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The Curious Occurrence of the Sentence Case Subject Line

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They get a higher open rate than something your 10th grade English teacher would appreciate.

You are not being punished. Please follow our instructions so you’ll understand what we’re talking about. Go take a look at your email inbox list. Do not open any of them. Stay away from that rabbit hole. Instead, just focus for a few seconds on the subject lines you see. The formatting is all over the place, right?

    Some Are Formatted Like a Title

    A Couple Might Use All Caps to PROMOTE A SALE

    One or two will have a punctuation mark!

    Some use sentence case

    some have no capitalization or punctuation at all

Which format for your subject line is correct? Strike that. Which format gets the most people to open an email message and read it? We believe there’s a correct choice. We’re also confident that it yields the highest open rates.

One thing on which everyone agrees

Opinions about email subject formats are like belly buttons. Everybody’s got one. The reason is rather obvious. It’s because…well, because was there ever a correct format?

There’s no ‘Strunk & White Elements of Style’ specifically for crafting email messages. We haven’t heard about anyone being carted off to jail or bursting into flames because of their choice of email subject format.

Live and let live has always been our philosophy. You can use whatever format you like for your email subjects. It’s all about what works best for you. We know what works best for us. Sharing is caring, and here’s what we do.

The ContentBacon choice

We go with sentence case subject lines. There are 2 reasons for this. The first reason is that we’ve done our own testing. Sentence case subject lines generate our highest response rate when sending emails. We make that our best practice. Q.E.D. Quod erat demonstandum.

Like all rules, though, sentence case subject line formatting is made to be broken. There are times when we ignore our own style guide. But before we tell you when we break the rule, we’d like to go a little deeper into our subject line approach.

How long is too long?

Jiminy Cricket advised Pinocchio, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” We’ve got a similar philosophy for subject length. “Always let the message be your guide.” A short phrase that grabs your attention is always the best choice. Especially when it fits on a single line.

A longer subject that’s more of a statement can be necessary. If it’s contextually appropriate, it’s the length it needs to be.

What’s in a number?

Loads. Gobs. Repeated studies show that numbers in subject lines snag attention. They help us set expectations. A subject line warning us about 3 danger signs also helps us put psychological parameters in place. We know this will be short.

Be about action

Verbs help readers decide if they want to try your message on for size. Can they discover something? Will they save money or time? Should they forget about the next iPhone upgrade? Verbs interest and motivate readers. Use them in your subject lines.

Tell a story

Is your subject line really just a statement? Banks send statements. Politicians issue statements. Statements are blobs of non-communication that tell you nothing more than who sent it and what it is. Big deal. What we really want to know—especially because we already do know that information—is why we should open up that message.

    From: ContentBacon

    Subject: ContentBacon monthly newsletter

What part of that subject line gives you a reason to care? Why would you use your subject line to make a statement when you could tell a story?

    From: ContentBacon

    Subject: What Pinocchio uses to measure his email effectiveness

When we break the rules

We promised to let you know when we give sentence case subject lines the heave-ho. Mostly, we don’t break the rule. It’s our job to craft compelling sentences. The first letter is capitalized. No punctuation at the end. Unless it’s a question, and then it always gets a question mark.

We’ll slightly break that rule if it’s a complex sentence that works better with punctuation. Does a comma help the flow? We’ll add it. If it’s two sentences, the first one will end with the correct punctuation, but not the second—unless it’s a question.

Sometimes, a subject line deserves the title case treatment. Especially if it’s got the flavor of a headline. In that case, the subject line gets title casing.

    From: ContentBacon

    Subject: Storytelling: 7 Exercises to Add Excitement

The subject line still tells a story. It also manages our expectations. This is likely not going to be a 30-second read. We will, on rare occasions, also pour on the title case treatment to underscore importance or promote a smoking deal we don’t want our clients to miss.

    From: ContentBacon

    Subject: Knock 50% Off Our Exclusive Bacon-Tasting Tour

Does the perfect subject line format exist?

Of course it does. But it’s a thought process, not a template. To find your perfect subject line, all you have to do is pretend that nobody wants to hear from you. Because “I’m so excited to see who’s sent me marketing emails today,” said no one, ever.

Which email messages do you open first? You go right for the ones with subject messages you have to act on—or at least would prefer to read. They’re from people you know and like. Their subject lines are casual. Punctuation’s not necessary unless it asks a question. It doesn’t put on airs. It tantalizes you with the promise of a story.