The wise and honorable Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu once stated that “the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” This quotation seems to summarily articulate an axiom of the human condition; great accomplishments start with humble beginnings. Unbeknownst to most, this passage is merely an excerpt of its original entirety. Historically, Lao Tsu’s words have been truncated by authors and university professors in order to create a more generically applicable aphorism relating to the challenges of achieving success.
A complete citation in The Old Master’s Lost Texts reveals another aspect of Lao Tsu’s philosophy, reckoning attitudes akin to the dubiously chronicled1 phrase “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Lao Tsu states “the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” adding extemporaneously: “but if you want your voyage to hold the attention of your target market, start that metaphorical journey with a backflip or something equally cool.”
Lao Tsu eventually clarified in a 540 BCE blog article (published on The Papyrus Post) that he came up with this infamous adage while struggling to craft the perfect subject line for a monthly email newsletter to his subscribers. Essentially, his statements express the sentiment that the “first step” of an email, article, or speech should grab and hold the attention of the intended audience, or else they “won’t follow along for those 999 other steps.”
By now you should be realizing that I made up all that stuff about Lao Tsu to grab your attention, but if you’re still with me, then it clearly worked, and I apologize for nothing.
So how does any of this ridiculous rabble relate to email marketing? Quite simply: The best way to get someone to read your content is to start strong with a great opener, and an email subject line is quite literally your opener if it gets the recipient to open your message. Let me show you how.
How to Write Better Subject Lines
If you want higher open rates, follow these three tips for writing a proper email subject line:
Don’t try to force a clever or witty subject line
Your first impression doesn’t even have to be amazingly-over-the-top memorable as long as you get your point across. I am fully aware of the irony I’ve created after writing an absurd 300-word introduction to this article, but this tidbit of advice is soundly legitimate.
While we may have instructed our readers to write “snazzy” subject lines in an earlier blog, we should clarify that you don’t have to create the world’s funniest one-liner. Plus, most writers think they’re far more clever than they actually are, and they tend to go overboard easily. I know this from personal experience.
Your subject line doesn’t have to be a beautiful peacock with impressive plumage. You can grab your reader’s attention without being a genius; Just tell them what’s inside.
Yep. That’s it. No need to be clever or anything. In fact, “clever” subject lines are often detrimental to your email open rates if you don’t craft them 100 percent perfectly. According to a case study by AWeber Communications in 2011, clear, explanatory subject lines receive approximately 541% more clicks than clever or witty subject lines. Let your offer or your content do the talking, and write a subject line that tells the reader what your email is about.
In essence, if you’re stressing to create the perfect headline for your emails, you’re probably overthinking it. Your recipients simply want to know what the email is about before they open it.
Avoid that spam filter
If you write a bad subject line, your recipients will likely ignore your email. But before you can even give your recipients a chance to ignore you, your email needs to pass the email provider’s spam filter. Your email may be well intentioned, but if you’re unaware of how an email spam filter blocks certain messages, your meticulously crafted newsletter might go straight to email purgatory.
Sometimes, using certain words in your email subject line can trigger the spam filter. While common sense might guide you to avoid words like “FREE” in all caps, or phrases such as “Earn From Home,” other spammy words may not be so obvious. You might not expect the word “freedom” to land an email in the spam folder, but it happens. I recommend SimplyCast’s list of email spam trigger words to avoid as an educational reference.
Oh, and while I’m at it, make sure you’ve spelled everything correctly. Spam filters will eat up typos.
Add your recipient’s first name or city name
Personalized subject lines yield higher open rates. Simply including the recipient’s name in the subject line will boost your average open rate by approximately 29 percent (depending on your industry). After all, at its foundation, email marketing relies on effective one-on-one communication, and using a first name makes the interaction seem more conversational.
For those who find name-dropping to be a little creepy, however, listing a city name in an email title is an excellent personalization alternative that won’t make your readers feel as if you’ve been spying on them. Even better, listing a specific location, date, and time amounts to an implied call to action that can entice your audience to show up to an event. And as we all know, showing up is half the battle, and “the battle” in this context more or less translates to your overall business goals.
Try testing your email subject lines with either a first name, a city name or both. Or neither, because you also need a control group, you know? Scientific method, ftw!
Well, that’s it. Hopefully, these three tips for writing better email subject lines will help you get a great start on your journey of 1,000 steps. For more expert email and content marketing advice, visit our Digital Tome of Unending Wisdom (aka our blog).
1 Among other sources, this phrase has been attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Will Rogers, but its definitive origin has yet to be conclusively verified.