By: Ryan O’Hara

We obsess over sending cold emails. If you want to start a relationship with a prospect, you could write the greatest cold email in the world, and it won’t matter if the subject sucks.

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Your prospect’s inbox is a real mess. 

If you haven’t attended one of our RateMyPitches sessions online, one of the most popular questions people always ask us is:

 What subjects should I use for sending cold emails?

This is some quick commentary on how we grade subject lines, and why many BDRs, SDRs, and even the most Senior Account Reps are doing it wrong.

When I did prospecting at Dyn, always tried to hold on to subjects that worked to produce opps. Doing this allowed me to become a better prospector since we didn’t have tools like SalesLoft, Outreach, ToutApp, Sendbloom or Yesware back then tracking open rates, replies, etc (Wow there are lot of these now haha).

If you were to look at data that’s out there, open rates are all over the place. SmartInsights did a thorough study on marketing emails (which we know is different from sales emails, but are a good comparable metric), and you can look at their industry breakdown.

Here’s the problem with judging your subject lines based on open rates:

The goal of your email is to get a positive reply, not an open.


Anyone can get a 99% open rate, but if you are trying to get a positive response that starts a relationship, the real thing to track with subject lines is replies, not open rates.


These subject lines weren’t just for small startups. Some of these emails I looked at included the NFL, Salesforce, UPS, Mobile, and even the Royal Bank of Scotland.

I scored meetings with NFL Media, who owns all the properties that deal with, NFL Network, and some of the streaming apps as well.

Here’s the real big truth bomb with subject lines:

There is no one subject line to rule them all.

None of these amazing accounts I brought in via email prospecting had the same subject line. However, they did have similar characteristics.

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Sorry folks, there is no one subject line to rule them all.

So how do you write good email subjects for sales?

Characteristic #1: Good subject lines should be personalized, and vague.

I see so many people shoot off their company’s best bullet in the subject of the email. Let’s use one of our Business Development guys, Jim Morris’ email he personally wrote to a prospect as an example of why vague email subjects will increase reply rates.

Jim found a prospect that was wearing a Hawaii shirt and lei on Linkedin. He decided to use that angle to start a relationship with the prospect.

This was what it looks like (minus the FWD) part in the prospect’s inbox.

A vague subject line is a great way to use curiosity to draw someone to open the email. In a lot of ways, an email subject should be sort of like a more personalized version of link bait.

Don’t be annoying link bait. Think of the curiosity link bait uses to draw in clicks on social. How many times have we all clicked on an article that had a vague headline off Twitter or Facebook? They got you didn’t they!!!

Instead, give a hint of the content that is going to be in the email body.

Characteristic #2: Good email subjects should set the expectation of your cold email’s body.

Remember how we just compared a good email subject to link bait? Link bait sucks. The reason it sucks is because more often than not, the headline is deceptive and disappoints. YOU NEVER WANT TO DO THIS.

The best part of Jim’s email subject isn’t just that it’s vague; it’s that the body of the email matches with the expectations Jim set in the subject. Let’s look at his email:

Jim’s subject mentions a Luau. Jim brilliantly didn’t sell out and just pitch LeadIQ. He meets the expectation of the prospect by bringing up the prospect’s Linkedin picture, which featured things we all would see at a Luau.

How angry do people get when they expect something to be a certain way and then that something disappoints? That same experience applies to email subjects.

Characteristic #3: Good email subjects should be personalized.

The fact is, the biggest advantage a human being has over a marketing automated email is that when we are prospecting, we can personalize anything. Too many prospectors fall into the trap of trying to find one subject that can apply to thousands of people.

When you are trying to figure out what to make your cold email about, find some angles that focus on the human you are prospecting first. If you can’t find an angle, then you can use the company as a backup angle.

To prove this point out, look at this marketing email I got from Salesforce as I was writing this post:


Salesforce knows I’m from the New England area. I’m a Patriots fan and they just completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl History…it’s likely that I am at least aware of this big news story, that proudly put our region in the spotlight.

Back in the summer, they even had Bill Belichick speak at their World Tour event in Boston. They also know what apps I have installed in their CRM, and they know I’ve added a few seats the past few months.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke at Salesforce World Tour event in Boston in 2016.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke at Salesforce World Tour event in Boston in 2016.

The subject could have been about anything around those lines, and it likely would have got an open from me. Instead, it went right into my trash folder.

Here’s another great example of using personalization from one our customers, Wilson Lee from Boomtrain:

Wilson Lee from Boomtrain personalized the subject of this email knowing the prospect liked these bands. The result: a phone call to start a relationship.

The whole point of doing prospecting emails is to reach out to people and start a conversation. As sales teams and recruiters, we all need to stop looking at marketing emails as the text book example of what to send. 

Characteristic #4: Good email subjects should be unselfish.

As with the email’s body content, the best subjects are unselfish. I’m sorry, but your prospect doesn’t care about your company’s name. So why do we keep using them in prospecting emails?

Using a company name, brand, or feature that is your company in an email just sets the expectation that this email is going to be about you. Emails that are about you rely on luck instead of likability to start a relationship.

This rep had a really selfish subject line. This would go right into the trash for many prospects.


Characteristic #5: Good email subjects should be emails you’d want to receive.

Before you hit send, simply read the subject out loud. Ask yourself…”if this came up on my phone as a notification badge, or as an unread in my inbox, would I stop what I’m doing to read it and reply?”

If you want to take it on step further, you can always type it into a text to speech box like this.

To recap:

  • Good subject lines should be personalized, and vague.
  • Good email subjects should set the expectation of your cold email’s body.
  • Good email subjects should be personalized.
  • Good email subjects should be unselfish.
  • Good email subjects should be emails you’d want to receive.


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Ryan O'Hara

Ryan O'Hara has been an early employee at several startups helping them with marketing and prospecting tactics, including Dyn who was acquired by Oracle for $600+ million in 2016. He's had prospecting campaigns featured in Fortune, Mashable, and TheNextWeb. Ryan specializes in branding, business development, prospecting, and coaching people on how to make good digital first impressions. He also mentors two accelerators, The Iron Yard and The Alpha Loft, and hosts The Prospecting Podcast.