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Case Study | Jan 15
Jessica Greene on May 16, 2019 (last modified on July 1, 2020) • 20 minute read
After all, the subject line is often the only thing recipients see before deciding whether or not to open your email. If it doesn’t encourage recipients to open your email, nothing else you included in it matters.
And while we could give you a list of best practices to follow when crafting your email subject lines, we thought it might be more helpful to see some actual examples of subject lines that email marketers have used to drive above average open rates.
So we asked 42 marketers to dig through their email service providers’ metrics to find the subject line of the email they’ve sent that earned the highest open rate.
More than a third of our respondents shared subject lines that earned average open rates of 50% or more. The overall average open rate was 47%.
Below, we’ve listed each of our respondents’ best email subject lines, along with the actual results (when provided) and their notes on why they think the subject line performed so well.
Editor’s note: If you use Mailchimp and want a quick way to see how your marketing emails are performing, download this free Mailchimp dashboard to see metrics like list growth, audience activity, and campaign performance—all side-by-side in a central view.
Many of our respondents’ highest-performing email subject lines were personalized—but not just in an “insert name here” kind of way. These subject lines work because they’re personalized based on what they know their recipients are interested in.
Sender: Michael Bibla, Atomic Reach
Results: 61% open rate
“We sent this email in a campaign targeted at content marketers who we’ve exchanged backlinks with in the past,” Bibla says. “I think the high open rate was driven by the cheeky subject line and a compelling offer.”
Sender: Shaye Smith, The Center for Sales Strategy
Results: 48.2% open rate
“For this email, we saw a drastic increase in open rate when we changed the subject line to be more personalized,” Smith says. “This email included a video invitation from a managing partner, so we took a more personalized approach since he was inviting the recipients of the email.”
“Historically, these types of emails see a 20-35% open rate when we send to this list, so this simple change had a huge impact on the open rate.”
Sender: Christopher Hutchens, SmartBug Media
Results: 48% open rate, 27.4% click-through rate, 27% goal-conversion rate
“For our B2C client who sells physical products through an ecommerce store, we wanted to drive people back to their shopping carts if they failed to complete a purchase,” Hutchens says.
“To do this, we set up a simple workflow where if people add an item to their carts but don’t check out, we send a contextual email about the product to drive them back to their cart.”
“Instead of using a call-to-action like ‘come back to complete your purchase,’ we did a little wordsmithing with the email copy and created a sense of exclusivity, saying that their ‘shopping cart has been reserved.’ We also used a personalized subject line customized to what users last put in their carts.”
Sender: Nili Zaharony, Penguin Strategies
Results: 62.69% open rate
“The goal of this campaign was to provide service providers with educational materials to better re-sell the company’s products in the telco industry,” Zaharony says.
“We believe this email performed so well for four main reasons:”
Sender: Kath Pay, Holistic Email Marketing
Results: 51.5% open rate and 13.8% click rate
“This subject line performed so well because it was so targeted and relevant,” Pay says. “The recipients had all contributed to a survey that we based the report on, so they were invested in this report and had been primed about its release beforehand.”
Sender: Fiona Kay, Nigel Wright Group
Results: 40% open rate
“We send out many emails like this every month with a similar subject line (e.g. ‘[First name], are you looking for a new finance job?’), and these also achieve similar results,” Kay says.
“As a recruitment agency, we know that any email campaigns that include details about new jobs will perform well if this is highlighted in the subject line and preheader.”
Sender: Adam White, SEOJet
Results: 47.1% open rate
“This is the first email I send out as part of a campaign when someone does a content upgrade on my blog,” White says.
“I think it does so well because our blog posts are all about doing better backlinking to get quicker rankings in Google, and this subject line speaks to that exact same problem.”
Another set of our respondents’ highest-performing subject lines achieved high open rates because they were timely—either in the sense that they refer to something that’s taking place right now, or because they refer to an action a visitor took recently.
Here are a few examples.
Sender: John Donnachie, ClydeBank Media
Results: Open rates were nearly 6% higher than their average and 8% higher than industry benchmarks
“This was a message to a list of subscribers who purchased and demonstrated an interest in the stock market and investing information products,” Donnachie says. “It was sent during the last month or so of 2018 at a time when the stock market was going through a severe correction.”
“The short subject line was accompanied by a pre-header that read: ‘Contrary to what you have heard, the sky isn’t falling.’”
Sender: Jen Lombardi, Kiwi Creative Inc.
Results: Not specified
“This subject line worked so well because this appeals to marketers on many different levels,” Lombardi says.
“The offer answered the question all marketers are curious about: ‘How do I stack up in the industry?’ The timing was especially important on this with beginning-of-the-year strategies being implemented and the excitement for what year will bring.”
Sender: Deniero Bartolini, Deniero B
Results: 62% open rate
“This was a campaign for an email list of sports fans (buyers from an ecommerce store),” Bartolini says. “It was right after the team had qualified for the playoffs and everyone was already excited.”
“We were promoting a discount on jerseys and hats. It worked out well for two reasons: because of the timing, and because we kept it vague and they wanted to know more.”
Sender: Srish Agrawal, A1 Future Technologies
Results: 20%+ open rate
“This is one of the most important and popular email subject lines that we’ve used over the years—and still use today,” Agrawal says. “It gets sent out to anyone that starts to complete our form or order process but doesn’t complete it.”
“Not only is the open rate often above 20%, but it also has a high conversion rate to bring customers back to the site to complete their orders as well.”
Sender: Marc Schenker, The Glorious Company
Results: Not specified
“I think this subject line worked very well for two reasons,” Schenker says. “First, the personalization of the recipients’ names right in the subject line is the very first element they see. Second, the use of unexpected humor tied into the season—it was a Halloween promo email.”
Sender: Daniel Farahdel, ThreadJar Socks
Results: Not specified
“We sent this email out on Amazon Prime Day while Amazon was experiencing technical difficulties,” Farahdel says. “The Amazon dogs would show up instead of what you searched for.”
“So we decided to include this in our subject line and have our own Prime Day sale. It worked very well. This shows how you can use certain events to your benefit.”
Editor’s note: Ecommerce marketers who use Mailchimp can see how their emails impact their entire funnel by downloading this Ecommerce Full Funnel dashboard that combines key metrics from Mailchimp, Google Analytics, Google Ads, and Facebook Ads.
Sometimes, the best email subject lines are very specific about the value a recipient will get by opening the email. Other times, it’s better to keep the value a secret and, instead, pique the recipient’s curiosity to inspire opens.
The results from these vague subject lines show how you can use curiosity to your advantage.
Sender: Andrew Schutt, Schutt Media
Results: 34% open rate (more than double the normal rate of 10-15%)
“This subject line performed so well because it piques the recipient’s curiosity,” Schutt says. “They might be thinking: ‘Did I forget something? What could it have been?’”
“Then, instead of continuing to wonder what they may or may not have forgotten, they simply open the email to find out.”
Results: 8% open rate (Belo + Co)
Several respondents recommended the subject line “Quick question.”
“It works because it’s non-intrusive and doesn’t trigger spam filters,” Hayes says.
“It’s a very simple email subject—and of course is not always appropriate,” Morris says. “However, in certain circumstances, it can be a very powerful way of getting people to at least take an initial look at the content of your email body.”
“‘Quick question’ is my golden subject,” Szywalski says. “Some of our leads are hard to convert and classified as drop-outs, mainly due to lack of response. To these people, I send a manually written short message with a clear call to action using the ‘quick question’ subject line.”
Sender: Kevin Peguero, Astro Pak
Results: 60-80% open rate
Instead of “quick question,” Astro Pak’s Kevin Peguero favors the subject line “Question”: “It works because it is intriguing. I always use this subject line for cold emails.”
Sender: Ricardo Velez, Fundera
Results: ~35% open rate
“This subject line works well because it is short and to the point, while also having strong language,” Velez says. “I think having the term ‘broken’ in the subject line elicits a natural reaction of concern in recipients, causing them to open the message and check out what is wrong with their site.”
Sender: Maggie Benson, Local Marketing Made Simple
Results: 60.72% open rate
“This subject line worked for several reasons,” Benson says. “First, it piqued recipients’ curiosity. Second, I hadn’t emailed the list in over a month, so it was new in their inboxes. Finally, I changed the ‘from’ email: previously it was info@ and now it’s members@.”
Sender: Nicole Suther, Human Marketing
Results: 26.6% open rate
“This subject line eludes to a secret that only a few people know about how to achieve high organic growth,” Suther says. “People are curious about the secret hack and want to know how to do it.”
Sender: Jake Lane, NuWash Mobile Car Wash & Detailing
Results: 48% open rate
“A lot of my emails are promotional,” Lane says. “Plain-text subject lines often let the recipient know it’s pretty promotional, and they’ll send it to the trash folder without much thought. But a waving-hand emoji is probably one of the vaguest subjects you’ll see.”
“It invokes a sense of curiosity (due to its vagueness), and since it’s a short, colored icon, it stands out among the other subject lines. It also comes off as more of a personal email—rather than a promotional one—which helps get the ball rolling in terms of success.”
Sender: Sarkis Hakopdjanian, The Business Clinic
Results: 50.7% open rate
“I think this subject line worked well for two reasons,” Hakopdjanian says. “First, by saying we have a special surprise, it makes the audience curious. Second, by saying that we have ‘a surprise for you,’ it makes the audience even more curious about what it is and how it can benefit them.”
“We’ve tested different email subject lines, and the ones that contain an element of mystery, surprise, suspense, or curiosity seem to work well for our open rates.”
Sender: Sam Olmsted, Online Optimism
Results: 67.4% open rate
“While ‘internship’ and ‘specialist’ are both eye-catching words, incorporating ‘opportunities’ in an email subject line is sure to successfully grab people’s attention,” Olmsted says. “No one wants an email selling them a product they’re not interested in.”
“But when words like ‘opportunity’ come up, this will grab someone’s attention enough for fear of missing out if they don’t open your email. Try adding positive words that entice people rather than turn them away in your email subject line to see if you can get a better open rate.”
Sender: Ollie Smith, ExpertSure
Results: 31% open rate
“By making such a direct statement, we instilled a curiosity in the receiver which encouraged them to open the email, which I believe was the main driver behind the high open rate we achieved,” Smith says.
While highly specific and personalized emails sometimes inspire opens, other times it’s best to keep it simple and to the point. In fact, More than a third of our respondents said that their highest-performing subject lines contained fewer than 20 characters.
But simple doesn’t necessarily mean short. It may also mean the subject line is straightforward. Consider the examples below.
Sender: Alison Schroeder, Leighton Interactive
Results: 67% open rate
“The efficacy of this subject line surprised me at first,” Schroeder says. “Yet when I thought about it a little more, it didn’t. The simplicity and straightforwardness are what people are always going to trust and resonate with in marketing, and this email is proof of that.”
“Plus, it’s a great reminder that we don’t have to complicate efforts or always try to innovate and make things bigger, bolder, or more clickable. Be human. People like human.”
Sender: Stan, Selby’s
Results: 41% open rate
“I think this subject line worked for two reasons,” Stan says. “First, everyone likes to learn about a new product. Even though the subject line was short, it was enough to pique their curiosity to get them to click.”
“Second, over the years we’ve built our brand on being a trusted source in our industry. It is almost like when your boss sends you an email; you open it regardless of the subject line. Reputation plays an important role in our open rate.”
Sender: Mariya Bentz, Mariya Bentz Media Agency
Results: 51.6% open rate
“This open rate came to me as a surprise because it was so simple and straight to the point,” Bentz says. “But I think that’s what made people want to open the email. They knew what they were getting right away.”
Sender: John Holloway, NoExam.com
Results: Not specified
“It’s a simple question, but it lets recipients know that we aren’t asking them to do anything,” Holloway says. “We just want to do something to help them, which in our case is to find them the right life insurance policy.”
Sender: Madeline Simpson, National Positions
Results: 30%+ open rate
“We sent this email for a client to a list of his old subscribers who hadn’t been engaging in recent months,” Simpson says. “The subject line was simple, but we got over a 30% open rate.”
Sender: Julia Askin, Fueled
Results: Not specified
“Interestingly enough, the simplest subject lines often have the highest open rates (similar to the fact that high-converting websites are often the most plain),” Askin says.
“I’ve used the subject line ‘Coffee?’ for job search efforts, product trials, and more, and invariably, it seems to elicit a similar response.”
It helps to have your ‘from’ email set as a person rather than as your brand on your marketing emails. 70% of our respondents said their highest-performing emails were sent from a person:
But a simple ‘from’ email change may not be enough. It’s also important to have a subject line that sounds like it was written by one person for another. For example, Rob Powell Biz Blog’s Rob Powell says his highest-performing subject line is “The biggest mistake I ever made.”
Why does it work? It shows recipients that there’s a human behind the email.
Many of our respondents’ highest-performing subject lines work because they’re humanized. Here are several more examples.
Sender: Kurt Uhlir, Kurt Uhlir Ventures
Results: 95% open rate and a 70%+ reply rate
“I think too many companies take themselves too seriously and too many marketers fail to remember how much emotions and personal connections weigh into the decision to purchase a product or service,” Uhlir says.
“This subject line instantly lets the prospect know that they will be working with another person, not simply a helpdesk ticketing system or order-taker.”
Sender: James Pollard, The Advisor Coach
Results: 15% or better open rate
“I think it works so well because it’s such a jarring question and it immediately arouses curiosity,” Pollard says. “I only use it to re-engage email subscribers who haven’t opened any of my last 20 emails. This is remarkable considering that these are people who didn’t open any other emails.”
Sender: Kathryn Roberts, Quest for $47
Results: 39.1% open rate
“I believe this subject line worked so well because it gave my audience a firm directive,” Roberts says. “‘You’re going to want to read this one’ is basically a challenge, and it encourages my readers to say, ‘Oh you really think so?’ And then they open the email.”
“Email subject lines that foster engagement and reach out to the reader like this is a conversation tend to open best. Emails with conversational headlines have a more personalized flair and make it feel like I am emailing them as an individual—rather than a whole email list of subscribers.”
Sender: Ketan Pande, GoodVitae
Results: 41.2% open rate
“I made some changes to my website and wanted to know the opinions of my readers,” Pande says. “I think the reason it worked is that people love giving suggestions, and if you ask them for their opinions, they feel honored.”
Sender: John Miller, Scribewise
Results: 39.7% open rate
“I sent this email the week between Christmas and New Year’s,” Miller says. “The informal, friendly tone made it seem like a personal email.”
“The body of the email was about how I like to spend that week: thinking strategically about the year ahead and implying that we can provide strategy for our prospects.”
Our final list of high-performing email subject lines focuses on telling recipients what value they’ll get by opening the email. Using these subject lines, our respondents have seen open rates as high as 85%.
Sender: Sheila Opulencia, SEO Tribunal
Results: 69.3% open rate
“In my professional opinion, the main reason why my subject line worked so well is because—let’s be honest—who wouldn’t be interested in getting anything at half of its original price?” Opulencia says.
“Another reason is that I made sure that the segment I sent it out to was scrubbed to remove any bad contacts and was only limited to small business owners who have healthy engagement scores, meaning they’ve downloaded a couple of our content offers.”
Sender: John Freedman, Good Life Home Loans
Results: 15.8% open rate
“People are naturally self-absorbed, and if they see the subject line as something that could potentially benefit them, chances are that their curiosity will be piqued enough to open the email for further details,” Freedman says.
“In this case, some may not know about the process behind reverse mortgages, so it piques their curiosity. And the idea that there is the potential of turning equity into cash flow for retirement naturally appeals to most seniors.”
Sender: Jay Perkins, Living.Fit
Results: 85% open rate
“Our highest-performing emails are usually new product launches and in-stock notifications,” Perkins says. “This subject line was for a sale we ran on our new digital training site.”
“We also retarget people who do not open the first email, and often, the second email gets even higher open rates than the first.”
Sender: Brian Casey, Ironpaper
Results: Not specified
“We tested several variations of break-up emails for previously engaged leads, with this subject line being the clear winner,” Casey says.
“We used this as the last email on the unengaged side of a nurture workflow for inactive leads. Because the engagement levels were so low for this subsegment of leads, we afforded ourselves the opportunity to be bold with the concept of a break-up email.”
“In any exchange with a potential client, you need to constantly strive to add value. These free resources showed that our client wanted to continue adding value even if it didn’t benefit them directly.”
Sender: Andrea Moxham, Horseshoe + co.
Results: Nearly 50% open rate
“This subject line worked because it communicated the value of what was inside the email, used attention-grabbing words like ‘steal,’ addressed a very common pain point, and stood out in user’s inboxes by using an emoji,” Moxham says.
Sender: Andrej Ilisin, Alpha Investors
Results: 38% open rate
“Here’s why I think this subject line worked,” Ilisin says.
“I tested this out with a couple of tweaked headlines and got similar results. Being very specific definitely works.”
We segmented each of the subject lines above into their overall themes, and these could be considered best practices for writing subject lines.
But some are highly personalized while others are simple. Some are highly specific while others are vague to create intrigue. Some of these best practices seem to conflict with each other.
The best thing to do is to try each practice, test your results, and see which works best for specific campaigns and different segments.
Not every best practice will work for every list and campaign, but by testing and measuring results, you should be able to find the best approach for each audience’s specific needs.
Case Study | Jan 15
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