Subject lines: the secret shortcut into the subconscious

Most B2B marketers believe the sole purpose of a subject line is to get your email opened. Steve explains why that isn’t even half the job.

Subject lines: the secret shortcut into the subconscious

Everyone knows email subject lines are important. They’re an offer or a teaser that either pulls readers in and intrigues them, or turns them off completely and sends them reaching for the unsubscribe button.

But here’s the big secret: subject lines do so much more than just get your emails opened. Most of the time, they’re the only thing your contact will read. They move the conversation forward – whether the email gets opened or not.

Yes, that goes against everything you’ve probably ever learned about subject lines, but stay with me for a moment. Because even when a subject line is great, most emails these days never get opened. We monitor the open rate, and the unopened majority just gets written off.

Meanwhile, every email we receive hits our pocket and grabs our attention with a smartphone notification – and that means there is huge value to be gained by looking at subject lines as discrete communications in their own right.

When it comes to opening your emails, your contacts get a decision. But, as far as reading subject lines goes, they don’t really opt in, or even make a conscious choice. They just do it. All the time. Day and night.

Taking the shortcut into the subconscious

Chances are, like me, you have hundreds if not thousands of unread emails sat in your inbox, from various companies you’ve engaged with over the years. You’ve grown indifferent to them, rarely opening them, but not going to the effort to unsubscribe from them either.

Think about those companies for a moment, then think about what they’ve said to you recently. Maybe you know that they’re having a sale, that they’re running some kind of contest or other promotion, or that they’ve got a new product launch coming up.

How did you know that? You didn’t go looking for that information, and you certainly didn’t read their emails.


Adding a new ingredient to your subject line soup

So, you’ve made your peace with the fact that the companies you’ve shared your details with are using subject lines as a shortcut into your brain, and we’ve determined that subject lines have intrinsic value as standalone communications.

But what does that mean when we’re writing them?

Even before factoring that new consideration in, your subject lines were doing a lot of heavy lifting. In one way or another, they’re already trying to effectively:

  • Convey the value of opening your email
  • Grab attention without looking like generic clickbait
  • Demonstrate an understanding of your customers’ unique needs
  • Offer something new or insightful without giving everything away upfront

Now, in addition to all of that, you’ve also got the task of ensuring that your subject lines convey a clear message when removed from the context of the email itself.

Here are four quick tips to help you do that (without having to unlearn everything you already know about writing great subject lines):

1: Lead with a single compelling insight/takeaway

Some schools of thought strongly argue that you shouldn’t give your most valuable insight away upfront, because if you do there’s no reason for someone to click through to whatever you’re offering.

I’ve never really agreed with that. If you’re fortunate enough to have something really exciting to share, front-loading it has to be worth serious consideration, at least. Why would you reserve your most important message for just those who open the email – when you already know they’ll likely be the minority?

2: Beware the perils of teasing

Clickbaity subject lines may have worked once upon a time, but today, people know clickbait when they see it. If you create subject lines that purely tease instead of demonstrating value, people that don’t open your email get nothing.

Once you recognise that the people that don’t open your emails are still important contacts, it becomes clear how a dangerous teasing subject line can be. If you consistently provide value, you just might inspire enough interest for them to re-engage. But if you keep giving someone nothing, it won’t take long before they finally do open one of your emails, as they scour it for the unsubscribe button.

3: Personalise the whole subject line (not just their name)

Increasingly, technology allows you to send your contact a tailored email, with strong reasons to click through that are personal to them. So why can’t the same principles be applied in your subject lines?

And I’m not talking about dropping their name and company into a generic title. Your customers provide you with enough data for you to determine what matters to them, so there’s no reason why you can’t lead with a tailored line that really resonates.

4: If your email had an eight-word limit, what would you say?

Emails are a strange beast. Because there’s no real limit on how long or complex they can be, we’re all guilty of not getting to the point quickly enough or spending too long dancing around the big thing we really want people to know or do.

I start any email I write by thinking about what I’d want to say to the customer if I only had eight words to do it. That helps me create subject lines that inspire opens more often – but say what they need to when they’re unopened too.

Say something meaningful, be heard

Seeing your subject lines as discrete communications in and of themselves is important for two big reasons.

Firstly, it’s going to help you communicate with contacts that you’ve long thought of as disengaged and perhaps re-establish your relationship with them.

And secondly, it forces you to look at your subject lines in a completely new way – one that forces you to really consider what value they’re delivering, and whether they actually tell anyone anything.

If you say something meaningful in your subject lines, you’ll be heard – by far more people than your open rates would have you believe.


Steve is one of Radix’s most experienced and expressive writers. Beloved by our clients for his ability to turn simple ideas into high-performing content and campaigns, he blends strategic thinking with deep copywriting expertise to consistently deliver copy that gets results.

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