Create a Compelling Subject Line in 4 Steps

January 9, 2017 Heather Cherry

mobile email illustrationThe number one question I get asked is, 'What should I write for my subject line?' The answer is more complex than you think. The subject line is the primary reason your emails get opened or deleted. So, it can be pretty intimidating to even think about. The stakes are high.

There is no cookie-cutter answer for which subject lines work best for your email. But, I have come up with some helpful steps to get you started.

Step One: Know the Context of Your Email

If I've said it before, I'll say it again. Segmentation is the foundation for your entire email marketing strategy. The demographics, age, and characteristics of your recipients will help you determine your subject line.

Remember what your email is about. Remember what action you want your audience to take. Once you consider the email's context, the subject line will write itself.

Step Two: Pick the Type of Subject Line You Want to Use

There are several standard types of subject lines you can use in your emails. Use the information you gathered in step one to determine which works best for you. Some can even be combined.


You tell the recipients exactly what is inside your email. This is efficient if your information is valuable enough to elicit an immediate open.

These are best used for transactional or confirmation emails. The recipient would already be expecting, and looking for, your email.

Example: Here is the auto insurance quote you requested.


This type is growing in popularity and easy to create. Personalization reinforces the relevancy of your email. Adding it to your subject line can immediately draw the recipient in. Just be sure your data is accurate to avoid errors.

These are best for sharing policy information and payment reminders specific to the recipient.

Example: John Smith, your insurance policy is up for renewal next month.

Invoke Curiosity

This subject line requires a little more thought. You will need to think about how you can pique interest. A good formula for this type is: Benefits + Curiosity = Interest.

These are best used when sharing educational or informational information. They allude to the valuable knowledge inside the email.

Example: Auto Insurance: Are you getting what you pay for?


Insurance is serious business, but your subject lines don't have to be. Make your recipients laugh or smile, and they won't have any choice but to open your email and keep reading. Just make sure your audience is receptive to this type of subject line so you don't offend or miss the mark.

These are great for re-engagement or lost customer campaigns. Millennials are also receptive to tongue-in-cheek language.

Example: Was it something we said?

Call to Action

You're used to putting CTAs in the body of your emails, so why not try using them in the subject line, too? Prompt your recipients to take action, but be mindful of being too aggressive with a hard sale.

These are best used when you want to reinforce a specific action that isn't monetary. For example, asking for referrals, feedback, or social media followers.

Example: Tell us how we're doing.

Act Now

Induce an immediate sense of urgency by telling your recipients to act now, or risk missing out. Mention limited inventory, approaching deadlines, etc.

Example: Open enrollment ends Monday!

Step Three: Format Your Subject Line

Now that you're thinking about what you're going to say, consider how you're going to say it. Think about the following:


Common devices display between 27 and 73 characters for the subject line. I recommend keeping yours around 50-65 characters. You'll stay within the limits for popular mobile devices and desktop email clients.


Avoid ALL CAPS. They can seem aggressive and get your emails sent straight to junk mail.

Special Characters

Punctuation, symbols, and emojis are great ways to get your email to stand out in an inbox. Just be sure they are relevant, legible across all clients/devices, and not overused.

Step Four: Analyze, Adjust, Repeat

As with all other factors of your emails, be sure to track the results of your efforts. Look at your open rates and see what is working and what isn't. Then adjust your subject line's tone, format, or type and try again. For more ideas on enhancing your subject line, read our blog about 6 Ways to Improve Your Subject Line.

With so many messages flooding inboxes daily, subject lines are vital. Create a compelling subject line that aligns with your audience and content. Then, you're well on your way to standing out from the crowd.

What subject lines have worked for you?

About the Author

Heather Cherry

Heather Cherry is and email marketing professional and the product manager for AgencyBuzz - ITC's automated marketing system. She is responsible for leading the AgencyBuzz team, presenting email marketing best practices for Operation Agency Success & Masters of Marketing, and prides herself in cultivating customer-driven product excellence. She has a bachelor's degree in rhetoric and writing from The University of Texas at Austin (Hook 'Em \m/). Her email marketing specialties include targeted marketing, database segmentation, customer journey through automation, integrated lead client nurturing through all ITC products, and highly-visual email marketing campaigns. Heather currently resides in Frisco, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), and is a self-proclaimed mother-of-the-year and world's okayest wife. She likes dad jokes, Tyler Perry movies, and Oxford commas.

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