The dos and don’ts of email subject lines

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The dos and don’ts of email subject lines

The fight for the email inbox is getting more and more competitive. Subscribers are smarter than ever, and grabbing their attention is only getting harder. That’s why an effective subject line is key to a successful email.

The subject line is your email’s first impression. Your email could be filled with the most engaging content ever, but if no one is compelled to open it, all the content (not to mention all the work that went into it!) goes to waste.

Here are some “dos and don’ts” to keep in mind next time you’re crafting a subject line:

Do get personal. Using personalization (beyond the first name) is a great way to show the subscriber that you’re paying attention to what they’ve shared with you. The Open Table subject line below is a great example of personalization done right. It includes my name, reservation timing and restaurant name, so that I’m inspired to confirm the reservation.

Example: “Ursula, let Chez Billy Sud know you’re coming tomorrow”

Don’t use spam words like “free,” “buy now,” “act now,” or “this isn’t spam” (take a look into your own spam folder for some examples of what not to include).

Do pay attention to character count relative to where your emails are being read. While a longer subject line may be ideal for desktop, it’s not going to work if most of your subscribers are reading emails on their phones. Also, please don’t include the word “newsletter” in your email. It’s redundant, and you’re wasting valuable real estate.

Don’t lie about the content in the email. In accordance with the CAN-SPAM Act, your subject line should reflect the content of the email. Our USGBC candidate handbook emails are a great example of being straightforward. There’s no confusion with a subject line that says, “Here’s your LEED Green Associate Candidate Handbook.” The subscriber knows exactly what to expect in this email—the candidate handbook.

Do be timely. Caviar, a food delivery service, sent me an email the day after Easter, with the call to action of “eat a salad.” It’s relatable and funny because of its timeliness. Bonus points for relevant emoji use! 

Example: “So you need to eat healthy because 🍭🐰🍫”

Do A/B test. Subject line A/B testing is an easy place to start. Each test is a chance to learn about your subscribers. You never know what may work. 

Examples we’ve tested here at USGBC include:

“Last chance to register for the Wintergreen Leadership Awards next week” vs. “Knock it out of the park at the leadership awards next week ⚾”

“Join a live LEED v4.1 session on Materials and Indoor Environmental Quality next week ✅️” vs. “Get your LEED v4.1 questions answered ✅️”

Learn more about email marketing strategies

Email marketing cheat sheet

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Email marketing cheat sheet

You don’t need to be an email geek to know that email marketing isn’t dead. In fact, email marketing has an average ROI of 3,800 percent.

Whether you’re working on a one-off email or a nurture campaign, keep these tips in mind for a better email experience.

Write like a human.

Remember that your email is being sent to a fellow human being, and write accordingly. Write in a conversational, trustworthy and upbeat tone. Be concise!


Original copy: The LEED Steering Committee recently added select Parksmart measures to the LEED innovation catalog.

Edited copy: Boost your LEED project score with Parksmart.

Cut the text.

An email is not a webpage. The copy should serve as a teaser and encourage the reader to take action.

Get creative with format.

No one wants to read long paragraphs of text. Use icons or bullets to break down information so it’s easier to read, especially for viewing on mobile.


Original copy: “The benefits of Parksmart are that it enables a frictionless experience for your garage user and the environment through removing parking headaches, welcoming and encouraging cyclists and beautifying your garage”

Reformatted copy: The layout below conveys the same information in a format that’s easier to read:

Include a clear call to action.

What is the one takeaway of the email? What is it that you hope your audience will do with the information? Don’t be afraid to get creative with your CTA either.



Get inspired.

Look at your own inbox to see emails that stand out to you. Visit Really Good Emails for some email inspiration.

Use A/B testing.

Don’t be afraid to test! Every email is a chance to learn something new about your audience. Test your send time, subject line or “from” name.

Learn more about email marketing strategies

How to make your emails more effective

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How to make your emails more effective

Written by Ursula Fox-Koor and Jake Rose.

As the email experts at USGBC, we use a number of strategies to make sure our email marketing is effective and useful for the customer. Here’s a breakdown of what we do, and how you can use these strategies to enhance your own email reach.

Collect data on new contacts.

All email contact lists slowly shrink, as people change jobs, switch email accounts and unsubscribe. To keep your email list at its current size, you need to continually add contacts to your database to offset this expected attrition.

The data you capture from new contacts is as valuable as the email address itself. The more data points you have on each contact, the better you can target them with different messaging. Examples of data points we collect at USGBC are job title, company, industry, location and LEED credentials.

You can prompt users to fill out a quick form once they click the subscribe button. It should be simple—you don’t want to include too many fields, or you will lose them. Conferences and events are another easy way to get new email addresses; you should have the email address of every person who registered for an event, even if they didn’t show.

Use list segmentation. 

Not everyone should receive the same message. Target your audiences, based on their data points, with different messaging. People will be much more receptive of your content if it is relevant to them. If you want to start an email campaign advertising an architectural conference, building contractors do not need to receive that message. A smaller, more targeted list is always better than a large list with no target. Think about what is relevant to people in different industries, with different titles, who live in different cities, and so on.

An easy way to clean up your deliverability and opens is to exclude those who aren’t opening your emails, or whose email addresses have hard bounced. Put these people into another segment. You way want to think about a reactivation campaign if they haven’t opened an email in a year. 

Incorporate A/B testing.

A/B testing is a great way to figure out what makes your audience respond. This is the practice of dividing an email segment in half and sending the two groups different versions of your message. Make sure that you only test one variable at a time. If you are testing both your subject line and the time of day the message is sent, how will you know to which program to attribute success?

The most common A/B test is the subject line, but you can also A/B test the “from” name, the time of day and the content of the email itself.

Make it visual.

Our recent USGBC email subscription update campaign is a prime example of including a stimulating visual. Rather than listing the steps of the call to action, we showed them through a gif.

We applied the same thought process to our email template redesign. Here’s what we kept in mind before we made the new design:

  • Feature the USGBC brand on top of every email; it should be clear who the sender is.
  • Break up the text with bullets, icons, buttons, gifs, images or videos.
  • Include a calendar reminder feature. This puts the event on the recipient’s calendar, giving the event visibility beyond the inbox.
  • Include a teaser headline. This helps with the flow of the email and emphasizes your call to action.
  • Be transparent with your branding. We took the footer as an opportunity to show the subsidiary brands under USGBC. This is also an opportunity to promote these brands. 


Email essentials

Take note of these general tips for effective emails:  

  • Never write out an email address or a webpage or tell readers to “click here.” Embed your links. Examples: Write “Get in touch,” not “email us at“; “Learn more about USGBC,” not “Click here.”
  • Make sure your call to action is clear and placed “above the fold” (you don’t want your audience having to work to find it).
  • Use the preheader text as a second subject line.
  • Use active rather than passive voice.
  • Include fun images and even GIFS to show rather than tell.

Apply all these tips to future email campaigns, and keep track of what you’ve learned. Continually test and improve your campaigns. You can test email color schemes, feature images, times of day, days of the week, etc. Have fun with it!

Email is a stand-alone tool, and is best used when in conjunction with other media. Posting on social or writing a related article are great ways to reinforce the message.

Learn more about email best practices