The magic and mystery of the best email subject lines

September 21, 2016 Rachel Innes

‘Hey’. That single word was the most successful email subject line of Obama’s re-election campaign – helping to bring in millions of dollars and win him another term in the White House.


Writing good subject lines is an art, a science, and absolutely key to the success of your fundraising email campaign. Here are some tips for nailing the million-dollar mix of magic, mystery and measurement that will get your emails opened.


Use the element of surprise

According to this study by MailChimp, subject lines that include the word ‘donate’, ‘charity’ and even ‘helping’ are unlikely to be opened. To inspire your busy, email-saturated reader to open your message, you need to make them curious.


In the case of Obama’s famous ‘hey’ email, it was the combination of the very casual subject line, and the fact that it was coming the President. You can also use questions, use a touch of tabloid drama, or just be as weird as possible. Consider these cryptic, compelling subject lines sent out by charities last year:


Breaking: Gray Wolves
why I’m emailing you
best way to solve the worst problems
Would you look at this…
It’s not possible
A donkey, INXS and a powerful storm
Something to Love
Stories that haunt me
What DIDN’T PETA Do in 2015?


Be curt

While you’ll have to test what lengths work best for your specific topic, this 2012 study by Mailer Mailer found emails with subject lines under 15 characters had higher open rates. (website unavailable) Short and sweet subject lines are more intriguing, and also tend to sound like they’re coming from a colleague or friend. Think:


Quick Reminder


Play up last-minute urgency

When it comes to your follow-up email, there’s no more time to be mysterious and aloof. Your subject line should now be calling attention to the screaming urgency of your approaching deadline. The Huffington Post offered these examples:


This is it
RE: Urgent deadline: all gifts DOUBLED!
Nature Needs You! Give by MIDNIGHT!
This is your last chance
almost there
We can’t afford to fall short
Almost out of time


Test it all out

There’s a whole lot of research out there on different subject line tactics. But you won’t know which works best for your audience until you systematically test them out. First figure out what you’re testing – perhaps it’s length, the use of personalisation, or how your audience respond certain words. Then do an a/b test on two subject lines that are sent out at the same time, to the same number of people. Campaign Monitor have a step-by-step guide to a/b testing subject lines here.


– Felicity Kitson

Felicity has experience with a wide range of projects and can work in a variety of media. She has practical knowledge in research and writing and has used these skills in a range of industries including travel, education, medical and home renovation.