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September 2021

Best email subject lines

best email subject lines scott keyser

Today, I’m covering the remaining five techniques for writing headlines and email subject lines. I have identified nine techniques for crafting these, and I covered the first four in Email subject lines that work.


5.  The number

Quantifying a fact implies authority, precision and completeness. It reassures the reader that we know what we’re talking about. Received wisdom suggests that odd numbers are more memorable than even ones. And within the universe of odd numbers, at least in the West, 7 has been voted the most popular number, according to a survey done a number of years ago by the mathematician Alex Bellos. He surveyed about 50,000 Europeans. So, the number 7 (or numbers with 7 in them) are more useful and tend to be more memorable.

As an example, we might say, “Whistle blower disclosures up 17%”, or, “37 tips for getting your blog read”, or, “7 simple six-pack exercises”, (using the alliteration of three Ss), or, “17 ways to generate more leads”. And, of course, the most famous of all, the strapline for my first book, Winner Takes All, “Seven-and-a-half principles for winning more bids, tenders and proposals”. The half principle being crafting a powerful executive summary.


7.  The twist or surprise

This is also known as the pattern breaker, pulling the rug from under the reader. It leads them down one thought path, only to abruptly change direction at the end.

The Economist staff are masters at this. This was on a well-known outdoor poster (now known as an OOM…out-of-home medium): “I’ve never read The Economist…management trainee, age 42”. The implication is that if you don’t read The Economist, your career will stall and falter. You’ll end at the tender old age of 42, still being a trainee.

Another Economist one is, “In opinion polls, 100% of Economist readers had one”. It’s quite cheeky, in that reading The Economist enables you to be opinionated, or at least to have an informed opinion about what’s going on in the world.

Another pseudo-quote, “Economist readers welcome”. And underneath, “Sperm donor clinic”.

Finally, a more popular example of the twist, the surprise or the pattern breaker. “In February, Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian a diamond-encrusted Rolex. Three months later, they were divorced”. What that does is lead the reader down one avenue, or thought path, and then we’re abruptly changing direction.


8.  Juxtaposition, or contrasting pairs

An example of this might be, “Probing the cause of diabetes, one pizza at a time”. Or, an actual headline for a life insurance product: “Cash if you die, cash if you don’t”. And here was a open university subject line: “Get to the green without going to U”. The juxtaposition is that you can get a degree without actually going to university.

The next one is from an academic paper, around proletarian political policies. “Live working or die fighting: how the working class went global”.

Then another Economist headline, when Barak Obama was the U.S. president. “Putin dares, Obama dithers”. So you’ve got the pause in the middle caused by the comma. And you’ve got the alliteration of the two Ds.

We can also use word play, double meaning or double entendre (to use the French). We might say, “Wake up to the importance of sleep,” or, “Old age: a thing of the past?” And this is an old one. In the era when Volkswagens had the reputation for never breaking down (this is a sweet one, because Volkswagen owners are a bit cultish), “Ever heard people talking about their Volkswagens? They go on and on and on”.


9.  Standfirst under the headline

We can grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic headline, then give an explanatory one-liner, known as a standfirst, underneath it. The Economist uses standfirsts a lot in their articles.

We might say something like, “HMRC is closing in”. That’s your headline. Then the standfirst could be, “New tax laws are making it harder to set up off-shore tax havens”. So we’re giving the reader a little bit more information.

Another one. The headline could be, “It’s a class act”, followed by a standfirst, “New UK class-action procedures come into force 1 October”.

A third and final example of a standfirst would be a headline, “Leaders in driverless cars”, followed by, “What happens when left-wing politicians confront new technologies?”


This is how the best email subject lines are created

Now we have a total of nine ways of grabbing the reader’s attention with a headline, or in the case of an email, the best email subject lines.

I hope you’ve found this useful and interesting. Let me know how you get on with applying these techniques on the Facebook page.

I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write.


Email subject lines that work

email subject lines scott keyser

The other day, I was speaking to a client who does a lot of cold calling. He’s a franchisee who works for an organisation that specialises in procurement and cost reduction. They are experts in what they do. Typically the franchisees rely on cold calling, but since the onset of the pandemic, they’ve been relying on email subject lines that grab attention.

With lockdown and the advent of hybrid work, more and more people are working from home. We know that to be a fact. Even though people are beginning to go back to their offices, the decisionmakers may only be going in one or two days or week. So they’re working from home. If you try to call them, the only way to reach them is through their mobile phone. So if you don’t have that number, it can be very difficult to reach them.

There was a time, pre-pandemic, when you could legitimately call the organisation’s switchboard or receptionist. They may not put you in touch with a senior decisionmaker, but they would at least connect you with that person’s executive assistant or secretary.

If you were able to sweet talk that person, you may then be able to get a slot in the decisionmaker’s diary—to speak to them at a later date. Obviously, while these people are working from home, getting in touch with them has become even more difficult.

What I’m saying—in a rather long-winded way—is that this makes email subject lines that work even more important.


A greater need for effective email subject lines

Chris, this client of mine, was saying that he’s sending far more emails. Those emails need to be even punchier, relevant and precise than before. He reckons that when communicating with most senior decisionmakers, he’s got between five and ten seconds to get their attention.

That’s not very long. So we were talking about the importance of the written word in headlines and email subject lines. Obviously, I have views on that. We talked about how an email’s success relies heavily on the quality and impact of the subject line.

Now I’d like to share with you nine techniques for crafting powerful email subject lines and attention-grabbing headlines. These are the same nine I share with people in my workshops.


Nine ways to grab readers’ attention

1.  Ask a question

A colleague of Chris’, a fellow franchisee, asked a question in the subject line of a cold email. It read, “Can we really save 20% on your fleet costs?” The organisation he was contacting operates a shipping fleet. If you ask a pointed question like that, you must then answer it immediately in the first line of the email. You’d write something like, “Yes, we can. And in fact, we did it only three weeks ago for a company very similar to yours…”.

Asking a question in the subject line is a tried-and-tested, technique. Obviously, the question you ask must be relevant and interesting to the reader. Good questions engage the reader by piquing their curiosity or sparking a mental image.

I remember the days of the .com boom and bust. I had received an email with a subject line that read, “Where have the .com profits gone?” It was very simple and effective.


2.  Ask a question and use the magic word

The magic word is you/your. I read an amazing one the other day. It said, “Do you close the bathroom door, even when you’re the only one at home?”

That’s a closed question, because the answer is either yes or no. But, in fact, it was a subject line for Who Gives a Crap, a company that supplies green and sustainable loo paper. In fact, I can fully recommend them. Their product is very gentle on the bum and gentle on the planet.

Using the words you and your make the reader feel as if we’re talking to them personally. Combining these with a question that addresses the reader directly on a topic that interests them is likely to engage them.


3.  Give a command or instruction

In essence, you’re telling the reader what to do. You’re using a verb in what’s known as the imperative mood. An example might be, “Click here to register for the course”. That’s a command or instruction. “Apply now for your early bird discount”. Notice I’ve used the magic word ‘your’. “Apply now” uses ‘now’, a powerful word. “Find out more about a career in teaching”. Again, giving a command. Or, “Fix your high staff turnover”.


4.  Quote a killer fact

These are memorable stats or statements that cut through the details and stun the reader into action…the action being that they actually read the article or email. They’re known as killers because they kill off opponents quicker than a worthy study or well-researched report.

You might write something like, “Two works of man are visible from space: China’s Great Wall and the Amazon fires”. Sadly and tragically, you could also say, “The California fires” or “The U.S. fires” or “The Greece fires” or the “sudden Spain fires”.

Another one might be, “A child dies every four seconds from preventable causes”. I’ve seen this approach deployed a lot by voluntary charity organisations.


Grab attention with email subject lines that work

There you have four ways to grab attention with headlines and email subject lines. We can ask a question, ask a question with the magic word, give a command or instruction, or we can quote a fact that will shock, surprise, intrigue…or give them something to disagree with or rub up against.

That’s only four of the nine ways we can write attention-grabbing subject lines and headlines. For the other five, be sure to read part two, Best email subject lines.

If you haven’t heard, I will be conducting workshops that include valuable writing information such as this, plus new and exciting content. The best way to stay informed about all that’s happening at Write for Results is to Like and Follow the Facebook page. Join the conversation, learn to write Human and get the results you want!

I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write.