7 Lessons on Writing Tantalizing Subject Lines from Newspaper Headlines

You’ve all heard the old saying in newspapers, “If it bleeds it leads.” While that might not be quite the aim for email subject lines, some of the very same ideas that make it an effective strategy will work to rein in potential leads for your company. The following is a list of lessons on creating your own juicy subject lines.


1.  Emotion

That’s the real concept behind, “If it bleeds it leads.” Headlines make readers feel things, be it fear, sadness or happiness. And while you likely can’t make someone cry with your email subject line, it is just as likely that you can make them feel something. Maybe its concern for the security of their company or the desire to improve something. The point is, email copy is designed to make people want and email subject lines are meant to make someone open an email.

Part of this is the element of surprise. Surprise captures attention and then interest holds it, as Courtney Seiter from Buffersocial writes. Surprise can be the difference between an email getting opened and an email being deleted. Thousands of emails are flooding the inboxes of some people and surprising them with a subject line might be the difference between a potential lead or the dreaded delete bin.


2.  Facts

If you’ve got numbers, use them!

Statistics show that people are more likely to read your content if there are numbers in it.

Just like time moves more slowly when you don’t have a specific wait time, your audience becomes uneasy if you don’t have numbers and facts to back up your claims. This is proven in a Conductor study, which noted that 36% of readers would choose the headline with numbers over any other kind.  The next highest percentage was 21%, showing number headlines are ideal above many other types.

The same holds true when you are talking about subject lines for your email copy. Say your headline reads something like this:

“Improve Your Email Copywriting Now”

No, but really, would you read an article or email with that as the headline? Neither would your readers. It’s not a bad headline but even if “now” wasn’t a word that triggered spam filters, its promises are too open-ended. Then there’s this headline:

“12 Ways to Improve Your Email Copy”

The reader will come away with 12 ways to improve their writing. That is solid. That is concrete. There is no question what the reader will take away from this article.


3.  Audience Addressing

Everyone likes to feel special.

That’s key here, making someone feel special is actually the one of the best ways to most efficiently market something.  Remember the next most popular headline type mentioned above? It’s the headlines that address the reader, they address you. There’s a reason that 21% of readers picked this type of headline, it’s because it makes people feel special. There are a couple ways this can be done.

The first is as simple as using “You” or “Your” in a headline. This is easy, addressing your audience in such a way makes the email or article feel more personal. It’s why personalization in subject lines has become so popular. Combined with using someone’s name, which studies have shown is very effective, using you is just another way to make someone feel like the email, or article is designed for them.

There are other ways to do this. For example, when I was researching for this article, I happened to catch this headline for a TED talk on my Facebook feed:

“Why some of us don’t have one true calling”

This worked because I looked at it and thought, “Hey, this is me.” That is what you want when writing a subject line.

That’s likely another reason audience addressing works. As much as readers wants to feel special, they also want to feel like they belong. That’s why words like “we” and “us” can work in a subject line or headline. It draws a person in, making them feel like part of a group.

The other reason that this works is that it plays off insecurities, which is another method to writing good subject lines.


4.  Insecurities

That sounds pretty messed up doesn’t it? But in reality, there’s a reason self-help books sell. Because they promise to be the solution to all of your problems, ones that make you feel uncomfortable or unhappy. The draw to solve those issues is strong which is why headlines like,

“Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?”

Often are the best. The same goes for subject lines. No matter what the email is trying to promote, it is important to try to get in the head of the person reading your post.  What keeps them up at night? What makes their life more difficult? Then you tailor your email copy and subject line to solve that issue. Something like:

“Five Reasons Your Mobile Marketing is Failing”

You notice a part of this methodology is audience addressing as well. This also uses numbers. But you notice one of the most powerful words in this subject line is “failing.”

That’s because it is so resoundingly negative that it’s sort of enticing. Because your promise is that your content will be able to fix “failing.”


5.  Negatives

“Failing” is an example of a word that is negative and a study by Outbrain of 65,000 titles said those with negatives in the title performed 30% better compared to solely neutral words. The most interesting part about this is that while you’d think that positive words would work better than neutral ones, it turns out that positives performed 29% worse in comparison.

There are quite a few theories as to why this may have occurred, such as positives becoming cliché with overuse.


6.  Questions

This is a very common one for copywriters. The question is a way to evoke a response, to either make someone answer the question or want the answer.

One of the best I’ve seen while perusing the web was this one,

“Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?”

Not only is it a question. It is also a surprise which is what makes it so effective. But experts recommend using caution, because anything that ends with a question mark can be answered with “no.”


7. Brevity

One last thing.

Keep it simple. There is no reason for your subject lines to extend across the page. People do not read that far, plain and simple. In fact, some research suggests that the reader tends to absorb the first three and last three words in the title of something. So be it a subject line or headline, supposedly the optimal length is six words. That’s not always possible but it may be worth trying to keep it as short as possible.


Wrapping it Up:

There is a lot of research out there when it comes to creating effective subject lines. But some combination of techniques seems to be the most effective. Lenka Istvanova of Koozai Marketing came up with this formula for headlines while she was studying which headlines get the most clicks.

Number + Adjective + Keyword +Rationale + Promise = Ultimate Headline

While like all good things, this shouldn’t be overused, the formula is a good one if you’re stuck trying to come up with a subject line.

Just remember, your subject line should make someone want to read your email copy and then drive them towards your content. If you don’t like your subject than neither will they.



Let us know what you think:

  • What was your favorite subject line that you’ve read or written about?
  • How do you come up with your subject lines?
  • What makes you open an email?



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Comments (4)

[…] is why negative headlines are likely to get more clicks compared to positive ones. And it would follow that negative email subject lines would follow the […]

[…] a killer subject line was the topic of several earlier posts. The subject line is the single most important factor in getting initial email opens. As the […]

Wonderful post!
Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

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