Time to Stop Using These Subject Lines

By Rachel Owen, communications manager

In our staff teams at IMI, we often discuss how best to tweak our marketing email subject lines. For non-profits, we’re competing for visibility in email boxes filled with work correspondence, messages from friends and an onslaught of promotional emails from every online store you’ve ever purchased from.

It can be tempting to take a page out of the marketing book from all those promotional emails that we receive. Inspiration is great – but be cautious. We want subject lines to be catchy and draw the reader in, but as non-profits we typically need to use a more “approachable” marketing strategy.

How do you know where the line is between an approachable and heavy-handed subject line? Let’s look at a few email offenders I’ve received in my box recently. Yes, these are all examples from actual emails I received. (I unsubscribed from many emails while compiling this list.)

8 Subject Line Offenders

  1. Can we talk about …?

You’ve seen these everywhere: “Can we just talk about Oprah’s speech?” or “Can we talk about conflict?” It can be a great, personable opener, but “Can we talk?” suggests that there will be a dialogue. Beware using this phrase for one-way communication. It can sound disingenuous unless you are making an effort to participate in a dialogue. Keeping that idea in mind, it could be used in the context of an interactive web meeting, social media post (great for engagement!) or a blog where followers can share their thoughts in response.

Runner-up: The “REAL TALK” subject line hits all the same flat notes as “Can we talk?” for me.

  1. You just missed it…

Unless your non-profit is for time travelers, I’m not sure this subject line will resonate with your readers. No one likes to feel like they are behind schedule. Focus on messaging that takes a positive angle on urgency. Here are a few of my favorite of the “time” related subject lines that I’ve seen lately:

  • You’re THIS CLOSE to missing out
  • Only a short time left
  • The clock is ticking
  • Time is running out
  1. I’m Calling You Out…

This pointed subject line coupled with the opening of the email (“If you’re reading this email right now, then I know you haven’t taken advantage of …”) is, at best, a bit passive aggressive. Rather than scolding your readers for failing to take advantage of your offering, perhaps take a lighter approach. Something like, “Did you forget to register? There’s still time!” might be more effective.

  1. Deleting This Email Could Cost You That Promotion

There’s enough generalized anxiety in the world that we shouldn’t add to the stress with our subject lines. Offer the carrot, not the stick. For a great, positive angle on this subject line, I like Jon Acuff’s: “Ready to do great work this year?”

Runner-up: “Can you afford NOT to open this email?” Dear marketer: I’m sure I’ll survive, but thanks for worrying about me.

  1. The best way to make boring data sexy

This subject line was for an educational webinar about data in Excel. Unless it’s somehow related to your non-profit, I’d suggest avoiding marketing that centers around making something “sexy.” If you need ideas for interesting adjectives try a Google search or hold a quick brainstorming session with a colleague.

  1. OMG! The [event/service] is here!

Unless your target audience is young, or your brand voice includes slang, avoid trendy phrases in your messaging. It can be too easy for trendy phrases to be a misstep and no one wants to go viral for a mistake in their email or post.

  1. *Don’t Open This Email*

This type of subject line is often suggested for grabbing the “rebel” segment of your email list. Is your organization full of people who thrive on a challenge? Is your brand voice edgy and pressing for change? If not, this subject line seems counterproductive and can be out of character.


Use “Urgent” with caution. Your organization’s “urgent” status may not be what your readers feel is urgent. If you say something is “URGENT” and it’s just a discount expiring soon you will lose a lot of trust with your readers. Unless the need is truly urgent and important, it’s best to focus on other ways to describe the time sensitive nature.

These are just a few of the latest email subject lines that gave me pause. What are some headlines you’ve seen recently that didn’t work for you? How would you craft a better subject line? Please share in the comments below!

Want to know more about association management? Contact us at info@imiae.com to find out more about what IMI Association Executives can do for your organization.


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