Open This Email for Free Beer: Deceptive Subject Lines


Imagine for a moment that you are scanning your inbox one Friday afternoon and you see an email with the following subject line: Open this email for FREE BEER! You are a beer drinker (and it’s Friday afternoon) so you immediately stop what you are doing, tune out everything else in the world around you, and open the email.


As the images of the email begin to load, you can practically taste the beer. You close your eyes and envision a nice Hefeweizen, but let’s be honest, any free beer will do.

free beerYour excitement quickly fades and turns to anger and you realize you’ve been duped! There is no free beer … even though you did as the subject line instructed. Nope. Instead, it’s an advertisement for an upcoming conference – one you have absolutely zero interest in attending.

While the above scenario is 100% made up (though I personally do like a good Hefeweizen), it’s not all that far from the truth when it comes to email marketing and subject lines. There is a fine line between creating an email subject line that is creative versus one that is deceptive. While both can lead to a subscriber opening your message, the later not only is likely to create resentment, it’s also illegal.

According to the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (PDF), the United States law that governs commercial email:


“It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission to a protected computer of a commercial electronic mail message if such person has actual knowledge, or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances, that a subject heading of the message would be likely to mislead a recipient… regarding the contents or subject matter of the message…”


If you are anything like me, you are not interested in being fined or going to jail.


So, how do you write creative subject lines that will lead to more opens, more buzz, and – ultimately – more clicks and conversions?

A few suggestions:


Earn the trust of your subscribers FIRST.

I cannot understate this very important point. Too often we try to get “cute” with our subject lines before our readers really know and trust us. Take the time to build and nurture the relationship first, then test getting creative.


Test creative vs. “dull and boring.”

Building on the first suggestion, be sure you properly test your subject lines. If you’ve been sending the same type of subject line for years, be careful to not suddenly do an about face. This may actually turn off a large chunk of your audience. Instead, test these new, creative subject lines to a smaller portion of your email list and see how they respond.


Pique interest in the subject line and create wow in the body.

A compelling subject line can be the difference between someone opening your email or ignoring it (or deleting or marketing as spam). And after all, if there is no open, it’s quite difficult – if not impossible – to read the email, click a link, and/or take an action. However, once someone has opened your email, if you don’t “wow” him or her with the content – answer a question, include a great offer, elicit a smile or laugh – the great subject line becomes meaningless.


What examples do you have of creative email subject lines? Which ones were so compelling you just had to open?

Note: I wrote a similar article – with a slightly different spin – for MarketingProfs. You can read it here.

  • Jim_Ducharme

    Reminds me of a band that used to play around a town I lived in back in the 80s. The band was actually called “Free Beer” and so when a bar would book them and put them on their sign, it would read: Tonight: FREE BEER! – this drew big and sometimes eventually dissapointed and angry crowds.

    The great risk of being cute is being too cute. Even the most creative subject line ever written will backfire horribly if it creates false expectations. Big or small, you have to deliver on the promises of your subject line.


  • Ha! Love that story, Jim.

    Your comment – and this post – is making me crave … a beer.


  • What a wonderful example!

    Deceptive subject lines are a spoilsport. It is more like degrading yourself just to make the customers open your email.