This jumper is right up there with John Lewis's subject line
This jumper is right up there with John Lewis’s subject line


If you want to sell via email, whoever you’re selling to and whether or not they’ve bought from you in the past, the first thing you should do is make the effort to write a compelling subject line.

John Lewis shocked me today. Yes, the darling of the British middle classes sent something to my inbox that made me recoil in horror.

Until this morning I was a fan of John Lewis. I admired their business model. I enjoyed browsing in their stores. I trusted them.

But today, in just five words, that completely changed.

It was this subject line that did it:

Eudon Choi for Modern Rarity

I know. I had absolutely no idea what it meant either. At first I thought it was spam.

Although I was disappointed by John Lewis’s lazy writing, I could see there was something to learn from it. And for that reason alone I opened the email. If I hadn’t wanted to write this blog I would just have deleted it.

If you want to sell via email, whoever you’re selling to and whether or not they’ve bought from you in the past, the first thing you should do is make the effort to write a compelling subject line.

Which is something John Lewis seemingly couldn’t be bothered to do. Instead they thought I should do all the work and try to solve the riddle they’d written.

Or perhaps they thought, because I’ve bought a PE skort and some school socks from them in the past, I’m constantly up to date on all their lines.

It astounds me that they genuinely believed those five words would generate sales.

And it goes to show that even with a multimillion-pound marketing budget you can get it horribly wrong. John Lewis were being lazy. And arrogant. Which is not what we expect from them at all.

What John Lewis could have written

When I opened the email I discovered Eudon Choi is a clothes designer and Modern Rarity is one of John Lewis’s clothing collections. And I really like one of their jumpers.

So it would have been more effective if John Lewis had written something like:

Sarah, want to keep warm in style this winter?

Because, by using my name, I feel as if they know me, as if they’re writing to me and only me. And yes, I would like to keep warm this winter. If they can help me do this in style as well, even better. Now I’m interested enough to find out more.

Or perhaps they could have written:

Sarah, be the first to see our exclusive new collection.

What me? The first? And it’s exclusive you say? Why yes, I’d love to. Again, I’m interested enough to open the email.

Or even:

New and exclusive to our AW17 collection

Copywriters use ‘new’ and ‘exclusive’ again and again because tests prove they increase responses. Although, not everyone will know what AW17 means (autumn/winter 2017). So this is only a good idea if John Lewis are targeting people with a keen interest in fashion – I don’t think my socks and skort qualify me for that – and are happy to potentially irritate other people on their list.

The one thing a subject line has to do

Much like a headline only has to make people interested enough to read on to the next line, your subject line has one job: to make people open your email. From there on it’s up to the rest of the copy to make the sale (or click-through, or whatever action you’re after).

Your subject line has (very) roughly 60 characters to do this. It’s not much. But, if you’re willing to give it some time and thought, it’s enough to get the response you want.

And, as John Lewis found out, if you’re happy to bang out any old nonsense, it’s also enough to get the response you don’t want.


Hello. I’m Sarah Russell, a freelance creative copywriter.

I’ve been called the best subject line writer in the business, although I have no evidence to prove that.

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you found something in it to help or inspire you, or to make you smile.


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