Master Your Subject Lines in 49 Characters or Less

Email messages are the steam engine behind much of your marketing these days. They’re cheap, they’re fast, and . . . they’re completely ineffective unless recipients open them and act on the message.

Recipients are tempted to open messages, in large part, based on what they encounter in the subject line.

©SuZan Alexander, Come Fly With Me V. Photograph. Used with permission.
©SuZan Alexander, Come Fly With Me V. Photograph. Used with permission.

Your subject line is almost more important than the content of the email. If the message is never opened, you might as well have not sent it.

To the point: The purpose of your email subject line is to get the recipient to open the email. It’s not a space-filler and should never be an afterthought. You can’t take a subject line for granted. Follow these 7 tips for better subject lines.

1. Make it personal.

Think about your subscribers and readers. Which ones are your strongest prospects? Which are your loyal collectors?

Write directly to these people as you’re crafting your message and your subject line by opting for the words You and Your over Me, My and Mine as much as possible. Write to them in a conversational, authentic tone.

The words You and Your are powerful. Did you notice how many times I’ve used them in this article? I’m writing to you, not for or about me. Examples of You-centered subject lines include the following.

  • It won’t be a party if you’re not there
  • Can’t wait to show you the 3rd photo from the left
  • Picture yourself sipping wine and looking at art

2. Be specific.

©Marnie Pitts, Oblivious. Oil and egg tempera on wood. 80 x 60 centimeters. Used with permission.
©Marnie Pitts, Oblivious. Oil and egg tempera on wood. 80 x 60 centimeters. Used with permission.

Don’t use the same subject line for every email to your list. If we see the subject line News from Diane Jenson’s Studio every month in our inboxes, we begin to think it’s the same message over and over again.

You want readers to know that there is unique content in each message. Using the same subject line for every email masks the value of the individual messages.

If you’re promoting a particular event in your email, use the location of the event in the subject line.

  • Just 1 of 82 artists in Breckenridge next weekend
  • Chocolate and art in New Orleans Nov 5

Or use the title of a specific work instead of simply acknowledging “new work” in general. These two examples use titles from real-life artwork.

  • Cake on Cake—the fat-free version
  • Dazed and Confused? There’s a painting for that

3. Use numerals instead of text.

The number 50 has more of a visual impact than the word fifty. Note, however, that I chose to use 49 in the title of this article because 49 is an unexpected and, therefore, a more interesting number than 50.

4. Pay attention to length.

Fifty characters, including spaces, is a reasonable length for a subject line.

The experts are all over the map on this. Some say shorter subject lines (17-24 characters) are best – especially for reading on mobile. Others encourage using more characters since the typical inbox displays 60 characters.

Given such a wide range of advice, you would benefit from 1) testing your subject lines and 2) placing your call to action words at the beginning of a longer subject line that might be read on a mobile device. For example, Sip wine and look at art rather than Picture yourself sipping wine and looking at art.

5. Notice and rework headlines in the media.

Read newspaper headlines for ideas and, as numerous copywriters suggest, study the headlines on the covers of magazines – Cosmopolitan, in particular.

Some time ago, I snagged some headlines from the Cosmopolitan website and came up with these off the top of my head. Headline Your Subject Line
Decode How He Handles His Drink Decode How I Handle a Torch

Decode the Paint Patterns on My Palette

10 Things Women Do Better Than Men 10 Things Women Artists Do Better Than Male Artists

10 Things Artists Do Better Than Other People

Controversial subjects are great to spark interest! Don’t shy away if you have the content.

How to Stop Hating Wednesdays How to Stop Hating Gallery Openings

Message: Come to mine where we’ll have a good time.

Feel Instantly Happier: This Surprising Color Can Change Your Mood Funny how this might work for you without changing a word, but of course you’re more creative than copying someone else’s headline.

6. Ask a question.

Questions are powerful! People have opinions about everything and are happy to be asked. If you want to engage your readers in a dialogue, use a question in your subject line. Something like: Will you be at the gallery on Thursday?

7. Scour your inbox.

As I was writing this article I paid close attention to the subject lines that were populating my inbox. My favorite so far is: LIVE HUMAN BEINGS. It was sent by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Normally, you wouldn’t use all capital letters in a subject line, but the words piqued my curiosity. As it turns out, they were promoting docent-led tours of their current exhibition. Brilliant! The subject line Live Human Beings outshines Docent Tours Available every time.

©Pamela Wamala, Breeze at the Marsh. Pastel, 23.5 x 29.5 inches. Used with permission.
©Pamela Wamala, Breeze at the Marsh. Pastel, 23.5 x 29.5 inches. Used with permission.

Take a minute to glance over your inbox. Notice the subject lines you’re drawn to and which you delete without thought.

Then review your past few email broadcasts. How could you have written the subject line differently in order to get a better open rate?

Share your headlines below and maybe you’ll get some feedback.

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61 thoughts on “Master Your Subject Lines in 49 Characters or Less”

  1. Thanks for this great reminder – the subject line, like a headline, is what grabs someone’s interest and makes them read further. Or not. I’ve read varying opinions on subject lines for e-newsletters, and many “authorities” will tell you to use the same subject line so people will know what they are getting (ie: Painted Wind Studio News). But I like your suggestion of combining the interesting subject line with an identifier. Thanks again Alyson!

    1. Kate: I think about what I open first in my inbox. And it’s certainly not anything that says “News” in the title. That sounds so boring to me. Especially if it’s the same every time.

      I used to send mine out with “Art Marketing Action” in the subject line every week — before I had this epiphany.

    2. Great newsletter! Just what I needed for this week. I will post some of my good subject lines later when I review what worked best. Then think of my next one to get more opens. Thanks!

  2. I have to admit I was kind of disappointed that there wasn’t some special reason for the number 49 because, yes, the first thought I had was “huh, 49? Why not 50?”

    Most tellingly, however, it did make me think and if I hadn’t already been predisposed to opening Alyson’s newsletter that might have enticed me. As for my own eNewsletter subject lines? I don’t even remember – and that’s certainly not good.

    So, thank for this because definitely I need to pay more attention to my eNewsletter and its subject line.

  3. Pingback: Distinguish Great from Good Content — Art Biz Blog

  4. I’ve been sending photographs to my mailing list under the subject line Photos from Linda (and then the date) for years. The next mailing will start *Linda’s Photos* (and then words related to the content). Thank you so much for this terrific advice. Your giving the reasons for this practice is what sold me.

    1. Linda: See if that works for you. And, if you can, get the character count down for your identifier: LindasPhotos ?? Not sure. I’m beginning to worry about long identifiers because they take up so much space and make the email look the same. Wondering about this practice more and more and may have to rethink it for the future.

  5. Alyson,

    Your article is full of insight and helpful advice (as always)!
    I just started to write newsletters and it was helpful for me to subscribe to the newsletter of artists I admire. Not all of them write good newsletters or blog posts but it helped me to understand which content I engage with and which information was just plain boring.
    Another thing to remember: yes, it helps to do some research upfront (newsletter format, content, headlines etc), but nothing beats SENDING a newsletter. Just do it and tweak the details as you learn along the way!

    Thank you for sharing your expertise!

  6. Wonderful insights Alyson, thank you! The subject of headline selection is essencial in my case, for example, as I am forced to think about, and have already done so, how the era that is the love of my life, may engage modern sensibilities.

  7. This is such a great topic, Alyson, and one that I struggle with every month. Thanks for the very valuable tips!

  8. Just a comment on newsletters. A newsletter has been the best thing I ever did for my art business. Only those who are interested in my work subscribe, and I have had most of my commissions as a direst result of my newsletters. I have found that if I ask a question, more people respond and follow to find out what others think on a topic.

  9. Your blog posts are always so timely for me. I am getting ready to send out an email blast for my next workshop. Needed a kick in the pants to make my next headline more creative!

  10. Hey Alyson

    Have you maybe done a blogpost previously about the visual lay-out of an email and how to do it in such a way that it is appealing to the recipient? If so, will you please share the link, otherwise, can you please recommend information I can look at?
    Thank you for all the insight always.


  11. Really great ideas here Alyson – I’ve been looking for new ways to pep up my subject lines/blogpost headlines as I’m bored with my own formulas so heaven knows how the readers feel!
    Looking through my mailbox I realise it’s super-important not to make it the title so obvious that the reader feels like they don’t even need to read the post to know what you’re going to say! I trashed several that gave me that feeling!

  12. Dear Alyson,
    As usual your newsletter touches on an import issue I am in the process of fine-tuning in my own art business. Thank you for this great, inspirational post as I re-ignite my newsletter production. Your advice is always timely and spot on! Thanks

  13. Oh wow, Alyson. This is extremely helpful as I often struggle on the subject lines for my blogs. I can definitely see these ideas, making that particular part of the creative journey less painful. Thanks so much!

  14. Thanks for this informative article. I tend to use the “me,my, mine” language so I will pay more attention and try “you and yours”. After I closed this article I saw a headline from public radio which read…Bees, the “hippie wasps” we all need. It caught my attention and I thought of changing it to…Pottery the “hippie cups” we all need.

  15. As others have said, “very timely!” I write a monthly newsletter and have not thought about the subject line once. Just my business name + month + newsletter. BORING!!! I have gotten lovely replies from friends and family members, but how many on my list actually open and read it? Will be exploring ways to be strategic, creative, and interesting with the subject line from now on. As one comment suggested, this turns a monthly “task” into something fun! Thanks for the helpful tips, Allyson!

  16. I know this article is a few years old, but the information is still so helpful and relevant! I used one of your suggestions and I’m seeing a great open rate. Thank you for sharing these fabulous tips, Alyson!

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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