You want readers to know that there is unique content in each message. Using the same subject line for every email masks the value of the individual messages.

If you’re promoting a particular event in your email, use the location of the event in the subject line.

  • Just 1 of 82 artists in Breckenridge next weekend
  • Chocolate and art in New Orleans Nov 5

Or use the title of a specific work instead of simply acknowledging “new work” in general. These two examples use titles from real-life artwork.

  • Cake on Cake—the fat-free version
  • Dazed and Confused? There’s a painting for that

3. Use numerals instead of text.

The number 50 has more of a visual impact than the word fifty. Note, however, that I chose to use 49 in the title of this article because 49 is an unexpected and, therefore, a more interesting number than 50.

4. Pay attention to length.

Fifty characters, including spaces, is a reasonable length for a subject line.

The experts are all over the map on this. Some say shorter subject lines (17-24 characters) are best – especially for reading on mobile. Others encourage using more characters since the typical inbox displays 60 characters.

Given such a wide range of advice, you would benefit from 1) testing your subject lines and 2) placing your call to action words at the beginning of a longer subject line that might be read on a mobile device. For example, Sip wine and look at art rather than Picture yourself sipping wine and looking at art.

5. Notice and rework headlines in the media.

Read newspaper headlines for ideas and, as numerous copywriters suggest, study the headlines on the covers of magazines – Cosmopolitan, in particular.

Some time ago, I snagged some headlines from the Cosmopolitan website and came up with these off the top of my head.

Cosmopolitan.com Headline Your Subject Line
Decode How He Handles His Drink Decode How I Handle a Torch

Decode the Paint Patterns on My Palette

10 Things Women Do Better Than Men 10 Things Women Artists Do Better Than Male Artists

10 Things Artists Do Better Than Other People

Controversial subjects are great to spark interest! Don’t shy away if you have the content.

How to Stop Hating Wednesdays How to Stop Hating Gallery Openings

Message: Come to mine where we’ll have a good time.

Feel Instantly Happier: This Surprising Color Can Change Your Mood Funny how this might work for you without changing a word, but of course you’re more creative than copying someone else’s headline.

6. Ask a question.

Questions are powerful! People have opinions about everything and are happy to be asked. If you want to engage your readers in a dialogue, use a question in your subject line. Something like: Will you be at the gallery on Thursday?

7. Scour your inbox.

As I was writing this article I paid close attention to the subject lines that were populating my inbox. My favorite so far is: LIVE HUMAN BEINGS. It was sent by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Normally, you wouldn’t use all capital letters in a subject line, but the words piqued my curiosity. As it turns out, they were promoting docent-led tours of their current exhibition. Brilliant! The subject line Live Human Beings outshines Docent Tours Available every time.

©Pamela Wamala, Breeze at the Marsh. Pastel, 23.5 x 29.5 inches. Used with permission.

©Pamela Wamala, Breeze at the Marsh. Pastel, 23.5 x 29.5 inches. Used with permission.

Take a minute to glance over your inbox. Notice the subject lines you’re drawn to and which you delete without thought.

Then review your past few email broadcasts. How could you have written the subject line differently in order to get a better open rate?

Share your headlines below and maybe you’ll get some feedback.

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