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Every successful online entrepreneur knows the value of email marketing as an effective way to communicate with an audience and to generate revenue.

Email is essential. It’s the way I’ve found to communicate honestly and effectively to a large group of people. If I didn’t send out a newsletter every month, I’d probably lose about 5% to 10% of my income – Keith Wallace, The Wine School of Philadelphia

Email marketing is the secret weapon that powers small business and online businesses. An AWeber survey showed that 30% of small businesses reported that email alone drives half their revenue.

The best part for solopreneurs is that it doesn’t have to be time consuming. The same AWeber report found 70% of small business spent less than 3 hours per week doing email marketing.

Are you getting the most out of your email open rates?

There are many things that can affect the effectiveness of your email marketing. From the imagery you use, or the design of the email to the quality of the email list.

The most important element of any email marketing is the subject line. The subject line is important because it’s the trigger that will help the recipient decide whether to open the email.

The email subject line is the only thing that the recipient has to go off when looking at their inbox. The job of a good email subject line is to be compelling and informative.

How not to write email subject lines
Clarity vs creativity

Two of the most popular email marketing solutions, MailChimp and AWeber do a lot of research into what affects email open rates.

The research from both MailChimp and AWeber recommends avoiding the newspaper headline type of subject line. It may look clever and be assumed to grab the reader’s attention, but the email open rates are typically lower than the more straightforward descriptive subject line.

Examples of creative subject lines:

What’s red, blue and waiting for you?
More boat for your buck
You asked for more …

Examples of clear subject lines:

Grow your email list 99% faster: see how one entrepreneur did it
Are you getting the most out of your email marketing?
1 Day Left! Don’t miss out on ABC Inc Xmas sale

The best subject lines “tell” what’s inside, while the worst “sell” what’s inside.

Short is sweet

A brief, punchy message is best. Shorter subject lines have better email open rates than longer ones especially as 41% of email is now opened on mobile devices.

Subject lines with less than 10 characters had the highest open rate at 51% – Informz “2013 Association Email Marketing Benchmark Report, Part I: Key Metrics” (2013)
Four to 15 character subject lines have the highest email open rates – Mailer Mailer Metrics Report

Good versus bad content

This may be stating the obvious, but if you have good content you’ll get good results. A study by Adestra found that certain types of content marketing work better than others. Using the word “report” saw email open rates drop by 24%, while “webinar” had a drop of 17%. Good content like “news”, “bulletin” and “video” saw email open rates increase by 35%, 16% and 19% respectively.


Having a subject line in all caps shouts SPAM and makes it difficult to read.

Four words to avoid

Try to avoid using the word “Free” as this tends to trigger spam filters according to MailChimp. The three other words that won’t trigger a spam filter but will negatively affect your email open rates are “Help”, “Percent off”, and “Reminder”.

Personalization vs localization

This one might surprise you. Personalization, such as including a recipient’s first name or last name doesn’t significantly improve email open rates. However, localization such as including the city name does increase the open rate. It’s just speculation on my part, but it’s possible that personalization is overused which is why it doesn’t increase email open rates.

Real people

The From information is often overlooked. The best practice is to have the subject line and From working in tandem, so if you are sending an email about a webinar you could have [email protected] as the From. People are less likely to open an email from a generic email address [email protected], so if possible send your emails from a person is best e.g [email protected]


Newsletters tend to have a high initial open rate that then reduces over time. Newsletters are used to build a relationship with your customers and fans. The challenge is repeating the same subject line for each newsletter accelerates the drop of in email open rates. If sending newsletters continuity is important, but try to keep your subject lines simple and straight forward, as well as provide a clear indication of what is inside the newsletter that is of interest.

Test then test again

Don’t take everything above as gospel without testing it yourself. No one industry or company list is exactly the same as another, so start out by understanding what makes a subject line effective, and then apply this knowledge to your own list and test the results. The only true way for you to maximize your open rate is by doing some split testing.

Split testing allows you to send out the same email with different subject lines and then to measure the variation in the email open rates. MailChimp allows you to send a split test to a sample of your list. The winner of the test is then automatically sent the rest of the email list. Other programs may do the split test using the entire email list.

The best email subject lines are:

Short <15 characters
Create Curiosity

Overly smart, funny or cheesy subject lines will invariably result in your email being ignored or could lead to more people unsubscribing or spam complaints.

Ultimately, if you want more people opening your emails you need to do a better job at writing email subject lines that compel the reader to open them.

Leave us a comment if you’d like to share any results of split testing that you might have done.

Feature image credit: Bruno Girin

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About the author

Geoff Austin

I talk and write a lot. Some of it about ecommerce, selling online, startups, SEO, digital marketing.

Currently, head of analytics for an automotive business in Sydney, facilitating a culture of data-driven decisions. Delivering data-based insights and intelligence.

Chauffeur to twin daughters and a pizza chef master.