top of page

6 Ways to Spice Up Your Email Subject Line

Email is not dead. In fact, a recent poll found that non-profit donors still prefer receiving email communication over Facebook ads or texts. Nearly 42% of respondents said they prefer to hear from a nonprofit via email, and 20.5% said an email from the organization would inspire them to donate again. That’s just one of the reasons we encourage our clients to invest in their email programs.

The coronavirus has altered the way many advocacy groups, campaigns, and non-profits are able to organize and fundraise. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has also impacted many organizations’ email programs. Since the pandemic began earlier this year, email volume has increasedemail sends were up by 19% in March 2020 over the previous month, which makes sense considering marketers know a majority of Americans are spending more time indoors and in front of their electronic devices. Email deliverability rates have actually improved since the pandemic began, from 87.15% in 2019 to 87.92% in 2020; email open rates, however, have sunk by about 1%.

While your organization’s email is more likely to actually land in the recipient’s inbox, your supporters and members are less likely to open it. So, how do you cut through the noise of the hundreds of other emails in your supporters’ inboxes? More enticing subject lines! Studies have shown that 47% of email recipients will open an email based on the subject line alone. With this in mind, we’ve created a list of things to test to help your organization spice up its subject lines and increase your email open rates.

Use language that’s specific and make an ask

Are you emailing your supporters about a specific campaign? Does your organization need a certain amount of signatures, calls, or letters sent in the next two days? Put that in your email subject! Using a subject line like, “We need 25 more signatures” or “25 more signatures needed in 2 days” will provide a quick preview of the email content, while also making a specific ask. This content is compelling and it clearly demonstrates a need that the recipient can fulfill. Including a clear deadline in your subject line -- “We have 4 days to raise $5,000” -- gives the recipient a reason to act or donate now, as opposed to next week or next paycheck.

While making a specific ask and using specific language in your email can be beneficial, that doesn’t necessarily mean your email subject line needs to be long: MailerMailer found that longer subject lines tend to have lower open rates. While subject lines with 4-15 characters had a 15.2% open rate, subject lines with 51+ characters had an open rate of just 10.4%. This fact is disputed by other studies which have found that subject lines with 28-39 characters had the highest open rate. While statistics vary, it’s always a good idea to keep mobile subject line preview lengths in mind.

Use verbs

Beginning your email subject line with a verb works especially well for non-profit organizations, and it also goes hand-in-hand with making a specific ask. For instance, “Watch this video now and add your name” or “Sign Your Name Here.” Verbs ask the recipient to do something specific as a result of reading it. “Walk with us this weekend” is much more compelling than “The Marathon” — the latter could be about anything and leaves the recipient without an actionable task.

Use numbers

When using specific language, stating a specific goal, or making a specific ask, try including a number. For instance, “10 More Days” or “5 More Supporters.” A recent study that analyzed 115 million emails suggested that email open and reply rates were higher when a number is present in the subject line. While numbers can increase your open rates, try to limit your number-usage to under 3 to 5 digits — using larger numbers or too many numbers may trigger your provider’s spam filter.

Use characters: brackets, emdashes, periods, question marks, quotes, & emojis

Mobile Marketer reported that subject lines with an emoji are 66% more likely to be open than those without. Use an emoji to convey information that would have otherwise been conveyed through words (for instance, “We ❤️ Our Supporters”), or to supplement your subject line (“Have you mailed your ballot yet? 🗳️”). While digital professionals are still on the fence about emoji-use in email subject lines, one thing is certain: Limit your emoji use to no more than 2 or 3 emojis in one subject line, make sure the emoji(s) you use directly relates to your subject matter, and always make sure your emoji is compatible with all browsers and phone types to ensure they display correctly.

The use of characters and grammatical symbols in your subject line is another fun way to spice up your email subject line. Posing a question in an email subject line (“Have you signed our petition yet?”) is particularly effective at engaging your supporters. Our brains are hardwired to focus on questions. Questions trigger a mental reflex called “instinctive elaboration” — when a question is posed, it literally takes over your brain’s thought process — so they can be particularly effective in catching and keeping your recipient’s attention.

Using other symbols like emdashes, periods, brackets, or quotes can also be useful in distinguishing your subject line. For instance, “We need you--sign our petition,” “3 Days Left//Sign Now,” or “[Today] is the day.” While grammarians might cringe, using less common symbols like dashes or brackets stands out in a text-heavy inbox, and draws the eye to your email line.

Try something totally different

Every supporter list is different and so while tried-and-true tactics work with some lists, trendier subject lines might do better for other lists. If it’s appropriate for your organization, trying different and new subject lines can be a great experiment to figure out what works with your particular group.

In 2019, we saw presidential campaigns follow Bernie Sanders’ lead and experiment with entire paragraphs in the subject line. Every email program and audience is unique, which is why testing subject lines is so important.

As we mentioned above, the jury is still out on emojis — while some studies demonstrate their effectiveness in open rates, others aren’t as conclusive. Using an emoji-only subject line like “📬🗳” could provide interesting results with your particular support list. The same goes for symbols and special characters: “We’re ↑ the bar” or “**Today** is the day.” While these less common subject lines may not work for every audience, if it fits with the general tone of your organization and email subject matter, it’s certainly worth a try.

Test, test, test

Any digital professional will tell you that email subject line testing is one of the most important things for any email program. No matter what your strategy, it’s of the utmost importance to test your subject lines. No matter your email list size, doing an A/B test or simply trying different approaches is so important. Trends change over time and so does your audience. What worked a year ago might not work today. Your results may surprise you, and you may learn more about what intrigues and inspires your supporters.


bottom of page