We Analyzed Over 450 Subject Lines. Here’s What We Learned

In 2022 our digital PR team produced 139 campaigns that earned 6,000+ placements for our clients.

In this dynamic landscape, securing coverage isn’t just about luck; it’s about consistently delivering our clients’ campaigns to the right journalists who resonate with our message. Yet, this task goes beyond mere delivery – it’s about capturing the attention of journalists amid the constant influx of information flooding their inboxes and social media streams. This is precisely where the pivotal role of the media pitch subject line comes into play.

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The media pitch email subject line isn’t just a few words; it’s a carefully curated spark that ignites curiosity, generates intrigue, and entices journalists and established publications to explore the content within. Think of it as the key that opens the door to a world of possibilities. Without a captivating subject line leading the way, even the greatest digital PR content could remain unseen, lost among the sea of unopened emails and overlooked notifications.

The best subject lines for media pitches connect a digital PR campaign with journalists, giving them a compelling reason to open your pitch and share your campaign with their audience. Remember, creating newsworthy campaigns is only half the battle, the other half is in the finesse of how we present them.

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Our Analysis: Best Performing Email Pitch Subject Lines

To learn from our own performance and build upon our successful media pitching, we analyzed 467 subject lines pitched over the course of 2022 to determine the best practices for the subject line of emails. 

Those subject lines were sent to local news outlets and journalists, personal finance writers, health and wellness writers, and sports writers to see what formatting worked best! 

To figure out if a subject line really hit the mark, we took a close look at how many people actually opened the email to check out the pitch.

While not every factor made a huge impact, we were able to find some useful insights, especially when it comes to what different niche writers seem to prefer. So, if you’re looking for tips on how to write subject lines for media pitching – our analysis can help.

What makes a powerful subject line?

A good subject line is concise, specific, and engaging. It should be clear what the pitch is about and why it’s newsworthy. Including keywords that journalists might use when searching for stories is also effective. 

In our method, we marked 20% as the go-to yardstick – it’s like the reliable standard for a decent open rate in the industry. 

Anything above 20% was a good sign that our subject line had some punch and got people curious. On the flip side, if we saw an open rate lower than 20%, it was a hint that our subject line might not have been grabbing as much attention as we’d hoped.

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What makes a weak subject line?

A weak subject line is usually too lengthy, vague, and uninteresting. If a subject line isn’t compelling, the odds of it receiving any attention from journalists is slim

Not clearly stating what the pitch is about or why it is newsworthy is also a common trait among weak subject lines.

Media Pitch Subject Lines – Best Practices & Examples

Formatting your subject lines during media outreach plays a critical role in your outreach success. While you should tailor certain elements of your subject lines’ formatting to match the tone of the media you pitch, you should also consider formatting based on the vertical you’re pitching to. 

I found additional formatting best practices for media pitch subject lines are true for all outreach. In my analysis, I compared four major factors across the different verticals: Length, phrasing, capitalization, and referencing research.  This comparison revealed clear patterns in formatting preferences.

Length: How long should a subject line be?

We wanted to know if there was a “perfect” length for strong subject lines by looking at the character count for both top-performing subject lines as well as poor-performing subject lines. 

While our analysis found being either too lengthy or too vague isn’t a recipe for success, the appropriate length can depend on who you’re pitching! Overall, the best subject line length across all mediums was an average of 60 characters.

Mobile vs. Desktop subject line length considerations

Best practices vary slightly when it comes to crafting email subject lines for mobile vs. desktop.

While there’s no way to know for certain if a journalist will use their phone or their computer to open your pitch, you can make an educated guess based on the time of day you send your email, the shift they work, and the type of journalist you’re pitching.

For example, TV news reporters are always on the go so they’ll likely see your email on their phone between shoots. TV news web producers spend their day at the station working from a computer, so they’ll likely read your email via desktop.

Best subject line length for desktop

When it comes to desktops, you’ve got a bit more space to play around with. However, brevity remains key – you want to hook the reader without making them scroll. Think of it like the headline of a news article; it should convey the essence at a glance.

Best subject line length for mobile

On the flip side, mobile is a different ball game. Space is precious here, so trimming down your subject line to its most essential core is crucial. Those first few words need to pack a punch, capturing attention and leaving no room for doubt.

The trick lies in finding the balance. Crafting a subject line that’s engaging and informative while accounting for the viewing environment. It’s a bit like tailoring an outfit – you want it to look great from all angles, whether you’re viewing it on a large screen or the palm of your hand. So, whether it’s the spacious canvas of a desktop or the compact canvas of a mobile device, making every character count is the name of the game.

Phrasing: How should I phrase my subject line?

When writing a subject line, it is important to be clear, concise, and engaging. But the real game-changer lies in how you phrase its contents – this is where you seize the opportunity to capture the attention of journalists and make a lasting impact.

Here are five common ways to phrase a subject line:

  • 1. Questions
    • Writing your subject line in the form of a question is typically thought to be an effective way to grab attention. But, our analysis found they proved to be the least effective phrasing type out of the five. 
    • Examples: What’s [state name’s] favorite [noun]?, What do Millennials think about [x]?
    • While questions often make for attention-grabbing article headlines, they don’t always pass the open-rate test when used as subject lines in emails to journalists.
  • 2. Factual statements
    • Factual statements can be a good way to provide the reader with clear and concise information about your email by including numbers and specific statistics. 
    • Examples: [X]% of Americans do [Y] in 2023, 25% of Journalists Don’t Open 80% of Their Pitch Emails
    • Factual statements are always a solid option. From our analysis, we found factual statements consistently performed well among every vertical. Whether you’re aiming to inform, educate, or engage your audience, this is an approach you can rely on!
  • 3. Rankings
    • Leveraging rankings in your subject lines can be an effective method to convey relevance to journalists. Whether you’re ranking trends, states/cities, or sports teams, this type of format can be versatile. 
    • Examples: [Noun] Ranks #[x] in the U.S. for [Y], DTC Ranks #1 in the U.S. for Digital PR!
    • We found rankings can be a great way to pique the reader’s interest and get them to open your email. This format proved to consistently provide the highest average open rates. This element of intrigue entices journalists to open the email to discover which product or trend secured the top spot and what sets it apart from the rest.    
  • 4. Statements
    • Statements can be a good way to make a strong impression and to get the reader to take action. You’ve probably seen bold statements as article headlines and been drawn to click to read more, it turns out, that the same formatting style works for subject lines. 
    • Example: More Americans Are Living Paycheck to Paycheck, Study Finds
    • While statements may not have stood out as the top-performing subject line format, they remain a reliable and versatile option. In general, statements are a good “fall-back” option and they set a clear tone on what your campaign or content is about. Plus, in a world where clarity and transparency are valued, statements play a crucial role in ensuring that your message is immediately understood.
  • 5. Compound subject lines
    • Compound subject lines are a good way to combine two or more of the above formats. 
    • Example: Are Journalists Ready for Better Subject Lines? 99% Say “Yes” According to New Analysis
    • This formatting allows you to provide more context in your subject line and put a statistic into perspective, however, we’ve found that this type of formatting can quickly become too long.

Capitalization: Sentence case vs. headline case

The Associated Press Stylebook was the North Star guiding the way for our team of former journalists. And, according to the AP, headlines should be written in sentence case, with actual numbers used instead of writing them out, and single quotes.

But does the same formatting hold true for subject lines?

We analyzed subject lines formatted in sentence or title case to see if there’s a preference among journalists.

In my honest opinion, I thought there was going to be a clear winner here. I believed title case was going to provide a much higher open rate on average because it proved to be more formal and official. However, the data showed a somewhat surprising outcome. While it is true that title case did achieve a slightly higher average open rate across various outlet verticals, the margin was minimal, only amounting to a 3% difference.

This result suggests that the choice between sentence case and title case may not have as significant an impact as I initially anticipated. Though this outcome can vary based on a journalist’s vertical, in essence, the difference in open rates, though present, is not large enough to deem one format vastly superior to the other. This finding could also suggest that other factors, such as content relevance, timing, and audience targeting, may play a more pivotal role in email open rates than the casing style alone.

Creativity: Referencing the research vs. creative takes

There’s a time and place to be creative, and there’s a time and place to be direct. But which route is better for crafting a clickable subject line?

We wanted to see if starting a subject line by referencing research with Report, Study, Survey, Map, or Data gave more credibility and performed better than when we got creative and/or abstract with the phrasings. 

Our analysis found this factor depends on the type of journalist and media outlet you’re pitching to! 

How to Format Subject Lines By Medium or Outlet Type

Subject lines are not one-size-fits-all all, and as such, the best practices we outlined above are just that — best practices (generally speaking).

A savvy media relations person will take these general “rule of thumb” and tailor their subject lines to match the medium and vertical they pitch. Matching the tone and trends of the journalists you pitch can help your pitch go from concept to article in no time!

According to Muckrack’s State of Journalism 2023, journalists are 7% more likely to answer/open your pitch this year, compared to last! So let’s make sure those pitches get opened.

How to pitch local news outlets + journalists

Diving headfirst into this subject line universe, we zoomed in on the local news scene. Specifically, we looked at TV, radio, and newspaper outlets and journalists.

Picture it like this: each outlet and journalist is like a character in this news story, and subject lines are their introduction. We took a microscope to these subject lines – their structure, their length, the phrasing used – to figure out what makes them tick in different parts of the local news world. Think snappy lines for radio, and intriguing phrasing for TV folks.

Our goal? Well, it’s all about understanding how to fit in perfectly with each outlet and journalist. It’s like speaking their language by crafting subject lines that resonate with each. We’re here to crack the code of subject line success in the local news arena.

How to pitch personal finance writers

Personal finance writers tend to work for some of the most reputable and high-DA publications out there. From The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and Financial Times, earning media coverage in a financial publication can score major points with your clients and secure widespread visibility for your digital PR campaign.

To get journalists in this vertical to invest in your content, check out our deep dive into what some of the top finance journalists did and didn’t open in 2022.

How to pitch health/wellness writers

Don’t want your media outreach to flatline? Neither do we! Pitching journalists and publications that cover health and wellness differs from general assignment pitching. Based on above-average open rates, these writers show a major favoring to subject lines that begin by referencing research and title case formatting. 

Give your health-related pitches and subject lines the checkup they need and read through our analysis of best practices for pitching health and wellness writers. 

When to Test and Pivot Subject Lines

Digital PR outreach is an intricate dance of communication. As your outreach strategies unfold, it’s important to put your subject lines to the test and be ready to pivot when things change, or strategies don’t go as you planned. 

This is where we dive into the strategic realm of testing and adapting subject lines to ensure your outreach remains sharp.

How to evaluate your subject line performance

A/B testing is a method of comparing two different versions to see which one performs better. When sending media pitches you can use A/B testing to compare different subject lines by sending the same pitch to two different groups of journalists, but with different subject lines. 

The subject line with the higher open rate is the one you should use in the future.

Here are some tips for A/B testing subject lines for public relations media pitches:

  • Use different keywords in each subject line 
  • Use different lengths for each subject line
  • Use different calls to action in each subject line
A/B testing subject lines

A/B testing can help you learn which format, statistic, or narrative resonates best with journalists and it’s a key component of learning how to write media pitch subject lines.

Conclusion

In our analysis of 450 subject lines, we found that the most effective subject lines are concise, engaging, and personalized. We also found it’s not a one-size-fits-all when writing subject lines. 

How you phrase and format your subject lines depends on the type of journalist. By following these tips, you can increase your chances of achieving media coverage by getting your media pitches opened and read.

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