I have to confess that one of my favorite parts of marketing for a library is email marketing. I love the challenge of creating an email with content my cardholders want and need. I love writing a really good subject line that makes it DAMN NEAR IMPOSSIBLE for my cardholders to ignore the message.  I want them to be so curious about what’s inside that they click on the email as soon as they see it.

Writing a good subject line is a science. I do a lot of reading and research. I get a lot of marketing email from companies and I pay more than a passing glance at their subject lines. I study then! Sometimes these companies say things I could never get away with–including profanity and suggestive comments. That craziness won’t work for a library. Well, it would work but…

I digress.

Your email subject line is the first–and maybe only–chance you have to hook a reader into opening an email. In a future post, we’ll talk about the actual contents of your email marketing, and how you’ll make that important first click pay off for your cardholders.

But for now, let’s concentrate on getting through the door. The Radicati Group, Inc. released a study that shows the average person receives about 90 “business” emails a day. That’s a lot of competition for a little old library with a teeny tiny budget.

But don’t you worry. As librarians have done for centuries, we will fight back with words. We’ll use words to create an emotional reaction in our cardholders, which will cause them to take action… by clicking on our email.

Here are five best practices to keep in mind when writing your email subject line.

Don’t use clichés. Nothing demonstrates a lack of creativity more than a cliché. Clichés are old, they’re unimaginative, and they’re corny. And they’ll make your cardholders groan, not click.

What you want to be is clever. A clever email subject line is inventive and intriguing. I endorse cleverness. Hubspot has a great list of examples. My favorites are from the eyeglass company Warby Parker: Uh-oh, your prescription is expiring and  from the social media site Buffer, which sent this email after they were hacked: Buffer has been hacked – here is what’s going on.

Tease the best feature.  What is the one piece of content in your email which your cardholder cannot live without? Find a way to incite curiosity about that one feature. Example: When the video streaming service Indieflix updated their website to include an intuitive movie selection tool, I sent an email with this subject line: New feature helps you pick which free movie to watch.

Be current.  If you can, invoke a sense of urgency and currency in your email subject line. I try to do this with an email we send once every few months for a book list called Sneak Peeks–books we know we’ll have on our shelves in two-three months. I’ll say something like,  Your exclusive first look at new books headed to your Library! or Place the first holds on these new books!

You might also tie your email to current events when appropriate. For example, after David Bowie’s death in January, I realized that our cardholders could download or stream his new album through Freegal. So I sent an email with a link to the album and the subject line: New music–including David Bowie’s latest album. Patrons downloaded the album more than 400 times in the three days after the email was sent.  Normally, we get 10-15 downloads in that period.

Be local. If you can refer to a city, neighborhood, or branch in your subject line, do so. Most of the libraries I know can’t afford personalization software for emails, but we can come close to invoking the feeling of intimacy with our customers by making our subject lines local. Example: You’re invited to a special celebration at the Woodville Branch Library or Author Jon Jones only at the Woodville Branch Library!

Keep it short. In all likelihood, more than half of your recipients will first glance at your email on their mobile device. Keep your subject line less than 50 characters. That’s a challenge but it can be done. Let me illustrate why it’s important. Here’s a 35 character subject line:


New books are in–place a hold now! See those first few words? The rest are lost in the formatting of the mobile device. Replacing this subject line with New books are in-read now! might work better.

Here’s a better example:


“Listen to new audiobooks from your library!”  It’s 43 characters with the action verb and the enticing “new” both visible.

BONUS TIP: Every few months, I find the latest list of subject line spam words, print it, and post it in my office. These are words that will trigger spam filters. It’s important to try to avoid these words as much as possible. Here’s the latest list of words to avoid in your subject line.

Experiment with subject lines. If you have email software that allows A/B testing, this is a great use of that feature. Beyond that, track your emails. After a few months, you’ll be able to see a pattern with the emails that get the best results and the subject lines and you’ll get a better feel for what works with your cardholders.

If you have any questions or comments or if you would like to write a guest post for this blog, let me know in the comment section below.

Subscribe to this blog and you’ll receive an email every time I post. To do that, click on “Follow” button on the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Connect with me on Twitter and Snapchat–it’s where I talk about library marketing! I’m @Webmastergirl. I’m also on LinkedIn, Slideshare,  Instagram and Pinterest. Views in this post are my own and do not represent those of my employer.