How to Write the Perfect Email Subject Line

You should definitely be dedicating as much of your team’s time, resources, and energy towards developing the perfect email subject lines for your email program. Your leadership should be weighing in, your digital team should be booking endless meetings, your organisers should be A/B testing, heck, multivariate testing, to perfection. 

Because there is truly nothing more important than finding that perfect line (or paragraph, as the trend was for a while) to shock, trigger, confuse, or seduce a good percentage of a huge list of people who quite likely don’t know who you are, and quite realistically might not even care, to open that email and read your message.

This is sarcasm, of course. But if you listen to the way people talk about email subject lines in the world of organising, you might actually start to believe that this is the only reasonable investment of an organisation’s time and energy. Every day, we’re shocked to see how much energy is put into email subject lines and how little is put into structuring digital organising programs that actually build relationships with interested parties. A true list of supporters and activists won’t need to be tricked into opening an email; they’ll actually be interested. 

With our headquarters based in Europe since 2019, we’ve seen how GDPR has affected the way that organisations and campaigns work in Europe since GDPR's implementation. If GDPR has taught us anything, it’s that getting people’s consent to receive your emails has sent open rates through the roof. (As we’re only a couple years in, the new standards are still unclear even for what a good open rate is with a list of fully consented GDPR emails versus the old industry and non-European standards - but we know it's a heck of a lot higher). We’ve seen a world where list swaps, list buys, and other dubious methods don’t exist anymore, and it is a bright, bright world. Yes, the lists are significantly smaller. But no, that is not a bad thing. 

Does this mean a bit of work? Yes, and that’s why one of Tectonica’s values is “changing the world takes hard work not tricks”. We believe that the investment is worth it. So what does the work look like? Well, it involves structuring & building relationships in a way that treats your activists and supporters as real humans with human interests and motivation, rather than a block of the public to be advertised to. 

A lot of it is just about being mindful of how that relationship is built. The focus is very much on those first engagement points with a new supporter. Here are a few general tips: 

  1. Forget list purchases, swaps, etc. 

  2. Treat people with respect and consent. Don’t trick people into signing up for one thing to join another. If they’re signing up for something different, give them the option to consent to it.

  3. Develop the relationship in the most personal way possible immediately when new supporters sign up. (Ideally they should be approached by a real person within 48 hours). 

  4. Strengthen relationships by structuring a ladder of engagement that gets to know more and more about why your supporter is there and what they are interested in doing. 

  5. Segment your lists and keep them to relevant emails. Advocacy organisations, campaigns and political parties: Kill the monthly mass newsletter. Basically you’re just telling your supporters “I don’t care enough about you to not make you do the work of wading through all this content to find what is important to you.” (This is different for agencies and topic-based content lists, like our Tectonica Organising Network newsletter many of you probably came to this article from). 

If it's so ineffective, why is half the progressive world sending mass emails to people who don’t care? The problem here is an issue of being stuck in the short sell of short term ROI to decision makers. If you can show off a hard result of people who opened an email, or amount of money raised - it's easier to think you are winning and definitely something more solid to show than all the long term negative ill will and inefficiencies you are creating. That $15 donation is easier to put your hands around than the group of people who could have been engaged and interested but have been alienated and gone about their day because they weren’t treated respectfully. And it's certainly harder to draw a direct line between these sorts of practices and the very obvious fact that we are losing at the ballot box and online. But the difficulty of proving what is not happening and the long term impact, won’t convince us that this is what is happening. 

In fact, we’ve been hearing a lot about organisations’ inability to develop deeper relationships with supporters even though there’s hard evidence (beyond the mountains of anecdotal evidence) that developing deeper relationships is the key for us to win. The GDPR example we mentioned above is one example. Hahrie Han makes the clear argument that mobilisation alone isn’t what builds strong strong movements and civic organisations, but a mixture of mobilisation and organisation. And if we are to learn anything from Alan Gerber and and Donald Green’s Get Out the Vote, it’s that the more personal a voter contact is, the more likely you are to get them to the ballot box.

So let's stop treating our emails lists like cheap and quick dumping grounds, ok? 

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t pay any attention to your email subject lines. Indeed, sending an offensive email is definitely not something anyone wants to do. It’s also possible that you can get a higher percentage of people to get interested, open, and take action if you are able to cut through the inbox noise. It's simply to say, we need to watch where we are putting all our energy and step back to look at the bigger picture of what is effective in growing your movement. 


If you’re interested in getting more nerdy on emails themselves, check out this great resource: 
Archive of Political Emails lets you review emails of various political candidates like this one for example.