How to Write Subject Lines that Get Clicked


Why send an email if no one is going to read it? Most nonprofits spend 95% of their time on the body copy content of an email, but without a catchy subject line that content may never be read. In fact, Mailchimp’s benchmarks for nonprofit email open rates are just over 24% — meaning that over 3/4 of your subscribers will never see any of that body copy.
Most nonprofits spend 95% of their time on writing email body copy; but only 24% of their subscribers will open that email. Here's how to beat that benchmark… Click To Tweet
Want to beat the benchmark with your email list? Think of your subject line as the front door to your entire email marketing strategy. Here’s our to writing subject lines that get opened.

Keep your subject lines short

For an email subject line to display correctly in both desktop and mobile inboxes, the first thing to remember is to keep it short. While you have a bit of wiggle room and some effective subject lines will be up to 70 characters, the average is 41 to 50 characters.
A subject line doesn’t need to say all the information that your email will include. Just make sure it’s engaging, eye-catching and inviting.
If you have more information that you want your reader to see than will fit in a subject line, take advantage of your preheader. Preheaders give you more real estate to tell subscribers what’s inside your email and can increase your open rate by 30%. A preheader is a great place to experiment with humanizing your email with a story or introduce a question that your email will answer.
These 5 types of subject lines will get your email opened. Click To Tweet

The Types of Subject Lines that Get Opened

Time sensitive

This reminds readers of an upcoming deadline, an expiring promo code, or an approaching date. This type of subject line could be used for an event, fundraising or to remind a subscriber about just about any approaching date. The benefit of time sensitive subject lines is that they create a sense of urgency or FOMO, making readers more likely to click open.

Ex. “Only 3 Days Left” or “Hurry- only a few early bird seats left!” 


This is an indicator to subscribers that they’re a special part of a community or club. By giving subscribers exclusive invitations, information or resources, it reminds them why they signed up to receive your emails in the first place. Exclusive subject lines are a great way to show subscribers that you appreciate them and aren’t just sending spam.

Ex. “We thought you might like this” or ” Just For You” 


These subject lines can pull from pop culture or current events to make your messages more relatable and relevant. If a reader cares about a topic or cause mentioned in a subject line, this can pique their curiosity — and leave them more likely to open your email than they might with a generic subject line.

Ex. “See the latest updates on climate change inside” or “AI trends every Nonprofit needs to know”  


These are always a good option for subject lines as they take advantage of the additional information you might have about your subscribers. Using merge tags to include a recipient’s name or hometown, or sending a special message on someone’s birthday, can be a great way to boost opens on your emails.

Ex. “Dear |FirstName|, Happy Birthday!” or “We’ll be in your city next month”


Some of the best subject lines make use of humor (we suggest puns!) to draw in subscribers. If you have a younger reader base, you may want to incorporate an emoji or two as well.

Ex. “Oh Whale 2022 is Over 👋🐳” or “Fall into these WWU courses this season!”

How Do You Know if a Subject line Is Working?

Follow the three-step process of test, track, and retest!


First, test your subject line either with an A/B test if you have the list size, or just by comparing it to previous subject lines you’ve used. If you decide to do an A/B test of two different subject lines, MailChimp recommends sending each combination to at least 5,000 subscribers.


After you’ve decided what subject line to use, track your open rate. MailChimp reports the average nonprofit open rate is 25%, so you should aim to be at least that high. Ask yourself if you’re hitting this industry average, if you’re seeing more unsubscribes than the usual 0.5%, and if your open rate is improving with each email you send.


Finally, re-test your subject lines with every email you send. Every email gives you more data to build off of, so you should be able to determine what works or what does not and then use those findings to inform your messaging strategy in the future.

Go Forth and Be Great

Emails have the potential to have the highest ROI of all your marketing efforts (122%, which is 4x the ROI of social media, online ads, and direct mail). Keep testing and tracking your data to make sure your subscribers are feeling the love at first click.

What happens after the subject line? Find out more with Lighthouse by Whole Whale! Sign up to test it out at