Email Engagement

11 Ways to Give Subject Lines Consequence (with Examples)

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11 Ways to Give Subject Lines Consequence (with Examples)

Consider the moment before your supporter decides whether to open your email. They must sacrifice something in order to give you their attention. Either, they’ll need to delay the thing they were about to do next, or choose not to read a different email in favor of reading yours…

You need to give your supporter something to weigh this sacrifice against.

Your subject line is the best shot you have at achieving this. Consider all the ways it can create consequence...

1. Urgency

Give someone a reason to open your message now. A subject line that conveys urgency tells your supporter that if they don’t open your email they may miss out on a limited-time opportunity.


TONIGHT: don’t miss this on TV

Last day to RSVP

5 hours left to have your say!

2. Immediacy

It’s human nature to want to be the first to know something.


This just in...


It’s happening: ...

3. Secrecy

It’s also human nature to want to know something that other people don’t.


Exposed! …

They tried to ban this TV ad

In confidence -


We can use social proof to communicate importance—nobody wants to be the last person to get behind a good idea.


Only 20 tickets left!

Our fastest-growing petition EVER

20,000 people have already signed!

5. Knowledge gaps

Intentionally omitting a key piece of information can leave your reader wanting more. Just make sure to satisfy and reward their curiosity by delivering the missing piece of information within the first few lines of your email body. Otherwise you’ll just annoy people.


I have no words...

This should be ILLEGAL

Trump said WHAT!?

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6. REs & FWDs

When used sparingly, this little trick can hack your reader’s mental pattern-recognition processes that discern personal emails from broadcast emails. It does this by momentarily forcing them to process your email subject like they would an ongoing personal email conversation. Beware—this tactic can be easily abused. If you do use reply or forward subject prefixes, you’d better make sure you’re actually following up on an earlier broadcast or forwarding a new message.


RE: Live Export

FWD: Investigation Photos

7. Personal nudges

This approach also works by breaking the ‘broadcast’ mold and forcing your reader to consider you as a human, not a faceless organization. Combine these subject lines with personalized messaging. And use them sparingly for greatest effect.


Just checking...


Did you see my last email?

8. Invoke your reader

More human nature here: if it’s about us, we want to know about it. Try using your supporter’s first name, or “you”—or both.


{Name}, your signature is missing!

A gift for {Name}

9. Good news

If it’s positive, let your supporters know! There’s generally not enough good news in the world. This alone gives people a reason to want to tune in.



Thank you {Name}, we did it!

Rescued! [+photos]

10. Vulnerability

Vulnerability is a scarce and intimate quality, which alone makes it really powerful. Lines like these are guaranteed to stand out. Expressing vulnerability implies a high level of trust for your reader—another irresistible quality. Vulnerable language doesn’t have to equate to failure or weakness. It can also be used to raise tension, like this.


I’m scared

We messed up

I was wrong

11. Accountability

Using accountability lets you be direct, transactional, and to the point. As a reader, ignoring these messages feels uncomfortable because the subject line alone puts you on notice.


Your 2024 membership is about to expire

Final reminder: please update your credit card

Ask yourself: what inherent promise does your subject line make, that will force your reader to weigh up the negative consequence of ignoring your email? If it’s clear, your email will have an advantage. If it’s not, try harder.

Combine this approach with email subject best practices to give your messages the best chances of being seen.

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Karen Nilsen

Hi there! I’m Karen. I’m on a mission to reach my former self. Had I known 10 years ago what I know today, I could have achieved more good, made fewer mistakes, and had more weekends. Every time we share what works, we win faster. Let’s create digital experiences that move people — that grow our base and fuel our movements. Are you with me? Please share this with someone you know who wants to up their digital game!

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