Every good story starts with a problem. Here is ours.
People who never open your email will never read your email. They’ll miss the blurb about your upcoming release, miss the link to pre-order, miss the fun giveaway. They won’t be making that recipe you sent, so they won’t be sharing a photo of it on Instagram, tagging you.
Across industries, the average open rate for email is just under 18%, according to a study conducted by CampaignMonitor. Some studies say the average is closer to 20%, and as an author, yours is probably higher. Maybe significantly higher.
For example, let’s say you have an amazing 40% open rate. Fantastic, right? But this also means 60% of your list isn’t opening your mail. And if your open rate is closer to average, let’s say 25% open rate, flipping that statement means a whopping 75% of your subscribers aren’t bothering to open your email, let alone click through to your offer.
What’s going on here?
On average, your email has a pretty good chance of being ignored.
Nobody wants that.
Today’s article is part of our series on email deliverability where we explored a dozen hurdles your email must clear before it even makes it to the inbox of your subscriber. After a long, arduous journey, instead of being rewarded with glowing reader appreciation and enthusiastic engagement, what if your email is simply skipped over? Deleted?
Use the Skills You Already Have
You have fractions of a second to capture and hook your reader. This is alarming, but if anyone can ace this, it’s you. Because you’re used to this, aren’t you? Hooking readers?
Oh, I admit it can be a bit of a mystery. People are fickle. Moods change, desires change. Today a reader wants one thing, tomorrow another. But day in and day out, your writer brain is wired to draw readers into your story.
Email is no different.
Okay, it’s a little different. It’s a different genre of writing, but the craft skills you’ve been developing aren’t useless here. They’re muscles, capable of getting the hard work done. And just like writing in any genre, there are reader expectations. The better you know how your reader thinks–what they’re looking for–the better your writing will satisfy.
So, let’s write some subject lines to hook our readers, eh?
Keep the Dangers in Mind
Email clients (like Outlook and Apple Mail, take your pick) are on a mission to seek and destroy spam. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are also on a mission to seek and destroy any nefarious activity or abuse within their network.
They’re looking for spam, so your best tact as a sender of email is to not look or act like spam. You don’t want that target on your back.
Our primary concern in this series is email deliverability, making it to the inbox. As a bonus, since there’s some overlap, we’re going to look at how to craft a subject line that spam filters ignore, and readers can’t ignore. We want to hold the gaze of our subscribers and slip past the notice of spam assassins.
Our objective looks like this:
- Impress readers, bore spam filters.
- Trigger readers to take action, do not trigger spam filters to take action.
Here’s a statistic to underscore the importance of subject lines. Opt-in Monster found “47% of email recipients open an email based on the subject line alone. At the same time, 69% of email recipients report email as spam based solely on the subject line.”
People don’t need to read an email to report it as spam. Most of the time, they’re classifying spam based on the subject line alone.
Don’t be spam.
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Tips to Avoid Spam and Land in Inboxes
Here’s a simple list to keep you on track.
- Don’t use language that shouts. This includes uppercase text and exclamation points. You can use both in moderation. One exclamation point will suffice, not two or five. You can put an important word in all-caps, but not the whole line. One note: Question marks usually get better results than exclamation points.
- Don’t use “Dear” in the subject line. (Mailchimp tested this. And besides, it’s just weird.)
- Avoid sending from a no-reply address. Better yet, send from your authenticated domain.
- Don’t overdo it with emojis. Run a test to see if these work with your subscribers.
- Get personal, not promotional. We’ll dive into this more in the next section. The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) says, “The human touch is more likely to grab subscribers’ attention who see it as a more personal email, not a promotional brand email.” The email inbox is a special space. People own their inbox. They don’t want to be yelled at, they don’t want to feel slimy like they’re being sold to.
How many times have you heard (or told yourself), “Show, don’t tell”? When it comes to email subject lines, this adage needs an upgrade. Mailchimp sums it up like this: “When it comes to email marketing, the best subject lines tell what’s inside, and the worst subject lines sell what’s inside.”
Tell, don’t sell.
Selling is spammy. And spam gets killed.
13 Tips to Hook Readers and Get More Opens
Following the anti-spam rules above will help your email clear the spam-trap hurdle and land in your subscriber’s inbox. Great. But now that you’re here, you face another challenge: getting opened.
In practice, this is where the craft of writing a good hook comes into play. And I call it a craft because this is going to take work. It’s a skill to be developed, an art to be pursued. It will mean submitting your work for critique.
You can get that critique via feedback on your subject line by asking a writing buddy or a reader, but ultimately, the best feedback is going to be the rise or fall in subscriber follow-through and engagement. In other words, clicks. Cold, hard statistics.
Clicks are what we’re after.
Your email subject line is the book cover and the hook line of your blurb. It’s what grabs readers initially, what pulls them into the sale (or in this case, the email).
Ready to hook ‘em?
“A subject line often is the make-or-break text for email.” If the choice is make it or break it, let’s make it!
- Make it urgent. Urgency moves people to action. When appropriate, use countdowns or deadlines. Don’t rely on this tactic alone. It may wear out your readers.
- Make it personal. This goes beyond using someone’s first name in the subject line. Know your audience. SEGMENT your audience around interests, event attendance, or genre, and then target your content to those segments. To make it personal, relate to your readers from a shared commonality. “Email marketing is one of the most personal forms of marketing communication. The ability to target individuals allows you to personalize your messaging which improves your conversions.” (MailerLite)
- Make it funny. Funny sells. People appreciate funny. And the best funny is the unexpected funny. That’s humor at its best, delivering the line we weren’t expecting. This takes work, but the work is well-rewarded.
- Make it clear. Write your subject line, then rewrite. Reduce it to what is essential. Eliminate filler words or confusing language. Remember, you have a fraction of a second to induce a click. You want a magic bullet, not a bowl of cold porridge.
- Make them curious. Eyeballs are scanning inboxes with lightning speed. Stand out with the unusual.
- Make them an offer. Explicitly referring to a free book or stupendous giveaway is effective. Just remember to tell not sell.
- Make it safe and familiar. Chances are that your subscribers have read at least one of your books. Maybe several. This relationship (with your work) is the basis of their willingness to hear from you. Try not to shock them. You want them to feel like the person sending them a newsletter is the same person who wrote the books they love. This ties into your branding, as well as reader expectations. Make sure your email marketing is consistent with your brand.
- Make them important. Your readers, that is. Make them important. Don’t sell yourself or your books. Help your reader, lead them to delight or fun or freebies or fantasy or all the feels. Give them something and craft your subject lines in a way that says, “This is about you, reader, not about me.”
- Make it short. Put the important words first. There are several good studies on the best length for a subject line and even more opinions, so you’ll do well to test this yourself. As a starting point, I like ConstantContact’s advice: “under 40 characters or about five to seven words.” A large percentage of your recipients will read your email on their mobile device. Longer subject lines are cut off. Plus, people are in a hurry, scanning for value. Keep it snappy to grab attention.
- Make it open-ended. I love the psychology behind this one. Open the loop with your subject line, close the loop with your email content. Example subject line: “Never do this more than once.” (What IS this? Make the reader want to know!) Closed-loop questions can be answered by your reader without opening your email. Example: “Are you ready for your next great read?” Your reader knows that answer without clicking. And while it may entice a few clicks, it may be better to seed the imagination with a “What if _________,” or “Why did ________,”or “How can __________?” lead in. Can you distill your upcoming release into an open-ended question? Example: “Can you ever really go home?” Or could you summarize your giveaway with an open loop that begs to be closed? Example: “Which book would you want?” Again, don’t use this tactic exclusively, and always test which subject lines work best.
- Make an impact. Your email subject line is like a first impression. Make a good impression EVERY time you send an email to your subscriber, not just the first time. Your email is sitting in the inbox with scores of other emails. Why should your reader notice yours? Ask yourself this question with every send.
- Make it strategic. Have a clear business objective for every email subject line. You are a business. Email is marketing. Keep it personal with your readers, but approach your email newsletter like a business. Set a goal. Measure for success. Examine what fails and what succeeds. Use A/B testing to find the winning subject line and learn from the winners.
- Make it relevant. The world is happening around us. Take advantage of pop culture, especially with people, events, and media your readers will be familiar with. Did something big just happen? Refer to it in your subject line but make it relevant to your brand and to your readers. Craft carefully here. Avoid topics that may unnecessarily offend or turn off your subscribers. (A note on this: In some cases, staying “on brand” may mean that some people will be offended or put off. You can’t please everyone, but you’d better please your fans, the ones who align with your values and your work. Stay true. Write with authenticity to reach your true tribe.)
Keep this list handy and run your next subject line through its paces.
Every subject line you write is competing against every other email in your subscriber’s inbox. People have limited time, energy, and focus. Learning how to craft a solid subject line gets you into the inbox and compels your readers to engage.
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Heather is a freelance marketing specialist and author. She writes a weekly blog for AuthorCompany to help Christian authors navigate marketing technology and engage their target readers. She lives in sizzling Louisiana but dreams of mountains, chilly days, and a little snow wouldn’t hurt, either.