7 Tips For Writing Tantalizing Subject Lines From a Former Journalist

We’ve all heard the saying in the newspaper industry, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

That phrase was first coined in 1989, by journalist Eric Pooley.  The full quote reads, “The thoughtful report is buried because sensational stories must launch the broadcast: If it bleeds, it leads.”

There isn’t much bleeding in email subject lines, but some of the very same ideas that journalists use to create enticing headlines can be applied to entice leads into opening your marketing emails. The following is a list of lessons on creating your own juicy subject lines using tactics I learned in journalism school.

1. Evoke Emotion

Emotion is the true concept behind, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Headlines evoke emotion from readers, be it fear, sadness, or happiness. While you likely can’t (or shouldn’t) make someone cry with your email subject lines, you can make them feel something. Maybe your email triggers fear for the security of their company or the desire to improve their daily work life. Email copy is designed to make individuals desire and email subject lines are meant to tantalize someone into opening your email.

Part of this is the element of surprise. Surprise captures attention and then interest holds it, as Courtney Seiter from Buffer wrote. Surprise can be the difference between an email getting opened and an email being deleted. The average person receives 121 emails a day, surprise can help you stand out. The element of surprise in a subject line might be the difference between a netting a new lead or the landing in the dreaded delete bin.

2. Use 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 notes that 36% of readers would choose the headline with numbers over any other kind.

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”

Would you read an article or email with that 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. Try this headline on for size:

“12 Ways to Improve Your Email Copy”

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

3. Address Your Audience

Everyone likes to feel special.

Making leads feel special is one of the best ways to most efficiently market something.  The next most popular headline in the study mentioned above are ones that address the audience. They address you. There’s a reason that 21% of readers picked this type of headline. Addressing your reader makes them feel special. There are a couple of ways this can be done.

The first is as simple as using “You” or “Your” in a headline. Addressing your audience in the second person is an easy way to make an email or article feel more personal. It’s why personalization in subject lines has become popular. While sometimes using someone’s name comes off creepy, there are other ways to personalize your content. Sending out emails triggered by an action or based on user preferences is a more compelling way to use personalization.

There are other ways to address your audience. For example, when I researched 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. You want to trigger that “it’s me” reaction in your audience.

That’s likely another reason audience addressing works. As much as readers want 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.

4. Play Off Insecurities

That sounds pretty messed up, doesn’t it? But there’s a reason self-help books sell. They promise 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 touch on and solve those issues. Something like:

“5 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. Your promise is that your content will be able to fix “failing.”

5. Use 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 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 occurs, such as positives becoming cliché with overuse.

6. Ask Questions

This is a prevalent tactic amongst 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, but it also uses the element of 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. Be Brief

One last thing.

Keep it simple. There is no reason for your subject lines to extend into two lines. 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’s worth trying to keep it as succinct 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 line then 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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