What Subject Line?


Kara Trivunovic

While subject lines still play a role in convincing consumers to open your emails, there are other factors that marketers need to be aware of and start focusing on.

Over the course of two decades, give or take, email marketers have largely attributed open activity to the subject line of their email communications. It is true that the subject line is a major contributor to the behavior. However, it is not the only consideration made when a recipient decides to open your email.

But as the major contributor, what if subject lines went away? What if they were somehow deprioritized as a determining factor – would the rest of your message be able to fill the void? As inbox rendering changes at the ISP level, it is important for email marketers to evolve their thinking about how subscribers make the decision to open, delete, or just move on.

Historically, subject lines have been the seen by many as the “reason” recipients open an email. While I would support that it is a contributing factor, I have long believed it is not the only factor. There are other elements that – subject line aside – will drive the behavior. And it is critical for email marketers to begin evaluating themselves on these points, especially as inbox displaying of your email communications continues to evolve.

What Brand Equity Do You Have With Your Subscribers?

This is one of those honest moments brands need to have with themselves. We would all love to believe our brand is the most important thing to our subscribers; but the fact of the matter is, that’s just not the case.

Believe it or not, the value placed on your brand by subscribers can impact your open rates. Customers who are loyal to your brand or its value proposition are often more likely to open your email just because it is from you. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the subject line is.

Has Your Email Program Been Consistent?

Consistency in messaging, value, and experience can also be a driver in opening your email. If your subscribers have opened historically and had a great experience with the content or the brand, chances are they will open again. Think about it in the converse. I can recall a number of brands that I liked the brand, the subject line resonated…so I opened. Only to be met by a less-than-optimal experience.

Whether it was the brand’s inability to deliver on the promise of the subject line or that the experience declined upon clicking through – regardless of why I was disappointed…I was disappointed. That disappointment causes hesitation the next time an email is received from that same brand.

What Do Your Images Say?

For many today, the best strategy for driving open activity is aligning your from name, subject line, and snippet text to tell a story at-a-glance for a subscriber. This combination is a winning approach to driving open activity; coupled with brand equity and consistency of messaging — I’d say it is a slam-dunk.

But the tides are changing a bit – how much is really yet to be seen – but as inboxes get more visual, like Gmail has done with the “promotions” tab, the image that is displayed may start to carry more weight than anything we’ve talked about thus far. It dawned on me when I was digging through my own promotions tab. Following are three images from my inbox to demonstrate the impact images can now have – as well as the minimization of the subject line.


In this example there is no image present, except for the small logo that I recognize as Houzz immediately. What you do see is a large gray box with some text (that differs from the subject line) amongst a sea of other messages in the inbox that are more visually striking. It is the brand equity that Houzz has with me that caused me to take a second look at all.

Houzz is a very lifestyle-driven type of communication and could be well served by demonstrating that here. But as you can see, the actual subject line has taken a distant back seat to all the other content that renders in the tile.


Jo-Ann Stores does a good job of getting an element of lifestyle featured in the image, but the offer (or the assumed offer) is cut off within the image. It isn’t until you read the subject line that you fully understand that it is a “friends and family” event.

The big consideration for marketers here is to make sure the image supports the story – and in this example it does. The image is of “friends or family” crafting together, which is explained by the subject line. It may have been a stronger message if the offer was included. But once again, for me personally, it was brand equity and program consistency that caused the second glance.


In all fairness, I am a sucker for Restoration Hardware, but that aside this was the example in my inbox that checked all the boxes – and quite honestly, needed the subject line the least. It is clear from the image displayed in the tile what was contained within. I knew, at-a-glance (visually) that I could save $25 on every $100 I spent.

As email inbox rendering trends to becoming more visual in nature in a desktop environment, subject lines will become less important and the visual that is included, more impactful.

As you consider and plan your email messaging approach and strategy, it is critical to take these three things in to consideration as they can impact open activity wherever that may be – desktop or mobile alike. While the tile display isn’t as prevalent in the mobile environment today, it could very easily become more prominent and you should be prepared. The point of all of this…subject lines still tell part of the story in determining open activity, but they aren’t the only game in town.