Select Page

7 Types of Unconventional Email Subject Lines That Increase Open Rates

Travis Balinas
August 25, 2015

People receive 88 emails per day on average. That’s a lot of emails for the recipient and some stiff competition for the senders. Depending on the industry, only 15 to 22 percent of those emails will ever be opened. How do you make sure your email is one of them? It all starts with a jaw-dropping email subject line.

Forget Formal and Think Abnormal

33 percent of consumers say the subject line is what makes them open an email.

We’re all familiar with the conventional methods and best practices for writing email subject lines. Those methods are tried and true, but sometimes you have to think outside of the box or risk letting your message die inside the inbox.

Bonus Content: Grab a copy of our Email Marketing Roadmap.

Get It Now

If you need an example of an unconventional email campaign, look no further than the 2012 presidential election. Political opinions aside, the Obama campaign put on a show, abandoning conventional best practices and embracing email subject lines and content that boggled the mind of recipients, left members of the news media baffled, and created cannon fodder for late-night comedians.

But as the old saying goes, he who laughs last laughs loudest. The Obama campaign’s unconventional email campaign accounted for most of the unprecedented $690 million in campaign donations raised online.

1: In a Word: “Hey”

“Hey” is perhaps the most famous of the Obama campaign’s email subject lines, and that’s probably because it flies in the face of expectation in every possible way. It’s one word, it’s vague, and it’s beyond casual. It’s the kind of subject line you expect from your college roommate, not a president. Not only is it personal, but it also stands out against the competition, if only for its novelty.

Of course, being the President of the United States probably helps increase email open rates, too. While you may not have that going for you, there’s no reason you can’t give the one-word email subject line a shot and measure your results. It may be just the trick to wake up and engage a sleeping but loyal brand advocate.

Take this real estate subject line for example:

Before: “This New Location Is a Virtual Paradise”

After: “Paradise”

2: Let’s keep this casual, okay?

Do your friends and family take the time to use headline capitalization in their email subject lines? I didn’t think so. As a recipient, when you see that carefully crafted capitalization staring back from your inbox, you know you’re dealing with something business related — and easily deleted. The president side-stepped this issue and so can you.

Here’s a presidential example: “Sometime soon, can we meet for dinner?” That’s more likely to make you pause than something along the lines of “Join Us for Yet Another Fundraiser,” right?

A more casual email subject line will catch your reader’s attention. Even if it’s only for a second, that extra consideration may be enough to encourage a curious click, especially if the subject line is relevant. Here’s how this would work in the HVAC industry, for example:

Before: “Seasonal A/C Maintenance Is Essential for Summer Comfort”

After: “How’s your air conditioner working? Are you staying cool?”

3: I Want You…to Stop Using “We”

We all do it, right? We use the not-so-royal “we” when creating business emails. We represent our companies, so it makes sense to speak in terms of our groups, right? While that may be true, it doesn’t give the reader a feeling of personal connection.

“We” is a faceless entity that doesn’t care enough to send a human representative to make contact. “I” is a person who wants to talk to “you” and “me.” See the difference? The Obama campaign did. Consider this 2012 campaign gem: “I’m saving you a seat.” But this can work in any industry. Let’s try homeowner’s insurance…

Before: “3 Things We Think Our Customers Should Know About Homeowner’s Insurance”

After: “I think you should know this before purchasing homeowner’s insurance.”

4: Don’t Tell, Converse

Ever hear the saying, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” The same logic applies here. While it’s awesome that you can make your point succinctly using 60 characters or less, making your point in the email subject line leaves no reason for the reader to open the email.

Instead, start a conversation. Give them a reason to engage and reply. Consider this before-and-after example from Jason James:

Before: “We apologize for running out of our sale item.”

After: “I need to apologize for something.”

The second headline leaves you wondering what they’ve done wrong, right? When Jason tested his more conversational subject line, he found it received a 62.9 percent email open rate, and that’s an 81 percent increase from his list’s average!

Bonus Content: Grab a copy of our Email Marketing Roadmap.

Get It Now

5: Let’s Get Personal

Have you tried getting on a first-name basis with your clients? Not only is it more personal, but it also yields results. A study revealed that personalized emails have a 22 percent higher email open rate and a 41 percent unique click-through rate compared to non-personalized emails. Check out this example from The Daily Egg:

Before: “Any feedback for Feedback Loop?”

After: “John, How’s it going?”

Testing revealed that the personalized title received a 68.18 percent email open rate, a vast improvement over the respectable 28.57 percent open rate of the original.

6: Flattery Gets You Everywhere

This may be hard to pull off with mass mailings, but with a more targeted approach, flattering email subject lines can make an impact. (You will need to be really familiar with the contact.) Here’s a before-and-after example:

Before: “7 Content Strategies That Are Perfect for Facebook”

After: “I love your Facebook content!”

Instead of coming straight at the reader with advice, this subject line lets the reader know you’ve noticed how great their content has been lately. Then in the body of the email, you can continue by expressing your admiration before segueing into a few ideas of your own. In this way, the email becomes more of a brainstorming session between colleagues.

Steve Young at tested a similar email subject line — “Your Amazing Photos” — in a cold recruitment email. His email open rate was 70 percent with a 25 percent conversion rate. So maybe flattery really does get you everywhere!

7: Just Be Creative

Not everything has to be professional, boring and super straightforward. It doesn’t hurt to inject a little humor and personality in there sometimes, and it just might produce results. Here are a few bonus ideas to get the creative juices flowing.

Lists of three — If you’ve seen the “Wizard of Oz,” you’re familiar with at least one famous example, as seen here:

Before: Explore the Local Zoo, Just 5 Miles From Our Properties

After: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Alliteration — Call me crazy, but constantly occurring consonants can come across as quite catchy. Enjoy this edgy example:

Before: Have Your Ductwork Inspected to Ensure Optimal Home Comfort

After: Disconnected Ductwork Doesn’t Do Diddly for Daytona Homeowners

Rhyme – You don’t have to listen to rap music to understand the power of a good rhyme. Rhyme has been a staple of music and poetry since who knows when. Why not put it to use in your email subject lines?

Before: 7 Signs Your Pet May Need to Visit a Veterinarian

After: Not Sure Yet If Your Pet’s Best Bet Is to Get to a Vet?


It’s clear that unconventional email subject lines can produce results, if used sparingly. Remember, the impact of unconventional email subject lines depends entirely on the fact that they are unconventional. Go to the well once too often, and you become the boy who cried wolf. And no one pays attention to that guy!


Almost There!
Get the latest Email Marketing Roadmap now.

Read Next

We write great emails

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of our blog, tailored for you.