Best Subject Lines of 2020 (so far)

Instead of making you wait an entire year to get my “Best subject lines of 2020” blog post, I figured I would start sharing my insights early to give everyone a head start.

Now, before I get into the learnings, etc, I want to point out that there is a subjective element to this list.

What I deem “a good subject line” may not be appealing to everyone, BUT clearly these brands understand their audiences well enough to get me — the most “delete-button-happy” person ever — to pause and consider opening their emails before ultimately deleting them (haha).

Anyway, below are some of my favorite email subject lines for 2020…so far. Undoubtedly, there will be more to come, but it’s only February so keep your pants on.

Let’s dive in!

#1: Open loop

If you’re not familiar with this style of email subject line, let me explain.

An open loop email subject line is like the cliffhanger at the end of a television show. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you just HAVE to tune in next week to find out.

This happens because our brains are hardwired to seek out the information we desire.

According to this article from Wired, George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon found that it all comes down to curiosity: “curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap ‘between what we know and what we want to know.’ This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because that’s how we scratch the itch.”

So while an email is certainly not an exciting television show, you can create some of that “I gotta know more!” feeling with a subject line that leaves your readers hanging.

In the example below from Rag & Bone, they use the copy “Bad news…” which is jarring because it’s the complete opposite of what most brands in your inbox are saying (positive, feel-good messages).

Rag & Bone Email Example

Beyond that, the ellipses gives the impression that there’s much more to that “bad news” imploring you to open the email and find out what it is.

In this example, you can see the pre-header text (“Almost out of time. Up to 65% off”) which kind of negates everything (spoiler alert much?!), but if you were on mobile, it’s possible you wouldn’t see the pre-header text (or all of it) to get the full picture.

If it were me, I would have kept the pre-header text more vague and played into the “Bad news…” message to get more opens, but that’s just my style (and not every brand is comfortable with that).

For example, they could have gone with…

  • Bad news…  It’s sad, but it’s true.”
  • Bad news…  You won’t believe this.”
  • Bad news…  It’s all coming to an end.”

On the other hand, Rag & Bone may argue that without seeing the “sale” information in the pre-header text, they would get fewer opens, which is entirely possible (I don’t know their customer base, history, analytics, etc).

Either way, an “open loop” style subject line is a very effective way to get opens, but you must “pay it off” in the body of the email (in this case, we’re referring to the sale information of 65% off), otherwise you’re just as bad as the writers who never tie up loose ends in your favorite shows.

#2: Free preview

Everyone wants something for free. We all know that.

But what you may not know is that the word “free” is considered a “power” word when it comes to conversion, and for a very simple reason:

According to this article from Pacific Standard, the word free “only implies benefits and no costs” — there’s even a phenomenon associated with it called the Zero Price Effect.

According the the Zero Price Effect, “free goods have extra pulling power” and that “options that have no downside (no cost) trigger a more positive affective response.”

In other words, anything marked as “free” is automatically going to be met with a more open and positive attitude, which is the exact mindset you want your customers to have.

In the example below from TurboTax, they use the subject line, “You’ve Scored a Sneak Peek of Your 2019 Tax Refund” which, for someone who may be expecting a big refund, could be very enticing.

TurboTax subject line email example

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a “free preview” it can be anything free — a free sample, free shipping, free download…you get the idea.

The point is, the word “free” can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, driving more opens and possibly even creating a more positive perception of your brand.

#3: Basic human desires

When you can tap into a basic human need or desire, your copy — whether it’s a subject line or website hero — instantly becomes more effective.

But how? And why?

I’ll start with the example to show you what I mean.

Below is a subject line from Woven Nook, a company that sells interior goods like pillows, rugs, blankets, etc (I bought all my pillow covers from them a few months back).

Example of a good subject line

At first glance, the subject line may seem pretty ordinary and mundane. I mean, who isn’t talking about timely trends?

But when you look at it through the lens of human desire — in this case, a need for knowledge and social status — you can see the strategic elements coming through.

When I saw this subject line, there was a real part of me that wanted to be “in on the secret.”

I wanted to know what the trends were so I could be the first to furnish my home with them, which would mean photos for instagram, compliments from friends & family, and ultimately, a sense of significance.

Below is a list of the 16 basic human desires from, which I recommend printing out and referring to whenever you’re writing subject lines or any other kind of sales copy.

  • Acceptance – the need to be appreciated
  • Curiosity – the need to gain knowledge
  • Eating – the need for food
  • Family – the need to take care of one’s offspring
  • Honor – the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family or clan
  • Idealism – the need for social justice
  • Independence – the need to be distinct and self-reliant
  • Order – the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments
  • Physical activity – the need for work out of the body
  • Power – the need for control of will
  • Romance – the need for love, mating or sex
  • Saving – the need to accumulate something
  • Social contact – the need for relationship with others
  • Social status – the need for social significance
  • Tranquility – the need to be secure and protected
  • Vengeance – the need to strike back against another person

While you may be drawn to a single desire as your “way in,” you’ll often find that one desire may overlap with another and can be used together to create a more powerful and effective message.

#4: Make it personal

We all know that personalizing subject lines with first names and using the word “you” can be an effective way to draw someone in.

Similar to the word “free,” the word “you” is considered a top “power” word when it comes to marketing and persuasion, which is probably why you see a lot of businesses (like the one below) using it.

In this example, Allbirds combined the word “You” with “Helped Us Become Carbon Neutral” which immediately made me feel good.

Obviously, if you’re interested in neutralizing your own carbon footprint, this type of message would excite you (as it did me), but beyond that, studies have shown that even the idea of “doing good” can trigger something positive in your brain.

During a recent study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh gave 45 volunteers an option: They could complete a task that benefited themselves, a charity, or a particular friend in need.

Afterwards, a brain scan showed a noticeable — and fascinating — difference based on their choice.

Not only did the participants who chose to help a particular person display increased activity in two “reward centers” of their brain, but they had decreased activity in three other regions that help inform the body’s physical response to stress through blood pressure and inflammation (source: healthline).

The takeaway?

Find out what’s important to your customers (whether it’s saving the planet or saving money), put an altruistic spin on it, and presto — you’ve got a subject line worth testing.

Seen any good subject lines this year?

Share your favorites below and you may get a shoutout in my next post.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned — I’m planning on sharing more of my favorite email subject lines before we hit 2021 (yikes, that’s a scary thought).

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