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Man Bites Giraffe: Some Awesome (and Awful) Email Subject Lines

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If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: subject lines matter when it comes to email marketing. Think of subject lines like the headline of a newspaper article. If it grabs you, you start to read. If the first few paragraphs keep you engaged (similar to an email sweet spot), you keep on going.

Over the past few months, I collected subject lines from all sorts of senders, all based on how they grabbed me the second I saw them. What you'll see here is an exercise in the Sender name, the subject line and a quick analysis of what I liked or despised. There have been no alterations, no punctuation changes and no edits. What you see is what you get.

My hope is that after perusing this piece, you get a sense of what your fellow marketers are doing and how you can be better, resulting in more opens, more views, and more purchases.

Always remember the Golden Rule of email marketing subject lines: Tell what's inside, don't sell what's inside.

From: Facebook
Subject: Pat Magoon sent you a message on Facebook...

This is about as straightforward as it gets, as I know the sender and I know the immediate reason I'm being contacted. Granted, this is an auto-responder based on a specific action, but there is no such thing as a wasted email.

From: Russell Goldstein
Subject: (none)

This was from the ESPN assistant to Le Anne Schreiber, the sports network's ombudsman. It was another auto-reply, but still... no "Thanks for the email to ESPN" or "Your ESPN comment has been received"?

From: AirTran Airways Net Escapes
Subject: 3 Days of Sale Fares for Your Much Needed Vacation!

If I've ever shopped for vacations, I'm usually going for a set location or region and not just a vague offer. Sell me a bit here, guys. Also, do we need a full four-word descriptor for the From? AirTran Airways isn't good enough?

From: Borders
Subject: 30% Coupon—Limited Time

Direct offer, simple source, timeframe established: nice work. I'd like to see "30% off everything" for future mailings to really nail it down.

From: Domino's Pizza
Subject: A Special Offer from your local Domino's Pizza

Ugh. Why so vague? Pizza chain emails traditionally are terrible and do more to deflect opens than intrigue. To date, I have never been blown away or enticed by one of these offers. Ever.

From: AAA Northern New England
Subject: AAA Newsletter—February 2008

Ah, the dreaded (Company X) Newsletter with the month and date. Fun! When I opened up the newsletter, there were all kinds of great discount offers; but, instead, this subject line reads more "library" than "block party."

From: Bob Marley
Subject: Comedian Bob Marley Returns To Boston!!

It's a direct statement that his fans in that area would likely open. Since "Bob Marley" is already in the From line, there's no need to repeat in the subject line. I'd try "Boston dates coming up soon!" instead. Why waste the valuable real estate?

From: CyberLink eNews
Subject: Crucial Blue-ray update, no more HD DVD, Power2Go update, and more

Misspellings and punctuation issues aside, this is fairly informative about what's inside. If you're interested in any of these subjects, you're likely to open this up.

From: Lisa@Fanscape
Subject: Fanscape's February Newsletter

For an organization that appeals to younger people interested in today's rock, there is just one letter to sum this subject line up: zzzzzzzzzzzz.

From: Red River Theatres
Subject: Flick Flash: Films for 2/22 - 2/28

Quick: how many times can you say Flick Flash Films in a row? Red River is a local indie theater that apparently doesn't want to intrigue you to open up the email. Next time, try "Oscar winners appearing all week long" or something fun.

From: Dunkin' Donuts
Subject: Stop by Tuesday 2/26 for a special treat from 1-10 pm

I've written about this email on our company blog, as I love it. Direct date, direct offer and a little mystery ("special treat"). Dunkin's email practices are a model of what other major chains should be doing.

From: 101.7 FNX Promotions
Subject: FNX E-file 2.13.08

Is this a marketing email or an Excel document? You're a radio station, meaning promotions are extremely important to you. This is the best you can come up with? Trying way too hard to be hip with this one.

From: Cybear Club
Subject: Hub Buzz: P.J. is Having a Pajama Party

I love it. It's from the Boston Bruins' email list (the brand could be better represented) and lays out an interesting reason to open: someone is having a pajama party. A hockey guy? What the...? Just like that, I opened it up and saw that veteran P.J. Axelsson is hosting a charity event. Nice work.

From: Apple
Subject: IPod Shuffle. Now just $49.

Doesn't get much more plain and direct than this. If you're interested in a Shuffle and have $50 kickin' around, this is for you. This is an example of marketing at its most basic level: Tell them what you're offering and at what price.

From: The Jimmy Fund
Subject: Join Dustin Pedroia: Show your Red Sox pride

I'm not of the mindset that putting in a Major League Baseball player's name in an email is good enough to get people to open. What if some of the Jimmy Fund list aren't fans? Something like "Join Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia at a special event this Thursday" would be more fitting.

From: Lake Erie Monsters Insider
Subject: Tune In Tonight

To what? This was the first email I had got from the sender in months, so I guess I'm to assume it was a televised game? A suggestion: "Monsters vs. Devils in your living room tonight!"

From: Warped Tour
Subject: Who do YOU want to see open up for The Used?

Who, ME? This is a good direct line that either gets you to vote in this contest or not. I think the random capitalization is hilarious though. What's the point of that?

Subject: Watch LIVE on ESPN Classic—Inaugural Pan-Pacific Championship 2008

I'd much rather see the From name as Major League Soccer and not the site URL as a best practice. In general, this line is way too wordy. How about "Pan-Pacific Championship on ESPN Classic tonight"? Taking out words like "watch," "live," and the year eliminate what are unnecessary statements (based on the overall intent of the message." And, again, what's with the random capitalization? We must be looking at two isolated cases from MLS and Warped Tour, right?

From: National Football League
Subject: Watch LIVE Workouts from the 2008 NFL Scouting combine Today

Guess not...

So what did we learn?

  • Don't discount the importance of the From name. Keep it your company name and not an individual's name or drawn-out term. In addition, keep your company name out of the subject line: It's redundant—a waste of valuable real estate.
  • There is no point to using all caps in a subject line. OK? (Unless it's "OK.")
  • Write a compelling subject line that won't deceive people. If people aren't opening it, that's OK, as you'll have many more campaigns to intrigue them. If you break the receiver's trust early, you'll have to work twice as hard to get it back. Never forget the Golden Rule.
  • Most important, have some fun with subject lines! If you're struggling that much with how to talk to your audience in a single-sentence format, give it to someone else to writes. Just make sure that you don't explain the task in all caps, please.

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Josh Nason is the inbound marketing manager at Dyn Inc., an infrastructure-as-a-service company that specializes in enterprise DNS and email services. Follow him at @joshnason, @dyninc, and @sendlabs.

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  • by Viktoria Gimbe Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    This is an easy article, nothing scientific. Still, this simple exercise is worthwhile doing. It's amazing how we take these things for granted and fail to take a close look at these crucial things. Doing so can be a matter of life or death. Thanks, Josh!

  • by Tesha Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    I felt this email has some good information in it. I think it depends on what you are offering and your audience if the caps will work or not.

  • by Anthony Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    These are interesting points, but MailChimp has done research showing that those "boring" subject lines performed far better than the "interesting" ones.

    Study: Best and Worst Subject Lines by Open Rate
    "On the "best" side, you'll notice the subject lines are pretty straightforward. They're not very "salesy" or "pushy" at all. Heck, some people might even say they're "boring." On the "worst" side however, notice how the subject lines read like headlines from advertisements you'd see in the Sunday paper. They might look more "creative," but their open rates are horrible"

  • by Jessica D. Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    Hi Josh - regarding this subject line:

    From: Borders
    Subject: 30% Coupon—Limited Time

    Copywriters at my company stay away from "coupon" and "limited time" (and lots of other words) because of spam filters. I guess if the sender is on your safe senders list, you'll get the email - but what if you're not? We can't assume we're on the receiver's safe list, so we play it safe. However, it does make creating subject lines about good offers pretty tough. Thoughts on this? Thanks.

  • by Kelly Parkinson Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    I disagree that using a company name always gets a higher open rate. For B-to-B companies, using an individual's name increases the chance the email will get opened--especially if it's a name they recognize. Especially if it's someone they already know. Even in B-to-C cases, it makes a lot of sense to use an individual's name. That's the first thing people look at--even before the subject line. And if Steve Jobs wants to send me an email about some secret sale Apple is having, or some new product that's being launched, I would open it before I'd open an email from "Apple." There's a perception of increased value.

  • by Crash Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    Some of the points in this article are right on target, others are not. He seems to conflict with himself on a few points for good vs bad subject lines. Also, what exactly is the "random capitalization" in the Warped Tour example. Obviously the name of the band is called The Used, and the only other capital is the first one in the sentence and the caps in the emphasized YOU.

    I think some of the longer From lines have merit, such as adding the Net Fares on the end of the AirTran email. I'm assuming this is an email being sent as a result of opting in to their Net Fares email newsletter. Many of us set up filters to route such emails to an appropriate folder to read later or separately from the rest of our 100s of emails per day. Also they may have multiple emails going out and this helps to distinguish between them.

    My .02 cents.

  • by Evan Brownstein Tue May 6, 2008 via web

    Overall, article was clear and useful. But focus was on creating emails as if all brands and all customers behave alike when connecting via this medium. If each email is approached as part of an ongoing dialog between a brand and a customer, with the goal to make or deepen a connection, then the subject line (as well as all other communications) will develop organically and different from case to case. Rules of thumb are useful. But not every digit is a thumb.

    Also, why is "A Special Offer from your local Domino's Pizza" so terrible but "Stop by Tuesday 2/26 for a special treat from 1-10 pm" from Dunkin' Donuts so lovable? Sure, the call to action on a specific date at a specific time are more effective, but the offer itself is just as vague. Is there research that shows Quick Serve Restaurant emails get superior results when they have specific dates and times mentioned in the subject line, even with non-specific offers? Think a specific offer would have been better in Dunkin' subject line.

    Thanks, Mr. Nason, for a thoughtful and thought provoking piece.

  • by Josh Nason (the author) Wed May 7, 2008 via web

    Hey everyone! Wow, a lot of comments going here...this is great! Let me respond to a few if I could:

    @ Mailchimp Anthony: I need to dive a bit deeper in, but on the surface, I need some more data to assess whether I'm buying these open rate stats. I'm sure there's some thorough research there, but maybe we can get an offline dialogue going about that?

    @ Jessica D: I will email you directly with some thoughts based on your company. I'd be happy to do it.

    @ Kelly P.: What if someone doesn't know the person you're sending from? Would most of Apple's list know who is Steve Jobs is? Probably, but I wouldn't assume it. For a sports team's marketing campaign, I'd take a try with a very targeted piece. I would never assume that someone that is looking at 50 emails amidst 100 other things they're doing would know a name. Think quick and think how to market with that in opinion anyway.

    @ Crash: what contradictions did I offer? Are there examples you have, I assume? The word "YOU" was the random capitalization I was referring to, not the name of the band.

    @ Evan: Domino's has been sending out the same offer with the same subject line for months now. If you as a consumer opened up the first one and thought the offer was crappy, why would be engaged to open that email up again the next time...and the next time after that.

    The Dunkin's one (as explained) is a specific target on a specific date with a specific goal in mind; not a 'take it or don't take it' pizza offer. Big difference there to me as a consumer.

    Thanks everyone! Feel free to email me directly with other questions at

  • by maabalto Thu May 8, 2008 via web

    Nice article and comments.

    Thanks to all!

  • by Lisa J Thu May 8, 2008 via web

    Not exactly the 15 minutes of fame I was looking for, but I appreciate you taking the time to single out and critique our email subject line!

    As online marketers know, it's all about testing. Per our internal tests, the direct subject line and personalized "from" name consistently outperform other options we've evaluated.

    ...but that doesn't mean it's the right/best/permanent subject line, and we welcome your indirect call to step it up! I hope you'll take the time to let me know if you see something from Fanscape that you like more in your inbox soon.

    I’d be interested in an article on how well these boring/awkward/WEIRDLY CAPPED/typo-laden subject lines actually work. Are marketers flying blind or do they have research backing their decisions up?

    Thanks again for an interesting read -


  • by Amy Thu May 8, 2008 via web

    I have to agree with Kelly P. about company names in the from field. Nothing screams marketing email louder than having the name of the company in the from field. The only time this is relevant is when you are part of a rewards program, and an individual is looking for something. Otherwise, keeping it more personal makes sense. Even if it is a persona managed by individuals, it causes a reader to pause a micro second longer. I've experimented with both ways, and my audience definitely responds to emails with my name in the from field more than when the company name is in the from field.

  • by Josh Nason (the author) Thu May 8, 2008 via web

    @ Amy: what's your audience and business type?

  • by Vigyan Verma Fri May 9, 2008 via web

    Minor issues apart, I found the article to be interesting overall.

    1. I agree with Josh on specificity in subject lines.
    2. On the "From" issue, I feel there can be a little guarded approach on use of company name. Personally, more than the corporate brand I would give more credence to the consumer brand because that will perhaps be more relevant to a consumer. I'm talking of a corporate brand that has brands addressing different consumer segments. It could also be a company executive, especially if it is B2B, provided the mailing list is so sharply focussed that the name of the person evokes instant recognition. It would be terrible, though, if a ghost email writer masquerades as say Jeff Immelt.
    3. I would like to add brevity of subject line as another very important factor in increasing chances of opening mails. The reason being the length of the 'Subject' field, with all Inbox mails in view, varies from one mailing system (as also PC/laptop) to another. One should strive to get the critical parts of communication in the first 4 words.
    Vigyan Verma

  • by Barry A Sun Jan 31, 2010 via web

    Other than the thoughtful observations and opinions, the best point made was to pretest. I use A/B testing of about 100 each variable. My best ever open rate difference was about 10 points. Usually only 2-3 points difference, but still a worthwhile activity.

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