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The Best Email Subject Line Formulas To Attract Journalists Attention


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We’ve all been there. Whether you are writing a catchy press release or pitching the media, we’ve stared at our subject line, our fingertips have hovered over the keyboard, and we’ve thought long and hard about exactly what we should write in that limited space. You’re not alone if you’re nodding your head and thinking “How did they know?” It’s because we’ve felt the same stress. The same pressure. And it’s not fun.

While there is no magical formula for getting it right every time, there are many tried, tested, and true secrets to nailing the email subject line.

Here are ten of our must-try subject line formulas that we swear by for attracting a journalist’s attention.  

1. The Obvious: Think of Your Subject Line as Your Pitch

In his interview with Harvard Business Review, sales guru Daniel Pink shared that there are two categories of subject lines that tend to get opened most: those that appeal to utility and those that appeal to curiosity. The former shares how your product will help the reader – is it going to be their story of the year? Or how will it change the lives of their readers? The second is so irresistible, you can’t not open it. Curiosity killed the cat for a reason. If something is dangled in front of us that is too good to resist, we’re going to open it. It’s human nature.

2. The Old Faithful: Boring is the New Exciting

On the flipside of appealing to curiosity, oddly enough, there’s also something to be said about keeping it boring. In a study done by the folks at MailChimp, they looked at the open rates of over 40 million emails sent through MailChimp by businesses. When they singled out the highest and lowest open rates, they noticed something interesting. Those with the highest open rates were really, really straightforward. They weren’t salesy and they weren’t oozing of clickbait. They cut right to the point and dare we say it, they were boring.

What does this mean for you? Sometimes it’s OK to be simple. For example, let’s say you’re pitching an acquisition announcement. “Company X Acquired by Company Y” is all you really need in your subject line.

3. The Oh No You Didn’t: Profanity F*cking Works

Don’t get the soap out to wash your mouth yet. As it turns out, a little profanity in your email can go a long way. People are incredibly busy and they’re constantly scanning their emails to determine priority. Seeing a cuss word in a subject line will typically grab their attention and lead to an open. While we don’t recommend dropping the f-bomb in an email to a journalist, something like a “Hell Yeah” can actually do wonders for emphasizing your product or news.

4. The Personal Approach: Names and Locations Help

Studies have shown that when taking into consideration appealing to utility and curiosity, names and locations can be huge. For starters, if you’re emailing a journalist you may not already know, including their name in the subject line gives it a bit of a personal touch that sets it apart from something spammy. Similarly, let’s say you’re pitching a tech reporter that covers the Bay Area. By adding in your subject line “Bay Area Startup Announces Latest Funding Round” they’re going to know from the get go that you’ve done your research and know that they cover this area.

5. The Reptilian Method: Appeal to Your Lizard Brain

Imagining the gecko from Geico? I thought so. That’s just how your lizard brain works. It’s your brain first responder and it is the part of your brain that will act upon an email in your inbox if it hits the right nerves. Your lizard brain takes care of basic needs like remembering to breathe and it’s where fight-or-flight decisions are made. We’ve already talked about curiosity. Well, curiosity plays a large role in stimulating your lizard brain too.

You know those videos you see on your Facebook timeline that go something like “Girl Opened Blog Post AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?” Your lizard brain is ALL over that. And while we’re not suggesting you pull the “won’t believe what happened next” trick, an email subject line that leaves a little to the imagination works wonders. Example? “NYC Startup Lands High Profile Investor.” Most journalists will click on this email, simply because they want to know who the high profile investor is.

6. The Clinical Approach: Try a Little Reverse Psychology

Afraid someone won’t open your email? Try a little reverse psychology and challenge them not to. As the folks at Manicube (and many other companies) discovered, using the subject line “Don’t Open This Email” will actually result in a higher open rate, though as Hubspot warned: make sure your email content is worthy. Otherwise, you may risk losing that journalist’s trust in the future.

7. The Should Be Obvious: Brevity is KEY

OK, so we’ve addressed utility, curiosity, the lizard brain, and more, but what about subject line length? Well, brevity is key. Remember point two? Boring is the new simple? Keep it concise and get your point across in as few words as possible. Most inboxes reveal approximately 60 characters of your email subject line. These numbers are lower on mobile. Aim for six to eight words for your ideal subject line and you’re golden.  

8. The ACT NOW Approach: Create a Sense of Urgency

While embargoes can be a bit of a media nuisance (especially if you decide to push them last minute) they are really great for one thing in particular: email subject lines. Equally as awesome? The word EXCLUSIVE. Think of just how many emails journalists and writers get in their inbox daily. Now think of words that would make your email subject line stick out from the others. By adding an EMBARGO or EXCLUSIVE to the beginning of your subject line, you’re pretty much saying “This is important stuff right here.” In the case of an embargo, they know it’s got a countdown to a date and time attached to it. With an exclusive, there’s a good chance that offer won’t be on the table long. Both of these are great for quick opens and quick wins.

9. The Doc Brown: Travel Back in Time

Now, this email subject line hack isn’t for the inexperienced, but it definitely comes in handy if you’ve had a previous, positive interaction with a journalist or writer in the past. Do a quick inbox search and pull up your last conversation with them. Hit reply. The Re: in their inbox will likely lead to a quicker open rate, because it tricks the brain into thinking you’re already engaging and having a discussion. But! Don’t be too sneaky. Acknowledge early on in your email that it’s been awhile since you last chatted, that you enjoyed working with them on that announcement or client, and that you were hoping you could connect again and chat about something you’re currently working on.  

10. The Salutation: Don’t be Afraid to Discover the Power of the Hey!

Let’s tie this all back to point #1. People tend to open emails that spark curiosity. Daniel Pink also shared the example that President Barack Obama’s campaign emails that included the subject line “Hey” did exceptionally well. Why? Because people want to know what Obama is going to say following the hey. This is why we personally love using the classic “Hey – Got a sec?” when pitching journalists. There’s enough studies and lessons out there in pitching journalists (just like this one) and they all stress the importance of a catchy subject line. In a world of thousands of clickable subject lines – sometimes all you need is a hey!

What email subject lines have worked for you in the past? Which have gone south… fast? Let us know. 

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