(Updated in November 2020)
We did it so you don’t have to: One of our staff members saved every single holiday-themed email subject line she received in both personal and business email accounts to look for creativity and trends in the shopping season.
Why subject lines and not the email messages themselves? Mainly because this is the season of full-to-bursting inboxes, when marketers ramp up their frequency and volume to record levels. Your subject lines have to work harder than ever to get you noticed in all the confusion. (Also, we’ve done that already.)
One thousand, three hundred and seventy-one emails later (that’s 1,371 messages from 231 senders, from AARP and Askinosie Chocolate to Zappos and Zillow), here’s how brands rose to the challenge:
1.) ToysRUs rocks the inbox.
Between its two brands, ToysRUs and BabiesRUs, the retailer sent more email than any other brand, but it offset this deluge with some clever tactics:
- Unique sender name: ToysRUs used a “ToysRUs Hotrageous Alert” sender name on its hardline promotional messages to distinguish them from emails offering buying guides, wish lists, shipping schedules and other customer-experience content. It used this sender name judiciously (maybe once in every 10-15 emails), which made it pop out not just from other ToysRUs emails but from everything else around it in the inbox.
- Clever and descriptive: Most of its subject lines are not just fun to read but also break of up the steady stream of “20% off/Free Shipping/Gifts Gifts Gifts” tedium from other brands.
- “Keep All Those Gift Ideas in One Place!” (promoting wish lists)
- “Ho, Ho, Ho… Here’s a Jolly Promo Code for You!” (instead of hammering on the $10 discount in the offer. Followed by a reminder email: “Last Chance to Use Your Jolly Promo Code!”)
- “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bow” (promoting large toys like playhouses and ride-on cars).
- “That Awesome Gift They Didn’t Know They Wanted? It’s in Here!”
- “Oh Hey, It’s Just Us Again With Even MORE Great Deals!”
Note: ToysRUs could flex its creative muscles on the subject-line copy because the message content wasn’t the same old hard-sell. When you change up your straight promotional emails with customer-experience content, your emails become more interesting and valuable.
- Preheader parade: ToysRUs created fresh copy in every preheader (the snippet or first line pulled from the message itself) to add key details to the subject line instead of pulling in boilerplate copy like “View online”/”Add to Addressbook.” This lets you throttle back on the hard sell and gives subscribers more information to reasons to open your emails.
2.) Emojis, emojis everywhere (sort of).
It seemed that 2016 is the year of the emoji – the little icons that pop up regularly in subject lines now that most mobile and web/desktop email clients support them. But on closer inspection, we found only 23 brands used them (10 percent), and most of those brands used the same ones over and over.
The most popular, naturally, are gift boxes (52 percent of emojis) and Christmas trees (36 percent). But also appearing often were time-oriented emojis such as alarm clocks, hourglasses and watch faces to drive home deadline-facing urgency.
One tip: An emoji or two might catch the eye but you still need supporting copy to explain it. Well, except for the all-emoji subject line on a Cyber Monday email. This one definitely caught the eye:
3.) Black Friday/Cyber Monday blah blah blah.
Did marketers think we fell on our heads and forgot what day it was? Way too many subject lines for both shopping days were variations on a single theme: “Black Friday/Cyber Monday starts now!” Wow! Really? Had no idea!
Snark aside, we did not see much creativity in this year’s BF/CM messages. That’s a problem, given the volume of messages flowing into the inbox beginning in late October. While 90 percent of B2C brands send BF/CM messages, only 15 percent varied from the “… Starts Now/… Is Ending” theme or pushed discounts and other offers in the subject line.
We loved this subject line from Penguin Random House: “Black Friday Burnout? Contact the Penguin Hotline!” By the time that one ran, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we were ready for it.
Wrap-up: Our favorite email subject lines
Besides the ones posted above, these were the subject lines we either enjoyed seeing or actually acted on:
- 10 Tiny Travel Gifts That Make Great Stocking Stuffers (SmarterTravel)
- Since you’re awake and all… (LOFT, sent late at night to promote free shipping)
- Gifts 3x better than the ones at the mall—all on sale. (Online-only retailer Grommet)
- YES, these gifts will arrive in time! (One Kings Lane)
- We’re offering up to 55% off designer favorites as our gift: PSA! (Order by 12/21 for Christmas) (Neiman-Marcus)
- Stuff that won’t fit in your stocking. (Blu Dot)
- Christmas and Hanukkah Favorites – For ALL Ages! (Early Bird Books)
- See what toys Mills Fleet Farm has picked just for you! (Mills Fleet Farm)
- No Gift Receipt Required (NIC + ZOE)
- Can We Wrap that for You? (Oui Shave)
We picked these subject lines because they caught our eyes for their fresh take on standard material or compelled us to act. We don’t know if they drove more opens or revenue or outperformed the competition. But then, neither do your customers.
Your subject lines are your first and best contacts with your subscribers in the inbox. They deserve more than another variation on “‘Tis the Season” or “Black Friday Starts NOW!”
Want to check out more holiday-related emails? Sign up for our free Email Creative Archive today and search over 1,000,000 email messages from thousands of brands. It’s like brainstorming with top creative minds from more than 9,000 companies!