Email Subject Lines: Should You Be Silly or Serious?

email subject line debate

Email marketing software can tell you a lot of things about how your subscribers are interacting (or not interacting) with your email campaigns. You can find out if they opened, clicked, visited, converted, unsubscribed, and more.

But software has yet to provide an answer to one of the most persistent email marketing questions of our time: should your subject line be serious or silly?

It’s a hard question because it hinges on the type of content you’re sharing and the audience you’re trying to reach. So let’s take a look at both sides of the debate so we can come up with criteria for choosing your subject line’s tone.

The Case for Serious Email Subject Lines

First, a definition: serious subject lines don’t deviate from your email’s content at all. They read more like a news headline than clickbait.

No doubt about it, sticking to straightforward subject lines is the safest bet if you’re not sure which route to take. But if you’re looking for opens, engagement, and conversion, are these types of messages going to deliver?

In some cases, they will, but only if a serious tone is in keeping with the rest of your marketing messages and resonates with your audience.

Setting Expectations for Serious Situations

If you’re engaged primarily in B2B email marketing, keeping your subject line firmlyon point will most likely serve you best, and it’s more likely to be in keeping with the content you’re sending as well.

An email containing a research-driven white paper, for example, shouldn’t be delivered under the subject line, “We surveyed 2,000 people, and you won’t believe what they answered!”

Manage expectations during the signup process so that new subscribers are prepared for what’s heading to their inbox. If your website is basically a digital brochure but your email subject lines are full of clever puns, you’re likely to be hit with unsubscribes by confused recipients.

It’s not that they didn’t like your hilarious subject line, they just weren’t prepared for it.

How to Write a Serious Email Subject Line

Just because they’re serious doesn’t mean they have to be mind-numbingly boring, so give even your serious subject lines the attention they deserve.

These time-tested formulas will help you keep it on message without putting your subscribers to sleep:

  • If it’s about you, mention your brand or company name. Keep in mind that this type of email is only appropriate for subscribers who have explicitly opted in to get updates about your company. If they only want news about discounts, they probably won’t open company-focused emails no matter how well written the subject line is.
    • [Company Name] Names New VP of Marketing
    • Exciting Changes are Coming to [Product Name]
    • How [Brand Name] is Helping Homeless Kitties
  • Include a date of some kind. This is a good way to instill a sense of urgency in your audience without veering into sillier subject line territory. People are simply more inclined to open an email that has a built in expiration date, even it’s something as simple as today’s date.
    • Our Top Tweets This Week
    • What Customers Like You Bought in [Month] of Last Year
  • Tell, don’t sell. Even if it’s a sale. The most general rule of email subject lines is that they should tell what’s inside the email rather trying to sell anything to the recipient. Even if you’re letting people know about discounts or sales, don’t push the actual discount in the subject line:
    • Back to School Discounts on the Most Durable Kids Shoes
    • Sale This Weekend on Your Favorite Jeans
    • How Our Software Can Make You Better at Your Job
  • Consider the sales cycle, and segment appropriately. Ideally you’re using email marketing software that lets you craft email automations that you can map to your buyer’s journey. This will let you cater your email subject lines to the recipient’s point on that journey. If they’ve already consumed five pieces of content from your website, they’re going to be more receptive to information about your product/services than if they just happened upon a single blog post.
    • 3 Features of [Our Product] That HR Managers Use Everyday
    • More Articles Like [Title of Blog Post They Read] Just For You

The Case for Funny Email Subject Lines

Email marketers are being tasked with delivering more and more clicks, people are getting more and more emails, and we’ve got to make an impact somehow. Getting creative with subject lines is an obvious play.

The problem is that people are so spam-sensitive that using these kinds of subject lines can land us on a watch list faster than you can say “emoji.”

Just as expectations were critical to creating conversions with your serious email subject lines, if you’re planning to get silly you need to make sure your subscribers are prepared for it. This means your website, signup process, and marketing in general should be lighthearted.

You need to manage subscriber expectations from the very start of their relationship with your brand so that clever emails seem like a natural part of your brand voice.

How to Write a Silly Email Subject Line

Even if you’ve laid the groundwork for these kinds of interactions with customers, you need to proceed with caution when actually writing your subject line.

Be as honest as you can and ask yourself how you personally would react to seeing your subject line in your inbox. Would you delete? Open? Mark it as spam?

Try these tips for walking the fine line between getting chuckles and getting deleted:

  • Communicating with people is a privilege. Don’t abuse it with off color humor. There’s a difference between being funny and being offensive, and it’s a very important distinction. If you have to ask yourself if something is “too much,” it probably is.
  • Keep the focus on your subscribers, even when you’re being funny. Remember that people have agreed to let you into their inbox, and they are really only interested in how your email is going to help them. Even the cleverest email subjects need to keep the recipient in mind.
  • Make sure the humor translates. If your subscriber base includes any international customers, make sure that your humor applies to their cultural sensibilities and language idiosyncrasies. If you’re unsure about how your joke will play outside your own country, segment international users and give them a less silly version of the subject line.

When in Doubt, Use Your Subject to Tell, Not Sell

If you’re not sure about what tactics to try on your email list, it’s always best to err on the side of accuracy and meeting expectations.

Tell your subscribers what you’re offering them in an authentic and accurate way, and you’re much more likely to get strong engagement. (If you find yourself hesitant about being honest about your email content, it may be time for a review session.)

Sending clever infographics or links to your tongue-in-cheek blog articles? Silly it is.

Looking to establish thought leadership in your niche? Time for serious face.

Whatever the content of your email and the tone of your brand, it needs to continue throughout your email messaging.

Testing Subject Lines With Your Audience

You should test subject line variations constantly; even tiny changes can make a big difference (both positive and negative).

But you should also start with a list that’s as targeted as you can make it. It’s possible that you have subscribers who would like a more entertaining email campaign, while others are looking to get info and get out.

List segmentation is always important for keeping your email marketing relevant, but it’s even more important if you’re trying to reach a diverse audience.

You might also be more comfortable trying out more cutting-edge tactics with smaller portions of your list, which will let you push the envelope without putting your list’s health at risk.

What type of email subject lines have worked best for you? Let us know with a quick comment.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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