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How to write email subject lines that make people stop, click, and read

In an increasingly crowded digital world, customers and consumers are receiving more and more emails. In this crowded market, how does your startup engage customers with emails which make them open, click, read and engage with your brand or offer? How often have you received an email, read the “boring” subject line and immediately deleted it, or worse (for the sender) marked it as “Junk”?

The beauty of startups is they often fill a void in markets not economically attractive enough or “too small to begin with”, for larger businesses to concentrate on. Engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators searching for a different way to do the same thing faster, cheaper, with less clutter. However, in order to get the attention of potential customers via email, startups need to know how to write creat subject lines.

1000 true fans: Kevin Kelly, the author and founder of Wired, wrote “To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only one thousand true fans.” You only need 1000 true fans to start an effective and successful business.

Start with the simple points and get your copy written in a style which resonates with your potential customer. For improved click-through rates and that extra special touch, personalise your subject line to reach those true fans.

The good part in such a busy world is consumers who actively subscribe to your newsletter or email list often really want to hear about the news from brands they follow. It’s no mistake that Apple has garnered such loyalty as a result of their fanbase.

Neuromarketing: The book “Neuromarketing – Understanding the ‘Buy Buttons’ in your Customer’s Brain” (Renvoise & Morin, 2007), suggests targeting and communicating with the primitive brain, based on our early evolutionary, ‘Lizard Brain’, such as the Hippocampus and Amygdala. Neuromarketing translates to using emotive words and phrases appealing to the raw, intuitive and emotional triggers of the lizard brain.

There are six basic rules to follow when communicating to target for emotional appeal, which a reader intuitively responds to:

  1. Self-centredness – Appeal to the reader’s
  2. Contrast – The reader understands context, such as before/after, with/without.
  3. Tangibility – ‘Social proof’; evidence should exist for what is claimed or stated.
  4. Bookending – Keep the message on point with a beginning and end. Don’t confuse the reader with a vague middle.
  5. Visual – Appeal to the senses. It’s true: ‘Pictures speak a thousand ’ If only ‘Scratch and sniff’, really existed on a mass-scale!
  6. Emotion – Defense, aggression, curiosity, fear all make people sit up and take notice.

Sounds confusing, but simply stated, “How would you communicate with a Lizard?” It would react to shiny objects, speed, flashes of light and loud noise. Think of these things when writing your email subject line. Use intrigue, be explicit, show some urgency. If you can add them all, then go ahead.

Let’s escape from ‘Lizard Brain’ land and revert to the more rational side of ‘copywriting’:

Subject line categories

There are numerous categories for subject lines to make people stop and read. These are:

  • Curiosity killed the cat

Kill those readers fears with a curious email subject line; “Are you making this mistake with your email subject lines?”

  • Pain or Pressure

Relieving pain or pressure subject lines; “Improving click-through rates with better email subject lines.”

  • FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

“€10 discount for clicking through to this special offer’ Your colleagues are all doing this, why don’t you?”

  • Try it with Humour

“10 Sun-sational email subject lines for Summer” [Editor’s note: very difficult to pass off, use sparingly}

  • Re-engagement

Did you delete my last email by mistake – here’s another chance.”

  • Social proof

“Ronaldo uses this method to…”

  • Emoji’s 😍 😎 🎁

Initial tests using Emoji’s in email subject lines suggest increased click-through rates. More tests need to be done to ensure your reader’s browsers can view them so tread carefully and at least test you can display them in multiple browsers and email clients.

Multi-touch campaigns

Your reader’s journey is now so complicated you need to consider many different routes people will read, such as your company website (hopefully, the end destination). There are many others such as a ‘Medium’or ‘Quora’ page, Reddit and the multiple social media, from Linkedin, Facebook to short attention-grabbers like Twitter and Instagram. Don’t forget the paid Ads such as for Google and Facebook Ads. Multi-touch campaigning needs a slightly different approach, but still following the same principles.

The easiest method for a multi-touch campaign is to write your long-form copy which is likely to be an email or blog post. For social media, reduce the length to get the critical point across and start deleting adjectives (fantastic, beautiful), pronouns, (your, she, his), adverbs (the -ly words changing a noun; angrily, beautifully), and prepositions (in, on, at, above). Where possible, replace whole phrases with one word and replace written numbers with numerals.

However, don’t dilute your email title with more than one subject and keep it brief, on topic and to the point. Don’t make titles too ‘clickbait’ in style. They risk come across too cheesy and sickly-sweet. Clickbait works, but only with care. You risk turning off your readers as they associate it with low-quality content.

You now have the key for both subject lines and content for a multi-touch campaign for all media, from blog post to the shortest tweet. Good luck with your startup’s email campaigns. Now go and earn/amaze those 1,000 true fans.

Stuart Phythian
Stuart Phythian
As an experienced Senior Director of various business, from private equity financed SME’s to Managing Director of UK and overseas divisions of blue chip companies, Stuart has a wide range of experience in the engineering and technology sector.

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