(This blog post was originally posted on June 29, 2015, and has been updated to be even more amazing!)Your email list is a wonderful asset. Pet owners have shown great trust in you by granting their permission to contact them personally and directly. You keep that trust by delivering on the promises you made when you asked for their email.
None of that matters if people don’t open your emails – and the gateway between “open” and “delete” is the email header – “To,” “From,” and “Subject.”
While there’s no perfect email subject line, there are some things you can do to make your emails more appealing in an inbox.
But before we get to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, let’s have a quick look at some background:Photo of a cattle drive with text "Email Subject Lines: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"

How spam filters work

A lot of the advice on writing strong email subject lines revolves around getting past spam filters – and while this is important, it’s not as straightforward as avoiding certain words in the subject line.
Spam filters are programmed to pick out certain offenses in email messages and assign points to them. Once a single message hits a certain number of points, it gets filtered and labelled as spam. To complicate things, different spam filters have different criteria, and users can usually set their own filter to be more or less sensitive – meaning there is no set of rules that will guarantee success or failure.
But what this means is that a single infraction won’t land your message in the dumpster, even if it’s something we – or someone else – cautions you about. So if you think you’ve created a clever and enticing subject line but it contains a no-no, it might be worth a try anyway!

To, From, Etc.

While not absolutely necessary, it’s better if you have people’s first and last names in the proper fields of your contact list or email program. It’s just a little more personal than an email address alone.
Always fill in the “From” field and include the name of your practice. For example, it can be from “ABC Animal Hospital,” or “Dr. Sue from ABC Animal Hospital,” or something similar – as long as it’s something. Emails from no one are not very appealing. Also, don’t use a “noreply@” email address – nothing shuts down the lines of communication quite as fast. If you don’t want an avalanche of vacation autoreplies in your inbox, you can set up a separate email address as long as you remember to check it frequently!
Finally, if the program you’re using allows you to customize the preview text – that is, the line of the email that will show in someone’s inbox if they have it enabled too – take advantage. Consider these two examples from my inbox:
Screen shot from an email that says "The World's Biggest Employers. View this email in your browser here."
Screen shot of an inbox that says "10 things to make you laugh today. Because we love a good laugh, here are some of the most popular Pins in..."
The second example is warmer and more enticing.

Use lists to target your messages

It’s a good idea to create more than one list of email addresses. You will still have an overall list for generally relevant messages, but you might also want to have a list of cat owners, and one of dog owners, for example. That way, if you have an email message that targets dog owners but is completely irrelevant to people who don’t have a dog, you don’t have to bother the people who only have cats. Personalization is a great way to provide value. Your readers are also more likely to open your emails once they learn that you send useful information, while too many irrelevant emails has the opposite effect.

One more thing

Spam filters aside, one of the easiest things you can do to help your open rates is to be clear about what people are signing up for. Whether you are sending email newsletters, special offers, or a silly picture of the week, being clear when people hand over their email address will ensure that only people who want to receive that kind of material will sign up, and because they asked for it, they will be more likely to open it.
Okay, let’s talk about subject lines.

The Good

Email subject lines that get the best open rates are straightforward and actually give an indication of what the email is about. Crazy, right?
That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and be creative. In fact, humor can be a great way to catch attention – as long as it is short and actually has meaning. Consider:

  • Puns and wordplay
  • Self-deprecating humor (e.g. Groupon’s famous “Deals That Make Us Proud (Unlike Our Nephew, Steve)”
  • Connecting things that don’t typically go together (e.g. Movember’s “Grow a moustache and change the world”)
  • Song or movie titles (e.g. “We like big mutts and we cannot lie”)
  • Obvious or blunt humor (e.g. outdoor clothing company Edgevale’s “Get In Our Pants”)

Just remember to be true to your brand voice, and have a few people read it over to make sure there aren’t any offensive meanings you hadn’t intended.
People used to recommend using the subscriber’s first name in email subject lines, but this advice seems to have fallen out of favor. Whether using people’s names is good or bad probably depends on your relationship with them. If you try this, make sure you check your open rates and unsubscribe rates to see if they are drastically different.
Another tactic is to use a number to make a subject line stand out in a list of text. For example:

  • 3 Ways to Keep Your Dog Cool This Summer
  • 5 People-foods Your Cat Should Avoid

Some people caution against numbers as a spam-trigger, so only use them with messages that are otherwise free of infractions.
Questions and teasers are also fun as long as they’re relevant. Think “And the winner of the photo contest is…” or “Is your dog ready for summer?”
Emojis can also add an element of interest to your email subject line. An emoji or two can help your email stand out in the clutter, such as “Are you prepared to help your pup beat the heat this summer☀?”. Just be careful to check your emoji on several different email platforms, as some email providers may render them differently. Also be careful not to overuse emojis. If it’s not relevant to the content of your email, leave it off.
Here are some best practices:

  • Keep it short. MailChimp analyzed 200 million real subject lines and found that 28 to 39 characters was the optimal length for the best open rates.
  • Keep it simple. Sometimes the best subject line is something like “ABC Veterinary Hospital E-Newsletter.”
  • Keep it relevant.
  • Focus on information people will find useful.
  • …and remember spam triggers – all-caps, excessive use of exclamation marks, words like “Help,” “Free,” “% off” – and be sure to use them sparingly, when you use them at all.

The Bad

People don’t intentionally create bad subject lines, but they do happen from time to time. Bad subject lines could land you in the recycling bin – or worse, rack up the unsubscribes. Some basics to avoid:

  • Any email subject line that doesn’t jive with what people signed up for – so if they signed up for helpful information, avoid subject lines that sound sales-y.
  • Using all caps for the entire subject line MAKES IT LOOK LIKE YOU’RE SHOUTING
  • Too many exclamation marks!!!!!!!!
  • Anything pushy or slimy-sounding.
  • Subject lines that sound like header copy from bad newspaper ads.
  • Giving away the punchline – if the entire point of the email is in the subject line, the email becomes redundant.
  • Subject lines that are all about you, you, you and not enough about the reader. Let them know how they’ll benefit from opening the email

As you can see, any of these can happen unintentionally or out of exhaustion or pressure to just come up with something. One way to avoid “the bad” is to have someone read over your subject line before you send it out.

The Ugly

Finally, we get to “the ugly.” I am going on the assumption that none of you would do any of these, but you’ve likely seen them done – usually out of desperation by someone who really, really, REALLY wants to get their message across. In these cases, if you did open the message, you were probably pretty cheesed off pretty quickly. For example:

  • Bait-and-switch headlines that say the message is about something that it’s not. Not only are these annoying, they’re actually illegal under the anti-spam laws.
  • Clickbait – those irritating ones that leave you hanging so you click them but then hate yourself for it.
  • Including “Re:” in your subject line – a sneaky tactic to trick you into thinking someone is getting back to you about something you wanted to hear about.
  • Grammar or spelling mistakes (unless they are intentional for humor purposes) – mistakes happen, but not proofreading something as short and important as an email subject line is just sloppy, and it won’t sneak by unnoticed like the odd one in an email might.
  • “Hello [FIRST_NAME]!” Don’t blast your whole list using the merge function of your email program if you haven’t tested it – these technical boo boos look bad.
  • Pleading – subject lines containing “Open me!” “URGENT” or “Please Read” are big spam triggers – and big turnoffs for some people.

As is the case with most online marketing, the best email subject lines are honest, straightforward, and maybe a little bit clever – because your recipients are just regular people who are overloaded with email and slightly skeptical. The whole point is to get people to open your email, so walk away for a little while, then ask yourself, “Would I open this?”Another way to get better open-rates is by consistently sending out good stuff. To take your email marketing to the next level, download our free guide, From Spam to Bam! A Veterinarian’s Guide to Email Marketing.

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