Bring out your dead! (The importance of subject lines.)

I was ‘chatting’ with Natalie Cunningham, Community Engagement Coordinator at The Morris Book Shop in Lexington, KY, about an event they hosted this summer (more on that tomorrow) when I saw the announcement that Wyn Morris was looking for a buyer for the store, and if one couldn’t be found, he would close the bookstore.

After the announcement, I saw the outpouring of sympathy on social media, because we’re all a little heartbroken when a good independent closes.

And then I saw the next issue of the store’s newsletter arrive in my inbox. More importantly, I saw its subject line:

“We’re not dead yet.”

You see, an article about the potential sale of the store appeared in the local paper, and Natalie says it was apparent that people thought they were closing. “The actual article did a really good job of saying, ‘We are hopeful that we are going to have a buyer. We don’t think that this is the end,’” she explained. “But the actual headline said, ‘Morris Book Shop to Close or Be Sold.’

They started receiving many phone calls at the bookstore from customers who only saw the headline and didn’t read the article, so they decided to send an email with a little snark in the subject line, along with some inspiration from Monty Python.

“I’m not sure how many 19-year-olds would understand, ‘Bring out your dead!’ But a lot of people did.”

So, how important are subject lines? Very. As of this morning, the open rate for the ‘We’re not dead yet.’ email is at 49.5%.

An email most talked about by digital marketers was sent by President Barack Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign. The subject line?


Subject lines affect open rates. Some of the best are those that come across so personally, the recipient believes the message was meant only for them.

Last week I used a subject line that read, “Hey… before you leave today.” The open rate was about several percentage points higher than my average. But among my co-workers who I see every day, the open rate was 100%. Many accused me of ‘tricking’ them because they opened it, eyes rolling, thinking, “Now what does she need me to do?”

A subject line doesn’t always have to feel personal, but it should pique your interest. Valerie Kohler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, TX, uses great subject lines. I found myself relating to this one:

“Your child is NOT the only one who hasn’t done their summer reading yet!”

Valerie tells me they send a newsletter every other Monday. She sent me a list of subject lines she’s used that garnered higher open rates:

  • ‘We Like You Just Fine Here All The Time’
  • ‘Where Is Your Dream Kitchen’
  • ‘Listen To This!’
  • ‘We Have Air-Conditioning’
  • ‘It’s Pouring Good Books’
  • ‘Ready Set Summer’
  • ‘Stealing Ideas for Summer’
  • ‘Come Have Your Cake and Eat It Too’

Valerie was ‘shocked’ at the open rate for ‘Listen To This!’, which kicked off their partnership with, because it was so generic. But generic works if it’s a curiosity teaser.

I looked at my best open rates, and these subject lines were at the top:

  • ‘What did you just call me?’
  • ‘I’ll show you mine…’ (Shame on you.)
  • ‘Can I get your number?’
  • ‘Is my eye still twitching?’

The point is, even though email subject lines are often the last newsletter item written, they should be recognized for the power they hold and not be an afterthought.

Beth Golay

Beth is a reader, writer, marketer and Books & Whatnot founder. Even though she knows better, she's a sucker for a good book cover and will positively swoon if a book is set in appropriate type. @BethGolay