How long should your subject line be?

Just how long should your subject line be? The unhelpful answer to this common question is “as long as it needs to be”.

The problem is that length is just one factor among many – branding, personalization, capitalization, word choice, word order, punctuation and more – that define subject line success. Focus too much on keeping to some arbitrary maximum length and you can end up rejecting ideas and wording that might have given your subject line more impact.

Your priority is to consider how you can encourage your target audience to open and act on the email: what words are likely to trigger the best response? Then you can worry about length. It’s not about keeping to some defined character limit, but keeping it as short as possible while still saying the things you need to say to attract the right attention and interest.

1. The Big Picture

Look at this screenshot of an inbox from the Gmail app on an Android smartphone:

Mobile inbox

Increasingly, inbox presence and impact comes from the interplay of three elements: your from line, subject line and the first text that appears in the body of your email (usually the preheader).

So it’s not just about crafting a great subject line in isolation: combine all three of these email elements to get recognition, attention and interest. So, for example, if your from line is clearly recognizable, you can maybe save space in the subject line by removing branding.

2. Frontload

With so many different devices and software used to check email it’s impossible to talk about a “typical” inbox display. One thing we do know is that longer subject lines will be truncated at least some of the time.

The logical conclusion is to make sure you place the most powerful words at the front of your subject line, just in case. They’ll get more attention there anyway.

3. Set character limits

What?! I know. We just said there was no point to setting a limit on subject line length. That’s not quite true. In fact, 50 characters is a number you often see tossed around. Limits can help you or your copywriter avoid getting too verbose. They encourage you to write clear, concise, punchy subject lines.

However, limits should not be inflexible. If someone has a great idea for a subject line, it’s foolish to reject it simply because it exceeds some arbitrary length.

4. Brevity

Creating the same impact in fewer words and characters is a skill that comes with practice.  When writing…

  • Don’t settle for the first version – keep rewriting until you whittle the subject line down to the essentials.
  • Make use of shorter synonyms, acronyms and abbreviations where relevant and understandable to the audience.
  • Exploit punctuation and short forms. Can you replace “and” with “+” or “seven” with “7”?

5. Test!

Intuition is rarely enough when it comes to choosing the best subject line. Our advice? Let subscribers tell you what works and conduct an A/B test.

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