For email campaigns to actually be successful, customers have to be swayed to open the email in the first place.
This may sound obvious, but piquing a customer’s interest is more difficult than it seems.
Seriously. Attention spans are shorter, customers are bombarded, and the mad scramble to clear out inbox notifications is on.
So, what can be done to stand out from the crowd? Craft an email subject line that is simply too good for the customer to ignore.
To draw inspiration for your next email marketing campaign, we asked 13 business users to provide an example of the best subject lines they’ve come across, and what prompted them to open the email.
Best email subject lines
You’ll notice that all of the email subject lines in this article will fall in at least one of the categories below that make them irresistible.
Email subject lines that work
Simple subject lines
Single-word subject lines
Funny subject lines
Strange subject lines
Shocking subject lines
Personalized subject lines
Tempting subject lines
Urgent subject lines
Now that you know the anatomy of email subject lines with typically high open rates, let’s look at the examples provided by our contributors.
Simple email subject lines
Some marketers try too hard to capture a customer’s interest. Sometimes, the best way to intrigue customers is to scrap the complex subject lines and focus on something simple and no-frills.
1. “Thank you!!”
Sent by an undisclosed company
This example was provided to us by Saurabh Jindal, Founder & CEO of Talk Travel. Here’s what prompted him to open the email.
“I liked the no-frills attitude of the email. I am heavy on marking emails as spam, but because of its simplicity, it wasn’t marked as spam by the email engine. I thought it was a smart strategy by the marketer. They made me feel important, treasured and regained my loyalty. In an already congested-for-eye-space world, this was a simple yet smart way to market themselves and include me as well.”
We all enjoy being praised, even if we’re not entirely sure what for.
2. “Reserved a spot for you”
Sent by an undisclosed company
This example was provided to us by Rob Powell, Founder & CEO of Rob Powell Biz Blog. Here’s what prompted him to open the email.
“The email was about an upcoming webinar. What grabbed my attention was that it’s short and low key. With so many hard-sell subject lines, this made it stand out. I’m guessing the sender was aiming to be chatty – and he succeeded. This is the kind of subject line I might receive from a friend. That’s one of the reasons I opened it.”
Personalized and simple. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Single-word email subject lines
Muttering on and on can actually make for a dull customer experience. Differentiate your email subject line from the rest by literally typing one word. You may notice a change in open rates.
Borrowed from the Barack Obama election campaign
This example was provided to us by Jeff Rizzo, Founder & CEO of The Slumber Yard. Here’s what prompted him to open the email and borrow it for personal use.
“Our second most successful email subject line is so simple, I’m actually a little embarrassed to share it. We just write Hey. This works best if the email sender has a person's name rather than the company name. I distinctly remember borrowing this subject line from an email I received from Barack Obama years back. There's something so informal and personable about the word ‘Hey’ that it just begs people to open your email. We typically get an open rate of about 12.5%.”
When the creative juice just isn’t flowing, what do you have to lose?
This example was provided to us by Hung Nguyen, Marketing Manager at SmallPDF. Here’s what prompted him to open the email and borrow it for personal use.
“It was short, attention-grabbing, and aroused my curiosity, as you don’t know what’s within the email. The company that sent the newsletter has an online customer service application, so it could've been a customer-related horror story, a traditional marketing/sales email, discount, referral, or even a sales pitch. The subject line wasn't even that innovative. I see it every year. But hey, if it ain't broke, why fix it, right?”
Bonus points for timeliness and use of emojis, which yields a 56 percent higher open rate, according to Experian.
Funny email subject lines
Did you ever imagine a subject line could be so funny or clever, you just had to open the email? The subject lines below definitely fall within this category.
5. “You’ve got 99 problems but high fares ain’t one! 99% off”
Sent by Frontier Airlines
This example was provided to us by Amandah Blackwell, Founder of Savvy-Writer and Web Copy Consultant. Here’s what prompted her to open the email.
“What I like about is that it’s a play on Ariana Grande’s popular song (ft. Iggy Azalea), “Problem.” And the subject line was timely since Grande has been in the news due to calling off her engagement with Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson. I had to open the email! Of course, the offer of 99% off fares was also an excellent incentive. The Black Friday email was an example of what-to-do in email marketing. You can write subject lines that will make subscribers want to open your emails. And remember that infotainment is important, too. Of course, you also have to give subscribers an offer they can’t refuse.”
What a clever play on words, but also shockingly actionable with the 99% off offer. Who could deny this email?
6. “Do you hate us? 🙁”
Sent by fabfitfun
This example was provided to us by Jessica Jager, Digital Marketing and Promotions Manager at Gold Eagle Company. Here’s what prompted her to open the email.
“I was a subscriber for fabfitfun for a while, but I never really opened their emails. I joined their list because I was thinking about purchasing, however, I changed my mind. After months of unopened emails, I received one with this subject line – which finally got me to actually open one of their emails. When I opened, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor of their email. It's a re-engagement email that is funny and engaging. And it accomplished their main purpose – to get someone who never opens their emails to actually open one.”
Not only is this subject line way out of left field, but it makes the customer ask themselves, “why would I hate this person?” Thus, opening the email to figure out what’s going on.
Jessica was courteous enough to provide us with the original email, and I have to admit, she’s spot on when she says how humorous it was. Click here to read the email.
Strange email subject lines
Our curiosity is piqued when we see something out of the ordinary. That’s just human nature. Crafting an out of the ordinary subject line is a preferred tactic for some email marketers, and it in some cases, it works!
7. “I have good news and bad news...”
Borrowed from the Banana Republic
This example was provided to us by previous contributor Jeff Rizzo of The Slumber Yard. Here’s what prompted him to open the email and borrow it for personal use.
“The average open rate for our emails is about 6%, however, this particular subject line had an open rate of about 14%. We found that it works best around major holidays, as consumers tend to be on edge, and any news (positive or negative) piques their interest. In fact, there's actually quite a bit of research that supports the idea of teasing people with bad news.”
If I came across this subject line, my curiosity would most definitely be piqued.
8. “Was it something we said?”
Sent by an undisclosed company
This example was provided to us by Vassilis Dalakas, Ph.D., a Professor of Marketing and Chair of Marketing at California State University San Marcos. Here’s what prompted him to open the email.
“It sounded more personal than the typical marketer emails and did not include anything suggesting selling like many marketing emails do. No offer or special or typical words. More importantly, it was relevant to what the email was about, which was the marketer stating they've noticed I wasn't opening their emails and essentially joking it must have been something they said. They then explained they'd try to do better in future emails. It made me chuckle, I opened the email, and I actually read subsequent emails from there on out.”
This subject line was creative, unusual, and broke from the traditional mold.
Shocking email subject lines
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book with such a horrifying plot, you just can’t look away? When done correctly, providing a shock-value within your email subject line can have the same effect.
9. “Black Friday shoppers are the worst customers”
Sent by LinkedIn
This example was provided to us by Georgi Todorov, Digital Marketing Expert and Backlink Builder at Digital Novas. Here’s what prompted him to open the email.
“It can sound a bit strange or at least quite provocative to receive this email, especially a few days before Thanksgiving. I opened the email because we are used to receiving messages only with offers to make us buy something. This could have been a mistake, but I’m quite sure the LinkedIn article would be something interesting and not a company risking profit. Since LinkedIn didn’t have anything to sell on Black Friday, I assumed it couldn’t cause damage to their business. In the end, it was a LinkedIn user’s article they were promoting, which questioned holiday marketing tactics and why people would spend their holiday's hunting offers they may not even need. LinkedIn and the author of the article had good insight to promote during the right moment and with a provocative email subject.”
If you planned on going Black Friday shopping, you’d open the email to see what all the commotion was about, right?
Personalized email subject lines
According to HubSpot, subject lines with the customer’s first name in it have a significantly higher open rate. The reason for this is simple. Many prefer personalization over templated emails.
10. “Devin, we're making a list and checking it twice 🎄”
Sent by Vidyard
I decided to include an email I recently received on this list because of its great display of personalization and timely play on words (it was sent around Christmas time).
The email itself was an interactive video they made for those on their email list – wishing them happy holidays. Kudos to Vidyard for crafting a personalized subject line and pairing it with some great email content.
11. “YOU come first”
Sent by The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
This example was provided to us by Bernard May, CEO of National Positions. Here’s what prompted him to open the email.
“It was short, simple, and not to the point, which made me want to open the email to see what was inside. 'I know I come first to my family' I thought, but why do I come first to the Department of Water and Power? The marketer used this personalization tactic to target every subscriber individually – while writing to all of us at the same time. A subject line doesn't always need to be flashy to be effective.”
While this example may not include a customer’s first name, it follows one of the key fundamentals in copywriting – using the word “you.” This ensures the customer that their best interests are in mind.
Tempting email subject lines
Humans can be tempted enough to do things we probably didn’t care to do in the first place. This is referred to as the Reverse Psychology of Temptation and is an email tactic some marketers prefer.
12. “Do NOT open until Cyber Monday...”
Sent by The Home T (e-commerce)
This example was provided to us by Caitlin Johnson, Content Manager at Dropship Lifestyle. Here’s what prompted her to open the email.
“I saw this email subject line in my promotions folder the Sunday before Cyber Monday. What made me click this? Out of so many others crowded my inbox, this one told me not to do something. It reminds me of being a kid and having to fight the urge to open all the Christmas gifts that were delivered early, especially those that were marked 'Don't Open Before Christmas.' What made the subject line so effective was the mystery of the message, and why I couldn’t open it early. Even the email preview was mysterious. I'm a marketer myself and saw this was intentional, mildly cheeky, but overall a great technique to use – sparingly of course!”
Telling someone to “not” do something? The temptation is far too great.
Urgent email subject lines
Creating a sense of urgency will have some customers catching a case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and honestly, that might be enough to get them to open the email.
13. “3 hours remaining in the sale!”
Crafted by Maple Holistics
This example was provided to us by Nate Masterson, CMO of Maple Holistics. Here’s what prompted him to craft the email.
“The goal behind any good email subject line is to elicit a click, and nothing compels a click like urgency. For example, the best sales subject lines are not the weekend sales events, they’re the '3 hours remaining in the sale.' This kind of email elicits the kind of urgency a customer can identify with. As long as it’s hours and not days left, it gives you the opening to continuously update your subscribers. The best subject lines are those that sound like they're doing the reader a favor, as opposed to fishing for a sale.”
Nate is right. We want our customers to feel urgent about clicking through to an email, but they need to understand there’s value in doing so.
Last minute email subject line tips
Too long, didn’t read? Here are some key tips you should consider before writing your next email subject line.
Write it out – Don’t settle on one or two subject lines. Jot down as many as you can, then collaborate with team members to narrow down your options. Not only will they provide helpful suggestions and edits, but you may discover a diamond in the rough.
Read it out – Whether you’re an email marketer or a copywriter, you should still read things out loud to ensure they make sense.
Be honest – Would you honestly click on an email with the subject line you’ve provided? Ask your team members as well. If the subject line is that disengaging, it’s time to switch it up.
Consider these tips during your next email marketing campaign, and you may just see higher engagement rates!
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Devin is a former Content Marketing Specialist at G2, who wrote about data, analytics, and digital marketing. Prior to G2, he helped scale early-stage startups out of Chicago's booming tech scene. Outside of work, he enjoys watching his beloved Cubs, playing baseball, and gaming. (he/him/his)