3 Ways to Build Urgency In Email Subject Lines

Build UrgencyAs I examined my inbox in the days before Christmas, I couldn’t help but notice a growing trend in the email marketing messages I receive from retailers big and small.

Almost every other message in my inbox touted a percentage off or free shipping of my purchase in the next however many days.

We’ve blogged about it before – most email campaigns employ some urgency tactics to encourage email opens, clicks and ultimately more timely sales. This sparked a discussion on building trust and credibility.

And while trust is crucial, time and strategy are also important elements of successfully urgent subject lines.

The Clock is Ticking

With the holiday season in full swing, it is typical of retail campaigns to increase urgency in their subject lines.

To boost sales before a major holiday, retailers use their subject lines to highlight products, offer discounts and stress the importance of ordering early for shipping purposes.

You can use the same techniques to drive traffic and sales on your website.

The 3 Top Ways: The Proof is in the (Figgy) Pudding

According to MarketingSherpa’s 2010 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, the top three types of subject lines that compel subscribers to open emails contain one of these:

  1. Discount Offer
  2. Free Product Offer
  3. Familiar Brand Name

That’s pretty big news considering that almost every single ‘urgent’ email in my inbox right now contains a variation of one of these.

Would These Examples Drive You to Buy?

Straight from my inbox, each one of these emails mention a discount, a free offer or the brand name.

Screenshot showing enticing email subjects
Notice: Words like “ALMOST GONE”, “3 Days Left” entice readers to open the emails sooner than later.

Think Twice: Are Your Intentions Naughty, or Nice?

While creating a sense of urgency with your subject line is a great way to light a fire under your subscribers, it’s crucial to step back and evaluate when too much urgency is off-putting.

If you offered 10% last week, and you’re offering 20% off now, who’s to say you won’t increase the discount next week?

If you rely too heavily on urgency techniques, you could end up with disbelieving subscribers. Offering too many discounts could sabotage your chances of inspiring real urgency.

How Do You Build Urgency In Your Subjects?

Do you include these elements in your subjects? Others? What have your results been?

Share your thoughts below!

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50 Comments

  1. Good tips. Authenticity with urgency is key as you point out. I see some email offers that ALL seem urgent, when in fact the same (or a better) offer is still available later or elsewhere.

    12/30/2009 11:25 am
  2. Hi Rebecca and the AWEBER team,

    I use AWEBER and outsource your services to any client I have who I am coaching to build a niche list.

    Just a “thumbs up” for being the best in email marketing out there.

    Also- I appreciate you staying way ahead of the curve and continuing to make AWEBER a “leading edge” tool for all of us-

    Just a comment about creating urgency -

    I appreciate your comments and am always looking for educating myself and clients on the best techniques -

    and have found that the best techniques for any “click enhancement” starts with a heart of service – which I get from the quality of things you share from your blog-

    For example- If my motive in sales is to “get” before I “give” I can find myself with a high churn rate, and decreasing clicks-

    A second foundation we have found is by adding real value into every email that overwhelms your list with real, applicable benefits-

    Keeping in mind that I send out emails (and coach others) and newsletters as if I were writing to a dear friend or having a face-to-face- sharing my heart and giving as much value as I can-

    No doubt AWEBER does this-

    but the point is-

    1) Having a foundation to serve first
    2) Overwhelm your subscribers with value and benefits in your mailings
    3) Talk to them like they are a personal friend

    and when you go to go to use “urgency” for events and offers-

    your list is almost “opt-out” proof as we have found that they will hang in there because they know they are getting more value and truth from you and will endure promotions they have no interest in because you give so much service and value-

    No one wants to get off of a moving train – especially one that delivers so much value on a regular basis. . .

    Thanks again for this great service as it has helped us to drive revenue for ourselves and our clients

    12/30/2009 1:03 pm
  3. We have had very good results with very small limited offers. We started sending deals for "The first 20 callers Only" (or 10, 50, etc) and our customers love it. It seems to work best when we promote a single product- i.e. "Any Hat for $10, first 20 callers only!"

    12/30/2009 1:44 pm
  4. I haven’t found too much luck with that kind of urgency to my list. I think it’s because of the way I built my list though, it’s just not ecommerce focused. I also think that type of urgency is harder to use with the small business market because they are tired of all the internet marketing hype.

    My readers really respond to how to information and tutorial kind of stuff. I recently sent an email with the subject "How I Boosted Signups 500% & Other Blog Updates" which got 32.4% open rates and 24% clicks. I also asked my list if I could partner with them somehow in 2010 and that got 50% open rate.

    I think I’ve built a good relationship with my list so far, now I just need to work on building the list much bigger.

    12/31/2009 8:48 am
  5. These are interesting posts, but if people do not open the email… OK, thats the way it is!

    I write for the people that do. They are my core clients and the ones that I can work with, action takers and doers.

    Losing sleep over the others is a no no.

    12/31/2009 9:06 am
  6. Steinar and Aaron,

    Your points are right on, I completely agree. Authenticity and real value are crucial to any kind of urgency. You have to be careful when you have A LOT of ‘urgent’ promotions. Just like when it comes to writing, if you bold an entire paragraph, well, its not really bold at all.

    Rick,

    Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s really interesting that you have narrowed it down to a specific product and a limited availability. That is a great way to inspire urgency!

    Angela,

    You bring up a good point. Perhaps urgency techniques work best with ecommerce, although it would be interesting to test and a message or two and see how a limited availability technique like Rick’s works out for you. Those stats on your recent message are awesome, people love percentages!

    Sean,

    Absolutely. When you have a feel for your subscribers’ likes and dislikes, it’s much easier to target them specifically with your content. For those who are just starting out, testing different techniques is a great way to get a handle on those elusive subscriber preferences.

    12/31/2009 10:20 am
  7. I thought I’d posted here…but I don’t see it, so sorry if this is a duplicate comment. I find that putting the first name in the subject line, prior to the offer, helps improve the open rate.

    12/31/2009 10:25 am
  8. I’ve used urgency methods with success. When they have been combined with good discount offers, I’ve had positive results.

    I am still amazed at how many people will open an email and then never click through, especially when the whole thing revolves around the link.

    12/31/2009 11:05 pm
  9. My printer manufacturer sent me an email saying "Sale on ink and toner on our site two days only!" Of course I clicked immediately. When I got on their site the ink was the same price it always is and was also the same price as in big chain office supply stores. I unsubscribed. Their is no reason for me to act on their emails because I cannot trust that I am actually getting a deal. If we send an urgent email there definitely should be some sort of deal on the other end. Trying to fool subscribers is a HUGE mistake.

    1/1/2010 3:54 pm
  10. I’m just learning how to read the reports in Aweber’s members area!

    I like the “Hats special offer to the next 10 people” title.
    Very good.
    I don’t have anything for sale yet, but will have a new biz site next month, so I will experiment!
    Happy & Prosperous New Year to all.

    1/3/2010 1:21 am
  11. Obviously the urgency technique works well because it is so widely used by large and small operators. However I find that I respond well to free content. If you share something with me that has real value then I immediately find myself looking around the site for more information.
    In other words I am allowing myself to form a stronger relationship and want more of this helpful interaction. Suddenly I feel as if i have a friend and can trust that site! We humans are easily swayed but that’s just the way it is and that’s what we all seek to take advantage of.

    1/3/2010 6:32 pm
  12. I have had excellent results using urgency techniques. My experience has led me to believe that while urgency is key and an important element. We must be cautious to use it appropriately and not exploit it. My feeling is that at the end of the day I want my list to view me as a trusted advisor and sending weekly urgency e-mails without much value attached to them. Does not send a "trusted advisor" message. So bottom line is use urgency – just make sure you are always adding value and using other techniques as well so that you stay credible.

    1/3/2010 6:57 pm
  13. My opens are routinely between 60 and 150% — my top was around 300%, which I guess means someone else picked up and broadcast my content :~) I think good content is key and Typepad’s “Blog It” bookmarklet has been awesome for enriching my content. My problem is the click rate on pages is really low — 5-10%. I’d love the team to do some brainstorming around that one, or if you have already please publish it again!

    1/7/2010 5:37 pm
  14. My site is a free service, a Gratitude Quote of the Day (http://www.AllAboutGratitude.com) , which goes out daily. As a previous comment (Neil) pointed out above, I get a better open rate when I include the subscribers first name in the email. I find this very interesting because my subjects are 99% the same each day “Quote of the Day – 2010 01 09″ (of course the date changes daily).

    When I play around with “First Name, here is today’s quote – Quote of the Day – 2010 01 09″ the % opened rate jumps significantly.

    Be Well.

    1/9/2010 7:21 am
  15. We must always be aware not to come across as too pushy when trying to build urgency in our email subject lines.

    On occasion, I do notice complaint rates going up in my broadcast emails with subject lines intended to build urgency like "Last Day before the offer is gone…"

    1/11/2010 7:09 am
  16. Mike,

    There are plenty of companies that succumb to less than ideal urgency tactics. When it comes down to it, subscribers place their trust in you when they sign up to your email list. Sending urgent messages with the intent to trick subscribers is poor business practice. There are plenty of better ways to legitimately increase opens and sales.

    Nick,

    I think we’re all in agreement – urgency is a great way to build interest in your product or service when there’s a genuine offer, but it can also be easily taken advantage of. When used sparingly, it can really be great incentive!

    Maggie and Paul,

    Thanks for sharing your findings. It’s always interesting to hear about other campaigns!

    1/11/2010 9:58 am
  17. Most of the people on my main list are small business owners with offline businesses or online businesses that have been successful for several years. My secondary list is internet marketers. They both respond the same way to urgency offers, IF they are done right – sometimes I admit that I screw it up.

    Surprisingly, both groups respond well to contests, but for some reason, not as well in the subject line as in the first sentence. The subject line can say For the First 10 People but not "contest". It works especially well for product giveaways to generate testimonials, among the subset of existing clients. I think that’s because I’ve led them to come to expect them.

    With sales offers, it’s also effective, but it varies. I learned the hard way that tonight-only has to mean tonight-only no matter how well the sale went.

    The way I’ve screwed it up has been to forget that I made a similiar deal two or three years ago, so I can’t offer it again unless I make some kind of change. I’m always surprised at how much people who read my newsletter are paying attention.

    1/11/2010 3:38 pm
  18. In Japan, it’s also a same situation.
    I think most companies use e-mail as a tool to make revenue, not to engage subscribers.

    Few information about mail marketing in Japan made them so.

    So, Aweber’s contents are inspired me very much.
    I will be rooting for you.

    1/12/2010 2:55 am
  19. Great story I believe you have an email list for a reason its business plain and simple. If you come up with catchy subject lines that entice clicks, that is your job as an effective email marketer.

    If your getting more clicks then your starting to be an effective email marketer. Not a bad trait to have! Email marketing is like an art form in itself and we all want to be picasso.

    When is to much? When your emails are starting to look like spam same subject line or similar, same offer time and time again. Spice them up think outside the box.

    1/13/2010 1:50 pm
  20. Rebecca

    Very good ‘email opening’ advice, BUT another ingredient is needed first to really set these ideas on fire:

    Trust.

    I have discovered that the single factor in getting people to open my e-mails is how much my subscribers trust and believe in ME and any value I might consistently bring.

    I figured this out by observing my own reaction when I scan down all the 100s of e-mails in my inbox each day; The ones I open are from marketers and contacts that I know and trust.

    I even look forward to opening them.

    If genuine urgency is added to trust – the effect is multiplied.

    But TRUST comes first. It cannot be faked, counterfeited, stolen, bought or copied … well, not for long anyway.

    Currently averaging 35% opening rate. Pretty happy with that, last week one hit 42%.

    Life is good using AWeber :)

    1/14/2010 12:42 am
  21. Hi Jonathan and Rebecca,

    Thanks for the sharing, can’t agree more with you.

    I find myself opening mails from senders who have consistently offered values and are authentic. There are emails that I look forward to, and will not unsubscribe from.

    It takes time to establish oneself as the authority that offers value as well as the entrepreneur with authenticity. We want to persist!

    Louisa

    1/14/2010 8:33 pm
  22. I want to appreciate Aweber first for this tutorials. Personally, I have boosted my response rates to sales using these urgency tactics.

    Some times I give a 48 hours urgency deadlines and have experienced
    sales rate of 12% – 15% of those that opened my emails. I know that response rates like this are not too common so I know I’m doing my marketing right.

    1/15/2010 7:02 pm
  23. Jim

    Great post. I agree with the post above that developing and strengthening trust is extremely important. In our email marketing we are averaging ~30%-40% opening rate. However, the list consists of people we know.

    1/16/2010 6:33 pm
  24. Urgency is important, but I think it is being over-used and is burning out in some field. Internet Marketers, for example, use it way too much. It looses credibility.

    But – if you minimize the abuse of this technique with your list, it will probably generate good results once there is a genuine urgent OTO onthe table.

    1/18/2010 7:14 am
  25. Use ellipses at the end of each subject line; they imply continuity to the text leading the reader to click…

    1/19/2010 12:17 am
  26. Amazed that no one else commented yet that FREE is a major trigger for SPAM filters in email subject lines. Lest you want your message directed to a junk mail folder, try other language like "with our compliments" or "at no cost."

    1/21/2010 12:36 am
  27. Hi Team,

    Wonderful insights and lessons! Nowadays we hear how important it is the get the customer to know, like and trust us.

    It takes time and can be easily lost in a moment of careless marketing.

    I dislike annoyance marketing and will not purchase from anyone who attempts to abuse my intelligence, no matter how fantastic their offer is.

    Thanks for your article and the opportunity to add my comments!

    1/21/2010 12:21 pm
  28. I absolutely agree with the need for instilling urgency in your subject copy. But we also need to exercise extreme caution on how we use the tactic.

    A sense of urgency is only good for as long as it is accompanied by a valid benefit. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get any decent click through rates even if your emails are opened.

    That last part particularly caught my attention and a 10% offer followed by a 20% offer on the same product may actually cost you sales rather than do any good.

    1/22/2010 4:07 am
  29. I find that being genuine and down to earth rather than too “adsy” serves me well. I give away free reports and strategies and sometimes the title might seem bland like “Your *whatever* Strategy” but people are anxious to improve their strategies so it works well. I might say “Here’s Your xxx” or “I wanted to give this to you”, etc.

    I also follow some copywriter tips sometimes in using “war” and “romance” words. Like “Conquer *whatever*” or “Enchanted *whatever*” or just using a word that solves a problem “Solve *whatever*” …defeat, etc. and they tend to go over quite well.

    I read copywriting resources to give me ideas on how to get people’s interest in something. If you’re doing anything online, you need to sharpen up your copywriting.

    Out of the last 4 emails I sent out only one had a 33% open rate, the others were 66.7, 77.4 and 91.7. Not all of them had something to click but the ones that did were over 30% and I wonder if that was because 1 or 2 of the links in each were links readers had already gotten before and there was only 1 new link (I was reminding some of them about it or referencing a previous report & how it would tie in with this one) so there wasn’t much of a reason for them to click those if they had already read them/DLed them before.

    1/22/2010 4:08 am
  30. Oh and P.S. I HATE urgency tactics. I despise seeing them in my inbox and RARELY ever pay attention to them so I don’t use them at all. I may at some point if it’s REALLY necessary but it would be a once in a blue moon thing and it would be because it is seriously urgent. They’re so overused, everybody’s got a freakin’ urgent offer/notice.

    If you gain people’s trust then if one day you say something really is urgent they’re more likely to believe you.

    1/22/2010 4:11 am
  31. Kat,

    The word "free" in subject lines is no longer a major spam filter trigger. It was 3-4 years ago, but spam filters have evolved to be much more sophisticated now and a single word is very unlikely to get you filtered.

    1/22/2010 10:11 am | Follow me on Twitter
  32. Ben

    I have found people respond well to negative subject lines. i agree with tom in that the word "FREE" doesn’t work very well.

    1/22/2010 1:31 pm
  33. I was about the mention the ‘free’ issue but Tom beat me to it :)

    Obviously if you use the word ‘free’ too many times in your email body, you could get flagged as well.

    I use urgency/scarcity in tandem together quite a bit but I’ve to note this is not the ONLY tactic I use. In addition to urgency, I use:

    1. Scarcity. Be it limited stock, limited units sold at a discounted price or limited number of people admitted to a membership.

    2. Curiosity. One of the best ever tactic in my opinion. Of course, your body has to be able to substantiate your headline otherwise, you would just piss people off if your message/offer is not congruent with your subject line.

    3. Shock. There’s a few I use that incite some degree of ‘shock’ in my subscribers. Of course, do not overuse it and when using shock or controversy you’re always running the risk of offending some people. For instance, I know for a fact ‘death’ themed (use your imagination) headlines works very well but as with curiosity type headlines, you’ve got to be able to pull and direct the reader back to the main message/offer.

    4. Numbers. Using numbers like xx%, $xx, xx days etc will have a positive effect. Although, the effectiveness of that has dropped somewhat compared to the past because everybody seems to be doing that…still is useful though.

    That’s just some of the ‘tactics’ I use, there are much much more that I’m sure other Aweber users will share.

    1/23/2010 12:41 am
  34. Thanks for the tips. I always see such urgency email in my own inbox and I almost always click on it but fail to use it on my own list.

    It’s true that you should not always use it, email after email, because it will backfire.

    1/24/2010 4:16 am
  35. Sunny

    Comments from the peanut gallery …

    I’m a Web Developer learning about A Weber for a particular client.

    As a receiver of offers, may I make a few suggestions:

    1. Don’t make your limited-time offers too brief. One of my recent finds is RedBox.com and they send out "Today only" codes for renting DVDs from their boxes (in Walmart and Walgreens). I don’t tend to check my junk mail account during the day and am often disappointed to find the offer the next morning. My frustration makes this promotion counter-productive.

    2. Don’t send out offers too frequently. I’ve used VistaPrint.com for printing literature and am pleased with their products. On the down side, however, they send email to me DAILY. There is no way that I need to be reminded to order printing that often and the offers often last for a month or more. I’ve created a "Temp" folder just to store all these messages until I’m ready to order — I delete all that are over a month old and look through the rest for the links to items I need. Annoying, to say the least!

    Well, that’s my 2 cents worth …

    1/24/2010 7:03 am
  36. Dylan,

    Thanks for sharing those other tactics. Urgency definitely isn’t the only one in the marketer’s playbook :)

    Thomas,

    Absolutely true about not overusing it. "The boy who cried wolf" comes to mind…

    Sunny,

    (Relevant) comments from the peanut gallery are always welcome!

    You make a great point about applying an appropriate deadline – although I would suggest that one way for RedBox to improve would be to get their emails out of your junk folder and into the inbox.

    1/25/2010 9:25 am | Follow me on Twitter
  37. Thank you for a great post! I wanted to share my recent experience with this subject line that converted like crazy – 3 times more sign-ups for a free teleclass than I have ever gotten before:

    “3 Biggest Coaching Trends Revealed… (350+ coaches signed up!)”

    The reason I already had 350 people is because an affiliate announced it too, so the email to my own list contained this in the subject line. I keep checking numbers, 10-20 sign-ups every 5 minutes!

    1/26/2010 2:09 pm
  38. Very good email advice but I would also agree that Trust is the most important factor for sucess when adopting email marketing campaigns.

    If an offer has a genuine expriry date it is of course very well worth communicating but it is vital to first develop trust with your subscribers so that your emails are respected and received without suspicion.

    Keep up the great posts.

    1/26/2010 4:04 pm
  39. Harvey Steele

    Could anybody help me about how long an email subject should be? I?m new on the job, and from my personal experiences I dont like opening emails with really long email subjects. Apreciate comments!

    1/27/2010 2:13 pm
  40. Hi Harvey,

    Thanks for your transparency -

    Just a few pointers that works for us and our clients-

    1) Short enough to be read in an email program – if you can keep it to around 7-8 words. . .

    2) Make sure you understand the desires of your subscribers and how your message will speak to the heart of their desires. . .
    in other words- try to hit the target

    3) Don’t give away the contents completely – but create curiosity – as curiosity and desire are a few of the top triggers to help draw people to open an email

    4) Make sure you give value (lower hype = higher list retention and less turnover)

    Remember too – that your subject line and your “from” name are the first two things a subscriber sees as long as you get past any spam filters. . .

    Basically in a nutshell- short enough to get their attention while fitting in a “subject line” length -

    while creating enough curiosity that your subject line can compel and compete with all of the other things that are fighting for their attention in this inundated media message age. . .

    7-8 words works well for us most of the time -

    Hope this helps. .

    1/28/2010 10:07 am
  41. I learn a lot from all the comments. I am new to this. Do you think that using a return email address with your company name reduces the response or open rate? My email address has the company name in it.

    5/18/2010 10:04 pm
  42. Nicole,

    I think that it’s important to send from an address at your company’s domain when possible (rather than sending from, say, a Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail address).

    As for what address at your domain you use? As long as it’s a real address where you can & do receive replies, I don’t think it matters all that much. (I would suggest making it something simple and memorable, rather than some random string of letters & numbers, but beyond that there are more important things to optimize.)

    The name you use in your "from" line, however, is important. Most subscribers will see this first in their inbox (rather than the email address). So you need to select a name that your subscribers will recognize.

    In many cases, this will be your company name/brand. It might also be a name related to your email list (example: for this blog’s email newsletter, the "from" name I use is "AWeber Blog" rather than just "AWeber"). If you personally are your brand, than using your name may make the most sense.

    Whatever you select, just make sure it’s what someone receiving your emails would most quickly and clearly recognize and associate with having signed up to your list.

    5/20/2010 10:01 am | Follow me on Twitter
  43. Urgency works, but CURIOSITY enables you to be infinitely creative!

    If you are able to combine HUMOR with CURIOSITY, your
    open rate will go through the roof.

    12/29/2010 3:51 am
  44. Joe

    As long as you are building a long term relationship with your list there is something to be said for adding urgency to the occasional email. Again if the offer is genuine and is of value then it could be right to either time limit or make it available to a specific number of subscribers.

    However if two weeks after the offer has run out or was only offered to a very small number of subscribers you are still able to click through and obtain that offer then your credibility will take a severe knock.

    Out of curiosity I recently opened a email with a time limited offer which should have run out only to find that it was still available. This was well after the offer should have timed out. Credibility of that marketer went down significantly! Any further offers will be taken with a large pinch of salt!!

    3/7/2011 1:59 pm
  45. Being a raw beginner at email marketing, but an old hand at being targeted by marketers, I just cannot be sucked in to any posting that says “Limited Stock” or “Limited Time”. How can any digital product be “Limited”.

    4/2/2011 3:11 pm
  46. K V

    As a consumer.

    These type of subject lines prompt me to automatically delete the emails on sight in an involuntary movement.

    Just an insight.

    3/28/2014 8:59 am
  47. Tam

    @Pete you said/asked “Being a raw beginner at email marketing, but an old hand at being targeted by marketers, I just cannot be sucked in to any posting that says ?Limited Stock? or ?Limited Time?. How can any digital product be ?Limited?.”

    If the marketer is one who keeps his/her word, yes digital products can be limited as well. I’ve had some give a deadline and then I tried to get it but nope, it was stopped just as the date said. :-( Taught me a lesson, that’s for sure.

    @K V, it’s all about your audience. Those phrases might not work for you how they are worded above, but I can bet that someone can phrase them correctly for you and you’d act on them. It all depends on your audience and how they communicate. :-)

    6/5/2014 1:54 pm