Perfect Email Subject Lines That Make People Click

You may have great content. And beautiful emails. But it’s the subject line that gets people to click, and the best subject lines lead to more conversions. In this guide, we’ll take you through our favorite email marketing subject line best practices to try for yourself.

Email Subject Lines that Show Urgency

If readers don’t have a reason to click, and click now, then they probably won’t. The best way to get them to act is by showing urgency.

Retailers do this well. Their sales end soon. There’s a last chance for free 2-day shipping. For events, tickets are going fast. For online webinars, space is limited.

Columbia Sportswear’s email marketing newsletter reminds subscribers when sales are about to end.

columbia sportswear subject line: "25% off ENDS TODAY!"

Words and phrases to include:

  • “Last chance”
  • “Ends today”
  • “Almost sold out”
  • “Final hours”

And throwing in an exclamation mark with capitalization may not hurt either.

So why do these subject lines work so well? It’s because we never want to miss an opportunity. F.O.M.O is innate in all of us. Tell your subscribers their ability to act is coming to an end.

We also operate through something call the Eisenhower decision matrix. It was coined by Dwight Eisenhower. You know, that military general, President of Columbia University and U.S. President.

In the Eisenhower decision matrix, we balance urgency with importance. And the sad truth is that if something is urgent, even if it’s not important, we’ll probably address that one first.

Eisenhower decision matrix: Important vs. urgent

When you give your readers a reason to act urgently, they are more likely to. Even if the task isn’t that important.

Personalized Email Subject Lines

Emails aren’t broadcasts, or mass announcements. They’re letters. Even if that letter isn’t on a piece of paper at all. Letters are also personal, and your emails should be too.

When you include the recipient’s name in the email subject line, you see significantly higher open rates than if you didn’t.

In a study by SaleCycle, they found that including a customer’s name in the email subject drove to a 46% open rate. That open rate even outperformed when they tested a variation that had an Urgent tone (only 41% open rate).

The companies who do personalization best are the same companies who have a lot of personalized data on their subscribers: social networks.

Try this: If you use Gmail, search for “subject:” and your first name.

Gmail: Search in:subject with your first name

You will see the search results for every email you received that include your first name in the subject line.

Gmail search results for your first name in the subject line

It’s probably no surprise that social networks, Netflix, music subscription services, charities and organizations who know your name are using it.

Personalization works, and it doesn’t have to only be a first name. If you are an e-commerce retailer, you could include the name of the product they most recently purchased, or a product they recently added to their shopping cart.

If you are following up on a customer service call, you could include the name of your own customer service representative in the email subject, like: “How was your call with Michael?”

Use the data you have to personalize in new ways.

Or, do what Disney does: combine personalization with urgencies.

Disney combines urgency with personalization in their emails. The subject line reads: "First name, EXCLUSIVE, FREE, LIMITED TIME OFFERS"

We can imagine they got higher open rates by combining these two tactics than alone.

Tell Them a Story, But Make Sure it has a Cliffhanger

We forget statistics. We misquote facts. But we live for stories. We are motivated by stories. And somethings those facts and figures just rationalizeĀ the decisions we want to make.

When you open an email marketing subject line with a story, you want to give them a reason to click. A reason to “turn the page.”

Indie Hackers is a community of tech founders and people working on a sideproject. It’s owned and funded by Stripe. From their community, they source stories. Those stories are sent to their subscribers with clear, enticing subject lines.

Indie Hackers’ email campaign has a subject that reads: “How I got over 3,000 paying customers as a first-time founder.” And that’s it. But it’s enough for other first-time founders to click.

Indie Hackers subject line

You can tell other people’s stories, or you can tell your own. Just follow this structure:

How [ I / we / a mother of 3 / a veteran / a full-time student / a retiree ] got ##### [ paying customers / YouTube fans / in revenue ]

People love underdog stories. Play with your subject to show how, against all odds, there was a result.

Use the word “Free”

If something is free, tell them. Email marketers used to avoid the word “free” like the plague, because those emails ended up in spam filters.

But the web got smarter. Email clients began using savvier filtering and screening. This change came along with retailers offering free shipping. The word “free” was no longer reserved for spammers. It was now being used by Amazon and Wal-Mart.

And frankly, web content and offerings got better. Online courses that would have cost $200 10 years ago are now given away for free with an email sign-up.

So don’t avoid “free.” Embrace it.

But Avoid Spam Stop Words

Not all words and phrases have been given the all-clear like “free.” Avoid these words and phrases:

  • $$$
  • 100% free
  • Be your own boss
  • Cash bonus
  • Cheap
  • Debt relief
  • Double your income
  • Earn $
  • Eliminate debt
  • F r e e
  • Financial freedom
  • Financially independent
  • Free offer
  • Income from home
  • Limited time offer
  • Make $

If you’re using these phrases in your subjects, readers probably don’t want your emails anyway.

Use Emojis, or Not

We mentioned this tip in our email marketing split testing guide. Sometimes emojis work well, and other times they don’t. You should try them and see if they perform well for you.

Emojis used to be popular in email marketing, but people got jaded. And they stopped being the secret tactic for sky-high open rates.

Even worse, emojis vary across devices. Look at this example for the pistol emoji. Depending on the device and service, it could be anything from a squirtgun to a supersoaker to a gun.

Plus, emojis are visual. We have different interpretations of images. And there’s always the chance that people will misinterpret what you mean.

I mean, what exactly does this water drops emoji mean?

Different readers will have different interpretations. The more you use emojis, the more confusion you may introduce.

And as open rates with emojis fall back to average, email marketers have just said they don’t need them.

Combine Your Favorite Tactics, and Test

Best practices are only best practices because they have been tested. If you can think of a different variation that we haven’t included, test it.


Create a sense of urgency.


Use “free” if something is free.

Tell your own story, or someone else’s.

Try emojis.

Test every tactic, and every combination of these, plus your own. Never stop testing.