I’m just feeding you a bunch of lines

Sep 9, 2022

Right now I’m thinking of a variation on the classic Gary Bencivenga headline for a financial newsletter promotion many years ago…

Lies! Lies! Lies!

But instead, this particular headline would be…

Lines! Lines! Lines!

What kind of lines, you ask?

SUBJECT LINES, my friend…

I’m kind of feeling like they’re becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of copywriting.

They just don’t get enough of the respect they deserve.

Seems like a lot of it has to do with open rates… they’re not all that accurate. At least, so the experts say.

I do know, however, that the open rates I see on my emails have a pretty high correlation to the curiosity or attention-getting factor of the subject lines I use.

Case in point: just about any subject line I use that has “Bencivenga” in it gets at least 3-5 percentage points higher than my average subject line open rate.

(Same if I use “Trump”, by the way. As much as that drives me crazy.)

It’s definitely true with the word “controversy” or “controversial”, too.

Truth is, I’m as susceptible as anyone else to having an email land in my inbox and I just HAVE to open it right away…

All because of the subject line!

I’ve been saving up some of these babies that grabbed me by the eyeballs for a future edition of “What’s in Kim’s Mailbox”.

And since that “rainy day” is finally here, let’s take a look at some of them and reverse-engineer WHY they’re working.

But first, a mini-rant.

When I complained about subject lines not getting enough respect, it’s because so many businesses are really lazy about testing different ones.

And while you can debate the validity of “open rates” until the cows come home, the truth is when you string together the RIGHT combination of words in a subject line, it can make a big difference whether that email gets read in the first place.

If it doesn’t get read, that link doesn’t get clicked… that sales page or VSL doesn’t get looked at… that CTA button doesn’t get hit… and nobody buys anything!

So if you test a new subject line (SO easy to do… and costs practically nothing), and get just 5 or 10% more people to open and read your email, well… that can add up to a lot more sales in your piggy bank.

It’s why when I write a sales page with royalty potential, I always write at least a few “lifts” (the emails that drive traffic to it)… AND for each of those lifts, I submit at least 5 subject lines that I’ve sweated over making as strong as possible.

But all too often, the client just runs with one of the subject lines and never bothers testing the rest!

Or worse, I had one client who allowed whoever set up the emails to tweak or completely rewrite the subject lines… taking what was once compelling and intriguing and making it bland and yawn-inducing.

You want your subject line to stop someone in their tracks as they skim through that relentlessly long list of emails crowding their inbox, looking for ones to delete or skip.

But beyond making them stop, it has to trigger curiosity… desire… urgency… so that they actually open and read it.

So let’s look at some email subject lines that made me stop, open, and READ…

1) Compelling question email subject lines:

 Is your “weight loss organ” broken? 

Is your sex life killing you?

Did you poison your family at the dinner table last night?

The first one above interjects a new idea into a tired, “heard-it-all-before” subject: weight loss. I think I might know the answer (liver?), but I still just have to open it. And that exclamation point symbol in front connotes urgency.

The second one could be interpreted any number of ways, but for an older health market (in particular, men), it triggers curiosity and conveys urgency.

The third one uses curiosity and urgency, along with a heavy dose of guilt (likely targeting middle-aged women).

Now let’s look at…

2) Elaboration and enlargement email subject lines:

Make your brain work twice as fast

70-year-old farmer healthier, stronger, faster than 40-year-olds

[STUDY] Stronger, smoother knees, hips, and knuckles—starting in just 28 days

All of these make use of Gene Schwartz’s 4th stage of market sophistication principle of an implied mechanism that produces a bigger, faster, easier, more effective result.

Look at that first one… if you’re worried about keeping up with those young ‘uns at work, or noticing more “senior moments”, you’re going to be attracted to the simple idea of your brain working twice as fast.

For the second one, there’s a similar victorious fantasy of outperforming people who are decades younger than you… and it does a great job of dramatizing or elaborating on the claim.

In the third one, there’s a (small) dose of credibility with “[STUDY]”, then again… “future pacing” a desired transformation or result, in a short amount of time.

Now, let’s wrap things up by looking at…

3) Email subject lines that did NOT make me “vibrate”

Back when Marty Edelston was at the helm of direct marketing powerhouse Boardroom, he would rate his reaction to headlines and other copy based on whether it made him “vibrate”. It’s a good litmus test to apply to your own copy.

Let’s take a look at a few of these duds…

You’re canceled? this one is surprising

Poop like a dump truck

[QA 65987_5230496_398_B4Q4_BTS_NPI_Launch_v1 var1 -v3 SL B] Get the NEW smartwatch that fits you: $99

Oh, where to begin…

The first one could literally be about anything. It’s just not giving me enough to make me think “this is for me” or “I want to know what this is”. Don’t just tell me it’s surprising, SHOW me.

The second one I see again and again for a Green Valley Natural Solutions digestive supplement… so I know it’s working. In fact, the email copy’s been used for a while.

I even featured the email copy in a previous breakdown because I thought it was quite strong… and even classy. Yet the subject line is off-putting and just plain gross.

And the third one is one of those hapless BIG COMPANY (T-Mobile) emails that’s a cry for help… some email marketer out there, please help them… I’m sure they can afford to pay you. I will admit, I did open this one because it was so obviously weird and wrong.

That’s it for today… hope you have a newfound or enhanced appreciation for the power of a good subject line. You may want to start your own collection of favorites.

In the meantime, have a great weekend and I’ll see you next week!

Yours for smarter marketing,


P.S. I’ve got some exciting news about a new copywriting program I’ve been working on that could be a game-changer for you. Keep an eye out for details coming soon.

P.P.S. A little over one year ago I had the pleasure of joining Gary Bencivenga and his wife, his olive oil business partner T.J. and his wife, along with my husband, for dinner in New York City. The entire evening was magical and the conversation was as wonderful as you might imagine.

I’ll never forget how flattered I was when Gary said to me (he’s a Copy Insider), “I try not to read too many emails, but when I get yours I just have to open and read them. Your subject lines are so good!”

So if you think subject lines don’t matter and you don’t want to simply take MY word for it that they do, then take Gary’s.

And in honor of him and his incredible contributions to the copywriting world over the years, I was able to locate the front cover of that legendary financial promotion that Gary wrote decades ago with the headline I mentioned earlier.

I’ll never forget starting off my direct marketing career at Phillips Publishing, for whom Gary wrote this magalog, and seeing it hanging on a bulletin board in the hallway where all the biggest control promos were displayed.

Something tells me this same approach would still work today, albeit with a updated cast of characters in the “Financial Hall of Shame”… enjoy!