The Only 3 Subject Line Rules You’ll Ever Need

Okay, real talk: Your ideal customer probably has hundreds of emails in their inbox right now.

At this very moment, they could be tapping to open their mailbox…

Power-scrolling through a dozen+ unread messages…

And opening the one, maaaaaaybe two, emails that jump out at them.

The rest?

– Deleted
– Archived
– Or left unread in the inbox forever to suffer through a slow, neglected kind of Voldemorty half-life

…which obviously, is no fun for anybody.

You know it’s true though, right?

It’s how you go through your inbox. It’s how I go through my inbox.

The reality is that you’ve got about 0.1 seconds to convince a reader that:
– There’s something unique here
– It will benefit me
– I should open

…Which means your subject lines are super DUPER important.

And, look. There are a bajillion tips out there about subject lines. And I don’t know about you…but I’m really not looking for any more tips in my life.

I need like, THREE. Max. Three that will actually work.

So that’s exactly what I’m giving you in this blog post:

The *only* three subject line rules you need to know…forever and ever, amen.

With these three bad boys, you’ll be able to write a subject line that will quickly catch attention and convince readers to open.

And you won’t have to remember complicated formulas to do it.


Dial in to WIFM


I learned the phrase “dial in to WIFM” while writing for a client, back in my agency days.

Even though it’s a lil’ bit cheesy, it’s stuck in my head for years and it’s a guiding rule in my copywriting business.

WIFM = What’s In it For Me?

When it comes to your subject lines, the fastest way to catch reader attention in the inbox is to make them think there’s something good on the other side.

Tell your reader why it matters TO THEM.

Not why it’s smart or healthy or responsible. (Because we’re humans and those things don’t really make us want to do things all that much.)

Give them a CLEAR reason why clicking on your email will benefit them. Keyword: clear.

Do you have a sale on? Tell them. Do you know a great recipe? Tell them.

Don’t say: Everybody loves summertime…

That’s suuuuper vague and doesn’t communicate WIFM at all.

Say: Get 30% off swimsuits, today only

BOOM. Super clear reason why I should open this email.

Don’t say: Did somebody say ‘fresh veggies’ ??

That gives nothing away and gives no clear reason to open.

Say: The salad recipe you’ll wanna eat all summer long

Now that’s something’s I want. Click.

Don’t say: Everything’s coming up GOLDEN 💛

…because what does that even mean?

Say: Open for the golden latte of your dreams

Don’t worry about being super creative when you’re writing a WIFM-fueled subject line. Just ask yourself:

“What will my reader GET out of this email?”

And write a clear subject line that speaks to that.


Tempt, don’t inform


The key with subject lines is that they don’t just need to catch attention (although that’s step 1)…

They also need to convince a reader to CLICK.

You’ve spent all this time writing your email, you want it to actually get read, don’t you?

That’s why you need to tease.

(Because we’re friends, I’ll admit that yes, I may have spent too long searching for a non-gross gif relating to “tease”. Thank goodness for Friends and Danny DeVito.)

Start a story with your subject line…that a subscriber needs to click to finish.

Dangle something that matters to your reader. I want you to DANGLE it.

Don’t give away the entire meal in your subject line. Don’t tell them exactly what you’re talking about. Just give them a whiff to get them hungry for the real thing.

Don’t say: Customers want more social proof

Say: The #1 thing potential customers need from you

Don’t say: Berries: salad’s exciting new addition

Say: This secret ingredient makes salads come alive

Don’t say: Ice cubes help dogs beat the summer heat

Say: Keep THIS on hand to cool down your pup

When I’m struggling with subject lines, I like to play with this a bit and ask myself:

What’s the most dramatic way I could tease this subject line?

I usually come up with a few ridiculous ones. But it helps me dig below the surface and find creative ways to tempt the reader and think “okay, I gotta find out what this is.”


(Ethically) steal


Here’s a big ol’ secret of the copywriting industry:

We’re all stealers.

We watch what other people are doing online. We save the best stuff. And when it comes time to write ours, we model.

We have swipe files full of sticky messaging, great hooks, clever storytelling…ALL of it.

So we don’t sit down to a blank page every time. We start the process with oodles and oodles of creative inspiration.

You can do the same with your subject lines!

Whenever you see a subject line in your inbox that makes you want to click, screenshot it. And add it to a special Google Drive folder ( ← Google Drive is my fave but use your organizational software of choice!) for subject lines.

When you’re stumped on what to write, take a look at your swipe file and see how you can riff off one of your MVPs.

You don’t want to copy it exactly (because that feels icky and you’re better than that!) But springboard off of the IDEA, the format, the formula — not the word-for-word subject line itself.

Here are a few inside my own personal subject line swipe file, to get you started:

– We quit sugar! Here’s what happened next.
– 3 words: Grilled. Flatbread. Pizza.
– The 1 weird workout trick that actually works
– Find out why everyone’s freaking out over a burger
– The S-word that’s ruining your sleep

All of those subject lines made me want to click and open. So we already know they work! Now get creative and see how you can use the same IDEA to write a click-worthy subject line of your own.


A super easy 5-minute copywriting challenge to APPLY this lesson


…Because if you just click away after reading, chances are, you won’t remember anything you just learned. (You know I’m right!)

So here’s a quick little challenge to help this lesson sink in…

1. Go back to your last subject line that didn’t perform so well.

2. Apply these 3 rules and rewrite your subject line in 3 different ways. Come up with:

– 1 subject line that clearly dials in to WIFM
– 1 subject lines that is super tease-y
– 1 subject line modeled on one from my swipe file above (or one of yours!)

How do those subject lines feel? Attention-grabbing? Scroll-stopping? Click-worthy? GOOD.

Do the same exercise the next time you write an email to give your readers a strong reason to open up!

Oh, and when you’re finished, share your 3 examples in the comments! I’d love to see ‘em.

join the convo

What other “rules” do you follow when it comes to subject lines?

How long do you usually spend coming up with your subject lines before sending an email?

What’s one brand whose subject lines always get you to open?

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© Whitney Ryan LLC

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