Developing Effective Email Subject Lines

Posted on 09/01/2023

Email inboxes are perpetually full these days. And even though email offers a relatively easy and low-cost way for institutions to solicit constituents, it doesn’t always capture a prospective donor’s attention amid all of the other marketing noise and clutter. If your email gets overlooked in a busy inbox, there’s simply no way it can be effective. But as soon as your email is opened, your chances of securing a donation improve.

So how you can increase the likelihood that your emails will get opened? The battle for their limited attention span starts with the subject line. As it’s the first (and quite possibly the only) thing they’ll see, it’s important to be strategic and choose your words carefully. Keep in mind that your constituents are likely getting dozens—if not hundreds—of other emails each day, so making sure your subject line stands out is critical.

Here are five tips for creating more compelling subject lines that will lead your prospects to open your email appeals:

  1. Grab their attention – Be concise and direct, like a newspaper headline. Pull them in and make them want to read more. Ask questions that generate curiosity, like “Is your name on this list?” Or use numbered phrases: “6 reasons you should donate today.”
  2. Make it relevant – The point is not to trick someone into opening your email. The point is to get those who will be interested in what’s inside to open it. It’s better to have a lower open rate and a higher click-through or conversion rate than the other way around. If you have a video to share, preview that with a subject line like “Watch this video!”
  3. Create urgency – Use deadlines. Let them know if “time is running out” or if it’s their “last chance” to get their gift matched. Year-ends and challenges provide natural opportunities to create a sense of urgency.
  4. Beware of spam filters – Certain phrases or characters can cause your emails to get flagged as mass emails and automatically dumped into junk/spam folders where it’s likely your constituents will never even see them. To avoid this, try not to use words like “free” or “exclusive” in your subject line, and limit excessive special characters or text in all capital letters.
  5. Keep your eye on the prize – If you are sending an email with an ask, don’t get too bogged down in other metrics. When you A/B test, you’re searching for the subject line that yields the most gifts and revenue, not necessarily the one with the highest open rate.

Don’t underestimate the importance of thoughtful subject lines for your email appeals. And don’t try to figure out the right one without doing some research. Watch the private sector, ask colleagues for input, and do some A/B testing of your own. This might take a little extra time, but it’ll be worth the effort. An email appeal can only be effective if it’s opened, and a strong subject line is the first opportunity to catch your donor’s attention.


This article has been adapted from the book Ideas for Annual Giving by Dan Allenby. Copyright (c) 2016 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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