In Praise of Boring Subject Lines

By: Michael Kinstlinger, AMA Volunteer

One of the things that we, as email marketers, learn at every stop is the importance of subject lines. Content, CTA, RTB, SSL/Header and timing are all major factors, but if an email is a discussion at a singles bar, the subject line is the pick-up line. It sets the tone, lets the recipient know what they’re in for and attempts to attract eyeballs from an otherwise crowded inbox.

Understandably, marketers, copywriters and even coders love the appeal of a well-crafted subject line. In less than 75 characters, it can be witty, timely, smart, and inspires curiosity – “Wait, what does THAT mean? I’ll open this email.”

Sounds great all around, right? Except when it’s not. Often times, when I check out the metrics on a send, we’ll see that the winner in terms of opens and clicks IS the crafted subject line, but when we look at the more important downstream KPI metrics such as CToR, cart visits and purchases, the ‘traditional’ subject line is actually the winner. While this may dampen the spirits of the people who created and chose the more fun version, I remind myself and the team that success isn’t the fist-pump feeling from a slick subject line, but what is fulfilling the customer’s main desire.

Smart, funny and irreverent subject lines can be the building block of a valuable email campaign or increase interest in emails of type (re-engagement, build database, cart abandonment) that they might otherwise avoid. But, the key is making the subject line match the creative experience and NOT pulling a bait and switch where the subject line promises too much, especially if your list is recurrent – one thing that saps interest from an audience is a previous experience that was overhyped.

Sometimes, the best subject lines are those that let the person know exactly what you’re selling and what the benefit is to them and that can be boring. And that’s OK. Don’t waste too many resources in making the SL stand out when it should be about being straightforward and applicable not only to what’s inside, but who the email is being sent to.


Michael Kinstlinger is a Senior Email Campaign manager at havascx.  He enjoys the intersection of data, creativity and analytics inherent in each email.