First, the bad news: according to GetResponse’s massive 2016 study The State of Email Marketing by Industry, of all the marketing and business-related emails that get sent 4% get clicked, 22% get opened, and 78% get absolutely nothing.
Not a very encouraging number, especially if your business depends on email marketing in any size, shape, or form. Getting subscribers to engage with your emails starts with the most basic email-marketing metric there is – open rates. And open rates live or die by the words you include in your subject lines.
[Edit: If you're interested in the latest data and statistics, check out our new Email Marketing Benchmarks report]
As the legendary Joe Sugarman put it in Demain Farnworth’s top copywriting book of all time:
“The sole purpose of the first sentence in an advertisement is to get you to read the second sentence of the copy.”
Thankfully, identifying the right words comes down to a matter of science and psychology. Bottom line, human beings respond predictably to specific psychological stimulators.
That’s why this article contains 18 of the most powerful, persuasive, and predictable words in the English language. Consider it your ultimate cheat sheet for creating emails that get opened.
1) Recipient’s Name
Emails with “personalized subject lines are 22.2% more likely to be opened.” While personalization goes beyond including someone’s name, it’s a good place to start.
If you’ve ever experienced whiplash after a stranger called out your name in a crowded mall, you know what I mean. Your brain instantly responds. And the same is true for your subscribers. Here’s quick preview of what that might look like, along with a few of the other upcoming words:
2) Sender’s Name
What’s the first thing you do after receiving an email from a generic sender like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com? You lovingly place it in the Trash Bin … unless your email service provider has already relegated it to “spam” for you. Anonymity does not intrigue, inspire, or impress anyone.
Subscribers need to know who’s sending the email, which makes the “From” address one of the most important criteria of email open rates. Unless your brand commands attention - like Apple - attaching the real name of a real person humanizes everything you send.
Out of Buffer’s 189 Powerful Words That Convert: Write Copy That Gets Your Customer’s Attention Every Time, “you” leads the list. Why? Because “you” is personal, warm, immediate, direct, and arresting; far more engaging than the third-person personal pronoun – he, she, them – or the first person – I, me, us.
Best of all, “you” makes people feel like they’re being talked “with” instead of talked “at.” Email is meant to be conversational, to feel like one person talking to another, not some faceless brand barking orders. You ensure that conversational touch and it forces you to make your email about your audience instead of about yourself.
For better or for worse, all humans are motivated by instant gratification. Whether it’s “same-day delivery” or a “four-hour work week,” we’re devoted to products and services that indulge our love of all things instant.
Using terms that imply urgency - such as “fast,” “instant access,” and “immediate” - light up the pleasure centers of your audience's brain with the promise of right-now rewards that are only a click away.
“Avoid” is one of the trickier words on this list because “avoid” is all about fear. Used correctly, it can trigger anxiety, apprehension, and agitation.
Used incorrectly, however, “avoid” can easily come off sounding like click-bait – as if you’re projecting some exaggerated gloom-and-doom scenario just to improve your metrics.
Be sure to spell out exactly what your email – or the content you’re linking to – enables your subscriber to avoid. And be even more sure that it delivers on that promise.
Robert Cialdini demonstrates the psychological power of “because” in his book Influence. A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason.
In Cialdini’s illustration only 60% of people responded with compliance to the request, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox.” In stark contrast, 94% responded with compliance to when the phrase “because I’m in a rush” was added.
Even more shocking, when the “because” portion was altered to nothing more than a restatement of the request itself - “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox because I have to make some copies.” - a whopping 93% of people still complied. The lesson? Adding because to your email’s subject lines drives compliance, because compliance is driven by because (wink, wink).
Alongside our love of instant gratification comes our love of laziness. After all, why slave away at something time-consuming when you can find a simpler, easier path?
“Keep it simple, stupid,” is one of the golden rules of communication. And when you only have a few words - as with subject lines - it becomes even more paramount.
Phrases like “simple solution,” “simple answer” and “simple steps” all work wonders in a world where subscribers constantly feel overwhelmed and out of time.
There are over 2,000 self-help books with the word – or some variation of the word – “win” in their title on Amazon. What’s that Cam Newton, the Quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, said about only losers being “good losers”?
While Cam’s assertion is a bit heartless, the truth is we all want to be successful. The key is to figure out what success means to your subscriber and tailor your subject line accordingly.
For some, success could mean bagging more clients, for others it could mean acquiring their first 1,000 subscribers. And, naturally, everyone loves winning contests and prizes.
Whatever their version looks like is, “success” – along with its synonyms “overcome,” “win,” “dominate,” and others – is a great word to include in your subject lines. By painting a portrait how your subscriber will experience a win by reading your email, you capitalize on enthusiasm and the natural human desire to conquer.
There are few things your buyers and followers will love more than being wholeheartedly acknowledged for joining your brand on their own journey to success. Sadly, most email lists kick things off with a generic “Thank You” message, so the secret to using “thanks” effectively is to make it unexpected.
Whenever you or business experience a big win, celebrate that with your audience and say thanks by calling attention to exactly how they played a role. Whenever one of your clients, community members, or subscribers racks up a win of their own… do the same. In other words, make gratitude a central part of your email strategy by highlighting success stories both from your experience as well as from your subscriber’s.
Curiosity is a potent tool to grab attention. Asking questions leads to what psychologists call an information gap - i.e., the difference between what you know and what you want to know. Once created, this gap begs to be closed. So what makes “how” stand out from other question words like “why” or “who”?
Building your subject lines around “how to [fill in the blank]” or “how I [fill in the blank]” not only sparks curiosity, they also make a promise:
You don’t know.
But don’t worry…
I will show you.
How promises a repeatable process: “If you do what I did, you’ll get what I got.”
Human beings are restless wanderers. We’re natural voyagers, adventurers, and discoverers. We love to embark on quests, fill in the missing voids in our life, and discover something new or mysterious. We even like stories that do the same thing.
Words that imply discovery - like “find,” “unearth,” “explore,” or even “learn” - all lean on that innate desire. You can make this sense of pending discovery even more enticing by linking it to feelings of secrecy.
Just like the word “now,” you and I are borderline addicted to what’s fresh, what’s hot, and what’s latest. From new gadgets to the hot-off-the-press news to being the first to experience a redesigned website, beta launch, or product, novelty gets our hearts thumping with excitement.
Announcing something new in your email subject line leans on this universal principle and provides an incentive to find out what’s being discussed and how it could be useful to them.
It’s hard not to visualize someone pumping their hands gleefully as they exclaim the word “Yes.” As Tony Schwartz, the chief executive of The Energy Project puts it, “…starting with ‘yes’ energizes, creates safety and trust and fuels creativity.”
The word yes and other positive affirmations in your emails empowers your readers to follow call-to-actions and recommendations. So instead of just saying, “Your parenting woes are going to end…,” try, “Yes! Your parenting woes have ended!”
If you've ever seen the word “stop” in a subject line chances are you probably did. Why?
Because - once again - we humans are hardwired to react to words that signify alarm or danger: terms like “stop,” “warning,” “beware,” and “don’t.”
Psychologists call these words “pattern interrupts”: they stop us in our tracks and force us to pay attention. If you’re trying to stand out in your subscriber’s inbox, front-loading your next campaign with one of those “pattern interrupts” just might do the trick.
“What if” questions are the cornerstones of creativity and insight.
It’s fun to ruminate about the future or daydream about the effects of a particular course of action. And yet, the power of "if" is neglected in the email-marketing world.
Captivate the imagination of your subscribers. Intrigue them with outlandish possibilities. Stimulate them to mull over “what if” they … quit their job, lost weight, found love, or any number of imaginative possibilities.
If you succeed (pun intended), your average email open rates will thank you.
As petty as it might sound, we all long to feel like we’re in on the joke, welcome at the “cool kids” table, or part of something that not everyone has jumped in on yet. Exclusivity is tied to the idea of secrecy… but it goes beyond that into the realm of uniqueness.
Unfortunately, lots of email marketers botch the power of “exclusive” by over using it. Just like many of the other words on this list, save “exclusive” - and its synonyms like “only,” “private,” and “restricted” - for when it’s genuinely true.
On the flip side of “exclusive,” humans also want to belong. And that’s where “everyone” comes in. Social proof is arguably the most powerful tactic of persuasion. “Social proof is the concept that people will conform to the actions of others under the assumption that those actions are reflective of the correct behavior,” writes Ed Hallen. Social proof is exactly why vanity metrics like shares, likes, and followers are given such prominence online.
This means that in conjunction with the word “everyone” itself, you have to be able to quantify and back up your claim with real numbers.
18) Need and Want
This last entry is two for one.
All marketing is about first understanding and then meeting people’s “needs” and “wants.”
The difference between the two can often sound like splitting hair s, but I like to think of it as the difference between pain killers and candy. “Needs” are tied to our survival: food, shelter, and companionship. When you go to the dentist you need pain killers. “Wants,” on the other hand, are more shallow.
But don’t let that fool you. Both have their place in email marketing.
“Need” should be added to your subject line only in those situations where they’re legitimate.
“Want” should be used when your call-to-action is more about something that feed the ego. In other words, while a few select people in financial straits might “Need to sell your house fast” more often than not what they “want” is to “discover how much your home is worth.” Consider the two carefully before you end up overstepping your subject-line-bounds.
Let’s put this into action… Getting your audience to even open your emails is tough … really tough. Why? Because everyone’s inbox is overcrowded.
You want your email marketing to succeed. In fact, your business needs it to stay alive. And that’s why words proven to connect with everyone matter so much.
What if - instead of ignoring you - your list couldn’t wait for your next blast? What if you could crack the code and skyrocket out of the 78% of all marketing emails that nobody opens.
Stop writing bland subject lines. Don’t waste another click. End the pain of inaction. How? By injecting power and persuasion into all your subject lines with the 18 words listed above.
Best of all, it’s easy and you can start right now. What are your own favorite trigger words? I’ll be sure to say thanks to the ones I really like in the comments.