Let’s face it—your inbox is flooded; so is mine. And taking our smart phones to the toilet doesn’t make it any easier to keep up. Because we cannot fully digest every email that makes its way to the inbox, most of us have learned what to watch for, what to block, and what to simply ignore.

But what if you’re trying to get your message through to people?

Whether you run an email campaign for your business, seek funding for your nonprofit, or simply want to see your employees actually read your emails, you need to avoid six failed characteristics of email subject lines that frankly WON’T DO.

  1. Wordy
  2. Over-the-top / Obscure
  3. Never Arrive
  4. Time Insensitive
  5. Demanding (bossy)
  6. Ordinary and Impersonal

Wordy

Concise titles that accurately summarize the email will get more clicks than titles that run on and on. Twitter icon You’re better off to be simple and straight-forward. Lengthy sentences might work for academic writing and certain genres of creative writing, but they won’t get you far in the punchy, fast-paced world of online content and marketing.

Over-the-top / Obscure

Outrageous, exaggerated, obscure, vague—subject lines that match these descriptors will ruin you. Don’t sacrifice honest clarity in an attempt to be clever.

People know that if it looks too good to be true, it usually is. So keep your subject simple and don’t inflate it. Avoid overusing special characters like exclamation points; they often carry a loud or abrasive tone. Use dashes or colons instead.

Weber Communications completed a case study showing that a clear subject line gets 541% more clicks than one that tries to be clever. Twitter icon Ensure that your email recipients can clearly understand the message. A clever line like, “It’s what you’ve been waiting for!” or “You won’t want to miss this!” tells the recipient nothing. Think of the subject line as a title or headline, letting your readers know a little bit of what’s to come.

It’s also a good idea to use numbers for further specificity. For example, “10 Must-Haves for Your New Baby,” or “5 Ways to Improve Your Lawn,” give your audience a clear and direct heads-up as to what they can expect in the body of your message.

Never Arrive

If you aren’t careful, your emails might not even make it to the inbox at all. A subject line that looks or smells like greasy spam will be sent to the trash automatically or by the user. Amanda MacArther provides a list of words that could land your carefully constructed email in someone else’s spam folder. Here are just a few from that list to avoid:

  • Help
  • Buy
  • Clearance
  • Earn
  • From home
  • Biz
  • Cash
  • Claim
  • Collect
  • Free
  • Millions
  • Urgent
  • Dear

Time Insensitive

Deadlines and a sense of urgency are great marketing tools, but email subject lines are not the best place to employ very urgent deadlines. Like Goldilocks, you need to be aware of how soon is too soon and how late is too late when placing a deadline in the subject of your emails. Twitter icon

Why? Well, no one likes to be rushed to make a decision—particularly when busy or stressed (and we usually are busy and/or stressed when sifting through email). That’s not to say that deadlines should never be employed; your subject line should give your recipients a sense of urgency while also leaving them with enough time to actually look at your selection. If the task of browsing through your website is too urgent, they’ll read your subject line and conclude that they don’t have time to make a purchasing decision before the offer ends.

So, instead of, “Hurry! Only 2 hours left!” try something like, “There’s still time—Get 50% off before tomorrow.” Help your audience know that they should act soon, but that they’re OK to wait until they get off work or take a break.

For other basic communication (not product sales), you may use an urgent subject line that clearly tells recipients what is needed from them. For instance, “Requires a response by Friday”—rather than stating the purpose of the email—makes it clear that your email should be opened and digested before the weekend.

Demanding (Bossy)

Marketers know that a CTA (call to action) is good. But you also have to avoid sounding too bossy in email subject lines. The subject should be informative and inviting. If you aren’t sure if it sounds too bossy, save the CTA for the body of your email and simply inform in your subject line.

For example, take a look at these two subject lines: “Newest selection just arrived” vs. “OPEN NOW TO VIEW OUR NEWEST SELECTION!” In the first place, all caps is a big no-no. Studies show that the human brain processes this as loud yelling and no one likes being hollered at. Secondly, the “OPEN NOW” makes a reader think he or she is being told what to do. Most people prefer an invitation to a demand, so don’t push too hard.

Ordinary and Impersonal

People like to feel known. Though we all know most emails aren’t actually written for us personally, we expect to be contacted only with information, offers, or requests that are of interest to us. You’re not going to get a lot of reads if your subject is generic and distant.

Figure out how to show that you know who your audience is in your subject line. Twitter icon For example, “Action Figure Discounts for Star Wars Fans,” or “Ten Quick Tips for Busy Moms.” Many emails already use a recipient’s first name in the body of the email, but it’s a good idea to start showing some awareness of the people you’re targeting even in the subject.

Here’s the point

People are accustomed to receiving a myriad of unsolicited emails, so steer clear of these six email subject lines that just WON’T DO. Staying direct and genuine will help your messages to stand out—and get your audience reading.

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15 Comments

  • Risa Casperson, July 28, 2015 @ 8:18 am

    I feel like subject lines are grossly overlooked. They need to be direct, like you said, but not too overbearing. Thanks for the tips on what to avoid!

  • Kelly Shelton, July 28, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    Subject lines are everything. Thanks for the tips Kara.

  • Maria Williams, July 28, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

    Good tips Kara ! I always open the emails that sounds not spamy at all.

  • Jamison Michael Furr, July 28, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

    Shouldn’t John Bennion be on here somewhere advocating the use of “quick question” as a subject line?

  • Caz*, July 28, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

    I completely agree! Jon needs to be all over that.

  • Caz*, July 28, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

    Would you ever open an email that just said, “This is not spam, we promise” 🙂

  • Maria Williams, July 29, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    no really because i know it’s a spam haha 🙂 but I saw them before haha

  • Andrew Williams, July 29, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    It is amazing how much spam there is out there. Sometimes I like to go to my spam folder just to see some of the crap that is going on. I have received some emails saying that I have inherited a fortune from someone in a different country and they need my contact information. Haha what? How is that even possible.

  • Robin Johnson, July 29, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Kara! I hope to get fantastic email subject lines now from everyone at Boostability. 🙂 I know I’ve always spent extra time on my subject lines trying to think of the perfect summary of what’s in the email…sometimes maybe too much extra time! However, I really believe it’s almost a kind of art form. It has to be informative, but quick and easy to read. It should basically be the email, but at a glance. That way people can scan their inbox to decide how to prioritize.

  • Jamison Michael Furr, July 30, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    @disqus_53ORze0Jca:disqus, I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets a kick out of going through my spam folder haha

  • Andrew Williams, July 30, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

    Ya Jamison, it is crazy some of the stuff that I get sent about offers and contests, and crazy schemes that are obviously sketchy and have hilarious titles.

  • M Andrew Eagar, July 31, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    @disqus_53ORze0Jca:disqus you need to reply to those emails! If someone offers you a fortune you don’t turn it down. I am still waiting for a prince in Nigeria to lend me his fortune after I sent him my credit card info. 🙂

  • M Andrew Eagar, July 31, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    @robinbird7546:disqus I agree! I too have been finding ways to make my subject lines more of a summary rather than a vague filler. I wish more of my email interactions did this. Prioritizing your email is a great way to gain efficiency in a day.

  • Andrew Williams, July 31, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

    Wouldn’t that be funny and sad if one of those emails about inheriting a fortune was actually true, and because there is so much similar spam out there that we put it in our spam folder and never replied.

  • Nathalie Porter, January 29, 2016 @ 10:57 am

    I think that it is interesting that the word “Dear” would land your email in the spam folder. The rest of them make a lot of sense though.

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