5 ways to write better email subject lines this holiday season


With kids back in school, email marketing campaigns have moved away from end-of-summer deals and backpack wish lists and switched over to the holidays. The holiday season seems to get earlier every year, so it’s important for email marketers to get a head start on what is going to resonate with consumers.

During the last holiday season, my employer tracked almost 8 billion emails and found that brands sent 14.5 percent (registration required) more emails to subscribers during the 2016 holiday season compared with the previous quarter, cluttering their inboxes more than ever. Yet holiday-themed emails generated a 14.6 percent lower open rate than business-as-usual (BAU) emails.

For email marketers to stand out in consumers’ inboxes — and stay ahead of the holiday-themed aisles in stores — they should focus on improving their email subject lines and zeroing in on what resonates with existing and potential customers.

Engaging subject lines increase opens at the top of the funnel to drive click-throughs and higher revenue for marketers. Ways to improve email subject lines include:

1. Personalize

Email marketing campaigns with personalized subject lines generated 50 percent higher open rates, almost 2.5 times the unique click rates and 58 percent higher click-to-open rates than their non-personalized counterparts, we found in a separate report (registration required). But only 2 percent of marketing emails employ personalization in their subject lines — indicating a big misstep and a missed revenue opportunity for marketers and retailers.

Of the marketing emails that are personalized, 1.1 percent of all emails sent in Q2 2017 were personalized by using a consumer’s first or last name in the subject line, while 1.2 percent were personalized using other factors.

I encourage email marketers to think past solely using subscribers’ names to personalize emails. Loyalty program status, purchase history and browse behavior are impactful ways to make your emails feel more personal to individual consumers.

2. Re-evaluate triggers

Trigger emails are timely, relevant email messages based on what consumers have previously said or done. A lot of marketers have the “set it and forget it” mentality. Going into the holiday season, make sure you’re taking care of your highest revenue-driving emails before it’s too late.

An easy example is when a subscriber signs up for brand emails. To save subject line character real estate, send them a message with “Welcome to <brand name>” as the subject line and add in a complimentary preheader (with an offer if it’s applicable). This is short, to-the-point and can be effective in driving clicks and opens. For these particular welcome trigger messages, the shorter the better. Only 7 percent of welcome message subject lines were under 20 characters, but they drove a 32 percent open rate, more than double the 14.2 percent average open rate for all emails in that same period.

3. Keep it concise

While it may seem like a good idea to fit every detail of an email campaign into the subject line of the message, consumers can understand the same information in about half the characters — and with better results. Subject lines under 21 characters generated a 31 percent higher-than-average open rate, and yet they account for less than 5 percent of all email subject lines.

Most email marketing falls into the longer subject line category; 74 percent of subject lines are between 21 and 60 characters, even though these emails have the lowest open rate at 13.8 percent.

Email marketers should also think about their mobile campaign strategy — with subject line length in mind. The maximum number of characters visible on most mobile devices is about 35 characters, meaning half of a 60-character subject line is getting cut off and could be ignored by consumers looking for quick and easy-to-read updates. This is where smart email marketers can leverage the preheader to tell the full story instead of trying to force everything into the subject line.

4. Focus on industry and timely trends

Mentioning industry trends, pop culture and timely events is also a great way to capture subscribers at a time when these topics are at the forefront of their minds. Holidays are a great example of this, and while it may seem obvious, some marketers are still missing the boat when it comes to executing and sending timely offers.

In 2016, Halloween hit an all-time revenue high, reaching $8.4 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, yet our numbers showed that only 27 percent of marketers sent Halloween-themed emails. Party City (disclosure: client) was one brand that capitalized on this holiday, sending a message with the subject line, “Fun Ideas for Halloween + FREE Shipping!” By offering more than a percentage off a total order or free shipping, Party City was able to entice subscribers with Halloween party ideas, as this email drove a 114 percent higher conversion rate than the brand’s BAU emails.

5. If you’re going long, commit

More than a fifth of all subject lines in Q2 2017 were over 60 characters, and while their open rate (14.8 percent) wasn’t as high as the shortest subject lines (18.5 percent), that’s still higher than between 21 to 60 characters (13.8 percent). Retailers have had success in the past using a list format for these longer subject lines, and publishers have used them to include a series of topics or keywords.

Even if the subject line trails off in an ellipse on someone’s phone, it still can drive opens if the subscriber gets enough information from what’s listed at the beginning. An example of a longer successful subject line is, “For a Limited Time Save Over $874 on a Bowflex TreadClimber Machine” at 69 characters. The amount of savings listed here is key to enticing subscribers to open the email.

Whether it’s an email campaign for the holidays or a long-term strategy marketers are looking to implement moving forward, effectively using subject lines is just as important as the email message itself.

Consumers are flooded with hundreds of emails, direct messages, text messages and social media updates every single day. Dedicating time to finding the right balance of personalization, timing, length and topic will drive increased engagement among your subscribers. The data doesn’t lie.


About The Author

Kyle Henderick
Kyle is Director of Client Services at Yes Lifecycle Marketing, a single solution provider who delivers relevant communications across all channels for mid and enterprise-sized companies. Kyle is responsible for helping major clients implement new programs, processes, and data-driven strategies to create campaigns that truly drive revenue. With a passion for technology implementation and a background in database, email, web, and social media marketing, Kyle turns his real-world experience into executable tactics to help clients see an incremental lift in revenue, subscriber engagement, and customer retention. A lover of all things Chicago, when Kyle is not reading up on latest marketing practices or focusing on improving client programs, he can be found enjoying the city’s great restaurants or wearing his heart on his sleeve while rooting for all Chicago-based sports teams. A curious individual willing to try any and every food that does not include raw onions, he is always looking for exciting dining options and new adventures around the city.