How not to pick your subject lines

Candice Landau   •   September 17, 2014

How not to pick your subject lines

Over the years I have to come to believe in the combined power of gut instinct and creativity over best-practice guidelines, rules and data.

Every time I think of relying on data alone (A/B tests and Analytics results) to try to assess the ‘best’ subject lines of the month in order to figure out how to craft even more wildly successful subject lines, a little bit of my soul dies.

It’s not that I don’t find data useful, it’s simply that for things that require a good measure of creativity, analytics reports should be taken with a pinch of salt.

There are simply too many factors to take into account to say why a particular article was most popular: was it on a topic people were searching for at the time? Did it get picked up by the right person and shared the most? Was it indeed the most creative, enticing subject line? Did it have a captivating image attached? Was the article description particularly interesting?

To say a subject line is worthy of being turned into a ‘model’ simply because it got the most clicks is daft.

It’s like reviewing the titles on the New York Times Bestseller List and then using those titles to say ‘here’s a formula for a title that will make a book sell’.

Of course, I know and I’m sure you know that people do not buy books based on title alone. Some of the most popular books of all time have had the most unassuming titles – ‘The Alchemist’, ‘Lolita’, ‘Watership Down’, ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’…

If we were to infer that these books were popular because of their title, or if we were to craft books with similar titles, thinking that they’d sell because we had a ‘tried and tested’ formula, we’d be in for some severe disappointment.

There are a number of things we take into account before buying a book, including: the blurb on the back of the book, placement of the book in the store or online, marketing, recommendations from friends, our relationship with or knowledge of the author, awards or accolades the book has received, writing quality, writing style, current affairs and the zeitgeist (dystopias all the way for me!).

ALL of these things contribute to whether or not a book will be successful. Never the title alone.

So why do so many marketers assume they can come up with a ‘formula’ for subject lines that will mean the success or failure of an article?

Of course, I am not saying do not look at the data or the stats, but be careful before you draw a conclusion. You may not be seeing the whole picture.

Ed Catmull, one of Pixar’s co-founders says as much in his book, Creativity, Inc:

“We aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps. The illusion that we have a complete picture is extraordinarily persuasive.”

For this reason, I don’t stress too much about the research on most ‘clickworthy’ subject lines. I read it but it’s not the end all and be all. It’s someone else’s interpretation, and as each of us have developed our own mental models, or ways of understanding the world, these interpretations are as prone to error as the ‘creative instinct’.

Personally, I prefer to go with the latter, with my gut.


Instead of looking for a subject line formula, try looking for overall patterns and considering a multitude of factors. If a post on ‘How to Pitch Your Startup in Social Situations’ is popular, we should not automatically infer that ‘how to’ posts are all the rage. Rather, look at the overall picture. Did the post get picked up and shared by a company that many people interested in startups follow? Are startups a hot topic at the moment? Is this a question people desperately want answers to? Is this a question people haven’t thought to ask but that’s relevant? Where was it posted (that one is HUGE as it means instant access to a relevant or engaged audience – or the complete opposite).

The subject line is indeed one of the things that you’re going to need to put a lot of work into. After all, it’s the hook. It’s like the opening paragraph in a book. It has to be really good. It has to be a promise for even better content within. But, once a reader has clicked the link, the subject line has done it’s job. Now, the article takes over.

Putting it into context

This weekend I started reading ‘Outlander‘ by Diana Gabaldon. It’s a NYT Bestseller and has now even got its own televised series.

I’ve probably passed this book at least 10 times in the bookstore, never bothering to pick it up. After all, neither the title nor the dust jacket are very interesting.

The only reason I’m reading it now is that the introductory paragraph promises an unusual story, as does the opening line:

“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.”

That’s what sold it for me. 2 pages. Not the title, not the cover and not the blurb on the back. And, I doubt the NY Times or the book industry in general would suggest the title was what got it where it is.

It’s simply the promise of a good story (and of course the execution of the story).

How TO pick your subject lines

While I still value analytics tools to give me a broad overview of what is working and what isn’t working, when it comes down to crafting the most ‘click-worthy’ subject line, I believe in asking one question:

Would I click this link if it were sitting between 10 other links with fairly interesting titles?

You can A/B test review successful subject lines until the cows come home, but the truth of the matter is that ‘the thing which fascinates and intrigues’ will always triumph, regardless of whether it begins ’10 things writers can teach you about…’ or ‘how to master X in…X steps.’

A recipe for great subject lines

  • Your subject line should promise something (a good story ideally)
  • Your subject line should make the reader want to hear the ending to the story
  • Your subject line should promise original content
  • Your subject line should intrigue
  • Your subject line should appeal to one of our seven deadly sins

What do you think? Any more tips on writing a highly clickable subject line?

This article was originally published by Candice Landau on LinkedIn.

By |2019-05-07T07:38:41+00:00April 30th, 2019|Creative|