‘Elon Musk Has a Secret’ and Other Lessons About Email Subject Lines

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Aug 3, 2017

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated with a lack of response to your emails, there are some easy ways for you to make them better.

We send hundreds of millions of emails per month, and see over 30 million of our emails opened and read each month, here at Ladders. We want to make sure that our emails get the attention they deserve!

I know that you do too. So in the interest of helping the broader recruiting community get better response to their emails, I’m sharing some of the insights that we’ve learned in the hopes that your email efforts will pay off even more for you here in 2017.

As modern recruiting is now dominated by reaching out over email, text, and phone, getting even a little bit better at making each channel work for you has become more important than ever.

Whether you’re sending hundreds, thousands, or millions of emails each month, increasing your open rate, or your response rate, by just 10 percent has real benefits for you and your recruiting practice. Making your sourcing hours more productive will give you the ability to invest more hours in your important recruiting work — listening, understanding, speaking with, and spending quality time with your candidates and clients.

The secret to success in getting your emails read by professionals, we’ve found, is to break down each part of the email process, and work on making that part a lot better.

Let’s look at opens, subject lines, “reads,” clicks, “from” addresses, and sending time …

If It Doesn’t Get Opened, It Doesn’t Get Read

My first rule: “if it doesn’t get opened, it doesn’t get read.” No matter how great your email is — a great article, a great job, a great event — if your audience doesn’t open that email, it can’t get read.

And the key to getting your email opened is getting your subject line right.

And that means testing subject lines.

Ideally, your candidate relationship tool, or email software, has an A/B testing capability. That is, your software allows you to try out two different subject lines — “A” and “B” — on any email and see which one performs better when you send it to hundreds, or thousands, of people.

Some systems let you try out your two different subject lines on the first 10 percent of people to whom you send your email, and then automatically pick the better one to send to the last 90 percent.

What Makes a Good Subject Line

The one that works best often surprises you. I’m astonished by results all the time.

Here are four examples of subject line tests from our own email campaigns to professionals below, in order to show you what I mean.

The first test came from our daily newsletter that goes out to 10 million professionals each work day. That day’s email had a lead article focusing on business book recommendations. The two subject lines tested were:

  1. 5 books to read if you want to be successful
  2. 5 ways to succeed despite your toxic coworkers

In this case, A had an 8 percent better open rate than B. Career-minded professionals tend to be a bit more positive, optimistic, and achievement-oriented than the general U.S. audience, and we’ll frequently see that aspirational subject lines do better.

Our second test really surprised me:

  1. Elon Musk has a secret
  2. 9 secrets from Elon Musk on how to be successful

A had an astounding 65 percent better open rate than B. That means for every 100 people who opened B, 165 opened A.

That large of a difference between two relatively similar subject lines was completely unexpected.  

Why do you think it did so much better?

Our guess is that it felt more conspiratorial, and almost draws the reader into a whispered hush of confidence.

Whatever the reason, we used this insight to try out more conversational/conspiratorial subject lines in the weeks afterward.

In the next example, we used “mail-merge” fields to insert the user’s name, or the name of the company at which they are currently working, in the subject line:

  1. {first name}, Take Your Friends to Work.
  2. Can {company name} Tap Into Your Circle?

So these subject lines might have read “Deborah, Take Your Friends to Work” and “Can IBM Tap Into Your Circle?” for an employee named Deborah who currently works at IBM.

To our surprise, given how strongly a user’s first name usually performs, B was the winner in this test, generating 26 percent more opens than A.

Perhaps that’s because not a lot of email comes with your own company’s name in the subject line and the novelty generated reader attention in this case.

And my final example is another one that really shocked me. For an article about making sure your resume tells an effective story to the HR person or recruiter reading it, we used:

  1. Three ways you’re sabotaging yourself
  2. You’ll be hired by a stranger

B beat A by 9 percent. Both are unusual subject lines — they’re darker, with an almost negative undertone to each. We mix it up so that people don’t get bored or that our content has gotten stale.

So for us, every once in a while, using ominous-sounding subject lines works well. In this case, I thought avoiding sabotage of your own career felt like something very immediate and practical the reader would open right away, while the use of the word “stranger” is itself sometimes off-putting. Reading about strangers would feel more uncomfortable, I surmised.

But again, I guessed wrong. “You’ll be hired by a stranger” was the better performing subject line. Which goes to show the importance of always, always testing.

If It Doesn’t Get Read, It Doesn’t Get Clicked

Now if you’re testing subject lines and doing better and better at open rates, the next thing you’ll want to be concerned about is, “are they reading it?”

When your audience or target opens your email on their phone — and in 2017, it is definitely far more likely than not on their phone — while also watching TV and perhaps snuggling with their spouse, does your email grab their attention in the very first paragraph?

Too often, we can feel that it’s only polite to start off with explaining who we are, why we are emailing, and what the purpose for the contact is.

And that’s a mistake.

Because these introductory passages that you’ve spent so much time crafting, are, unfortunately, competing with Game of Thrones or The Bachelor, and it’s very, very tough to sustain a reader’s attention when that’s the competition.

So from the very first sentence, you’ll want to give them something enticing to read about.

That means it’s not “As you know, ACME has been a leader in the field of coyote apparatus since the …”

But “Have you ever wanted to fly off a cliff with rocket wings attached to your roller skates?”

One opening sentence grabs your attention right away, while the other one puts you to sleep.

The more you respect the audience’s limited time and get right to the (exciting) point, the better chance your email will have of getting read.

If It Doesn’t Get Clicked …

And if your email gets opened and then read, the next thing you’ll want to do is make sure that the audience or recipient is responding.

We’ve learned that every great email needs to have a “call to action” — that is, something for the reader to do right now, right away.

Whatever that is — visit your website to see the amazing demo video with Justin Bieber, or sign up for your email list to get a chance at a promotion in your next job, or click here to reply to me right now about this open role that’s just perfect for you — whatever your call to action is, it’s got to be good, it’s got to be relevant, and it’s got to be exciting.

To make up a new Zen saying, we could say that “if an email never gets clicked, did it really get delivered?”

Beyond the Subject Line

It’s not just the subject line that determines success. There are a few  other parts of the email that matter …


Who is sending the email? What’s their email signature? The more you can have your actual executives working in the business be the names that are sending your messaging about employer brand, introduction or “request to meet” emails, the better response you’ll see.

Because for a candidate, being contacted by someone with whom they have more in common, who represents a step up in their career, who may be beneficial for their career regardless of whether they take the job on offer, all make response rates to executive emails much higher than those from recruiting or HR.

If you’re really smart, you’ll put one of your talent acquisition associates on this task. Your busy executives will find sending hundreds of thousands of emails daunting unless they realize that all they have to do is write it, and your staffer will do the busy work of hitting “send” a thousand times.

Pre-headers — Those Little Preview Windows in Gmail

You’ll notice that in Gmail, as well as other email providers, there’s a little preview of the upcoming email displayed.

If you don’t manage it consciously, it will simply show the first line of the email itself — “Dear Bob” or “Dear Sarah”, or some such. This is a wasted opportunity.

Instead, use that space to drive your employer brand home.

This requires email software, but even relatively simple software accommodates this feature nowadays and enables you to slip in your employer brand message: “I’d rather be working” or “#1 Employer in New York State” or “Good People Happily Employed.”

These little touches can have a surprisingly positive impact on your open and engagement rates.

The Time of Day to Send Emails

The final bit of advice is to manage and study the time of day in which your emails are most effective. Too often, we project our own preferences onto our audience. “Of course everybody goes through their email in the early morning/mid-afternoon/late at night — it’s what I do too!”

In 17 years of sending career-related emails — first at HotJobs, then at Ladders — I’ve seen the best day to send emails to professionals migrate from Friday to Thursday to Monday then to Tuesday, and now we’re seeing Wednesday become a stronger and stronger day.

And I’ve seen the best time of day to send an email rotate from early morning to late morning to late at night to early afternoon and all the way back around again.

All of the e-commerce site and email newsletters are trying to figure this out too, so it remains a competitive game. And when the audience gets overwhelmed or turned off because all the other emailers are crowding into the “best” hour of the week, their attention will migrate to a different time of day.

Again, repeatedly testing and learning what works for you and your company with your particular audience is the key learning to take away.

Getting More Opens, Getting More Responses

By improving your subject lines, your message, your emails, and your time of day, you can improve your recruiting.

Regular testing in subject lines, as well as the other elements of your email campaigns, will teach you what is most effective with your target audience.

And that improvement can mean the difference between catching and landing the next great candidate, and being stuck at your keyboard until 1 a.m. Again.

Good luck, I’m rooting for you!

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