The Tao of Writing Subject Lines

A former training client, Ann, reached out to me last month. She had been struggling with writing subject lines for her email campaigns and wanted my advice.

But first she warned me…

“Steve, I know all the tips, tricks and formulas, so don’t give me more of those! At our company, we track analytics to understand what’s working. We a/b test like mad scientists. We review industry ‘best subject lines’ roundups. Personally, I’ve read just about every article on writing subject lines — and that’s saying something. And, still, I find writing these damn things a pain.”

Worse, it had gotten to a point where her open rates were beginning to decline. Sharply.

“What am I missing here?” she asked, clearly exasperated.

At first, I didn’t know what to tell her. She was, after all, doing all the right things. She should be a subject line-making superstar. Then I asked, “What do you think about when you’re writing a subject line?”

“Well, I think about what I can say to get the email opened.”

When she said that, I suspected she was making the classic mistake many copywriters — including me — sometimes make.

She was focusing on the result, instead of the prospect.

When you tunnel vision on the result, you naturally become manipulative, even if you don’t mean to be. You try this technique and that in order to get prospects to do what you want. In this case, open the email.

So, I advised Ann to switch her focus and think more about the prospect and what they want. I encouraged her to ask:

  • What’s going on with that prospect at that moment?
  • What problem, need, or challenge are they likely dealing with right now?
  • What’s the boulder on their shoulders? What are they concerned about?
  • What’s their day like at that point? What’s going on in their world?
  • What is the conversation going on in their head as they check their in-box?
  • What other types of emails are they likely receiving at that moment?
  • How can you communicate the value of your email, so it doesn’t stand out as an intrusion?
  • What is it about your message that is important to them, right now?
  • What is it about your email that will help them in some way?
  • Ann thought about it for a moment. Then, with a hint of skepticism in her voice, agreed to give this approach a try.

Why is this mindset so important when writing subject lines? Using this approach of thinking about how to add value to a prospect’s in-box, instead of “technique-ing” them into opening your email, will often result in a subject line that’s more authentic, motivating, and likely to work. And when you combine that with traditional subject line best practices, you’ll write winners more often.

Ann emailed me yesterday and said she’s been using this approach and open rates are going up. “I don’t feel like I’m trying to trick someone to click our emails,” she said. “Subject lines are now much easier to write.”

So, subject line tips, tricks and techniques are fine. Vital, in fact. Learn them. Use them! But don’t forget to think about — even visualize — the prospects you’re sending the email to. What’s in it for them? What’s the value in your message? What can you say in a subject line to communicate your email is worth opening.

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