Crafting Killer eMail Subject Lines

iMedia Shines

The Holy Grail of email marketing is the killer subject line.

Volumes have been written on the importance of that small string of text. The subject line must break through jaded, overloaded, over-emailed recipients with an irresistible call to Open, using key terms, all within a space far tinier than a Tweet.

I was inspired to write about subject lines today after scanning through hundreds of emails that had been filling my marketing news folders in the last 60 days. I soon realized I was saving an iMedia newsletter to about every four that I deleted from other publishers, on the strength of the subject lines alone.

That’s when I decided to take a closer look at what made iMedia subject lines stand out, and how they hooked me when others very similar in nature did not.

Patterns of Catchy Subject Lines That Made Me Click

I noticed that iMedia’s subject lines:

  • Effectively match the originating blog titles. (The tip of the iceberg, as you’ll see below).
  • Tantalize with hints of solutions to specific problems.
  • Push buttons on common fears and frustrations.
  • Articulate a concern or belief that is felt — but until now had not yet been spoken or identified — in the mind of a recipient.
  • Contain at least one word that is uncommon or uncommonly used in the context of the subject.
  • Use even numbers as well the more popular odd numbers for lists.

Some Examples

Here are some that caught my attention:

10 silly questions clients love to ask
Client relations are a common topic, but “Silly” got my attention.

How to get the most out of a conference
Lots of announcements about conferences, this one promised personal benefits for every conference.

The new innovation: 6 crowdsourcing best practices
You don’t see that many items on crowdsourcing as opposed to other methods, plus the number 6 is less used.

How to start building your brand ambassador community
I get lots of messages on building brand and community, but “ambassador” stood out and piqued my curiosity.

4 reasons you blew the RFP
Bluntness, especially about failure, pushes buttons, but also the even number “4” as opposed to more conventional “7” or “10” or “5” make the subject just one off enough.

One more:
7 tragic SEO oversights
Yes, “tragic” got my attention. Even doubting how any SEO issue could compare to a real tragedy, it hooked me anyway, wondering, well how badly could this story turn out?

I reached out to iMedia and asked them how they consistently created such appealing subject lines. Was it the work of one writer or editor, one department or many?

Gretchen Hyman, Editor-in-Chief of iMedia Communications, was kind enough to respond:

“We typically use the headline from that day’s top story as the subject line, and we spend a great deal of time preening over headlines in weekly meetings with all the editors and interns in attendance. In the case of creating a great headline, it often takes a focus group of editors who know what types of headlines appeal most immediately to readers. There is certainly nothing accidental about the process. Thanks for liking what we’re doing. . . ”


In summary, writing killer email Subject Lines is an especially challenging form. And despite the rise of User-Generated-Content, there is no substitute for research, collaboration, talent and the consistency of professional writing and editing.

(This blog was originally published in 2011 and has been edited.)

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