165 Great Email Subject Lines from the SXSW Catalog [updated]

Increase your email open rates. Get inspired by these 165 great email subject lines from the SXSW catalog.

The amazing SXSW conference has kicked into full swing here in Austin. I haven’t been to a single session yet, and I’ve already learned something of great value I can share with you.

It came in the SXSW session catalog.

The session selection process is very competitive. Every summer, SXSW puts out a call for session and panel ideas. People vote on their sessions and then the crew at SXSW passes final judgment.

If your session gets accepted you will find yourself competing for attendees with some of the most interesting, influential and innovative professionals. Your session title has to really grab attention in a sea of hundreds of choices.

It’s kind of like the competition for your inbox. All of this competition has created perhaps the most creatively named agenda in conferencedome. The SXSW conference has always been known for the quirky session titles it inspires. The competition for panel slots is intense, with 2500 ideas were submitted in 2011 and 3,000 panel submissions presented for 2012 alone. Part of the selection process involves voting by the public. So, an effective title gets attention when garnering votes for a panel.

We have the same problem with email.

We need attention grabbing email subject lines that pull inbox scanners from their numbed slumber in which most emails are unceremoniously deleted. If our email is to be read, our subject lines must save our recipients from mindless autonomy.

Your email campaign would enjoy significantly greater open rates if you used SXSW email subject lines. No one’s going to click through from your email if they don’t open it and read it.

165 best email subject lines from the SXSW catalog. Check them out!

165 best email subject lines from the SXSW catalog.

Email Subject Lines Must Wake Up the Mind at Any Cost

To use these techniques, you must believe that you can use almost any premise in your subject line to engage the reader and entice them to click.

To prove this point, I am going to take the most abstract title from the following list, use it as a subject line, and create an email that will get readers to click through to my site.

First, the list. Yes, these are actual SXSWinteractive session titles. I’ve grouped them by the strategies the presenters used in naming their sessions, strategies that you can incorporate into your email subject lines.

Best Email Subject Lines on Sex and Relationships

Even the “oldest profession in the world” required some persuasive messaging. Your reader may see sex as the most base or most exalted activity humans can engage in. This is the risk and the reward for bawdy banter in your email subject lines.

  • Brands That Believe in Sex After Marriage
  • Sex, Lies and Cookies: Web Privacy EXPOSED!
  • Sex in the Digital Age
  • Big Brands and You: Make the Love Connection
  • Social Media Comes of Age Without the Help of Porn
  • Nudity and Online Journalism
  • Sex Nets: Pickup Artists vs. Feminists
  • Sex on the Web – The Sabotage of Relationships?
  • The Sexual Survival Guide for Geeks: Healthy sex and relationships
  • Sausagefest: Getting More Women into New Media & Tech
  • Fun with the Lights Off: Interactivity Without Graphics
  • How Social Media Fu@k’d Up My Marriage (Learn how not to have your relationship ruined by the online world)
  • Subtle Sexuality: NBC.com Adds Spice to Shows

Things that Don’t Fit Together (non sequiturs)

Our brains are wired to discard the familiar faster than a bear can spell Constantinople. It is the unexpected that gets the attention of our conscious and prepares us for action. These titles demonstrate the use of twists to pull readers out of their inbox apathy.

  • Block Party Capitalism: Where Analog and Digital Intersect
  • What Comic Books Can Teach Mobile Application Designers
  • Your Mom Has an iPad: Designing for Boomers
  • Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better
  • Why New Authors Should Think Like Indie Bands
  • Why my phone should turn off the Stove – Mobile monitoring of energy consumption
  • Building Fences in the Sky: Geo-fencing Has Arrived
  • I’m so productive, I never get anything done
  • Your Computer is the Next Wonder Drug (Improving interactions with the medical community)
  • What Digital Tribes Can Learn from Native Americans
  • A Penny Press for the Digital Age
  • Philanthropy Is Not the Future of Journalism
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Gaming
  • Multiple Personalities–Not a Disorder but the Norm
  • Does Your Product Have a Plot?
  • Meat is Might: Epic Meal Time Rules the Web
  • Social + Location + Mobile = The Perfect Beer
  • When Goliath Tries to Steal Your Lunch Money
  • Can Growing a Mustache Change the World?
  • Bootcamp for a UX Team of None
  • Explorations in Corporate Zoology
  • How to Be Strategically Unlikeable Online
  • Sunspots: The Promise and Pitfalls of Gov 2.0
  • Dreams of Your Life: A Darkly Playful Experience
  • Help, My Avatar Is Sick
  • Being Considered Obsolete Is Awesome
  • The Science of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea
  • Why Karl Keeps His Shades On: Style & Social Media

Great Email Subject Lines out of Left Field

  • Help! A Giant Meteor is Headed Our Way! Cause Shift, Things that need to change
  • OMG – My Pancreas Just Texted

Metaphors and Similes

Similes are like can openers for the mind. Metaphors are the batteries in the flashlight of your email. The technical term for this style of messaging is “transubstantiation,” using the characteristics of one thing to add meaning to another in the eyes of the reader.

  • Rev Up Your Product Design, the “Concept Car” Way
  • Online Personality Disorder: Resumes & Profiles
  • Knitting a Long Tail in Niche Publishing
  • Snackable Content: Working in a Bite-Sized Future
  • Hunt or Be Hunted: Get the Design Job You Want
  • Keeping Kids off the Street: Wall St. vs. Startups
  • Death of Digital Downloads: MP3s the New 8-track?

Target an Audience with the Best Email Subject Lines

Right-handed marketers, take note! Targeting your audience can significantly increase the relevance to two groups of people: those to whom you are speaking, and those who feel left out by the fact that you aren’t speaking to them (you left-handers felt a twinge of anger at being left out, didn’t you?). This approach takes guts, as you are consciously ignoring part of your audience in the hope of truly engaging another.

  • Why Women Fail to Rule the Social Networks
  • Greek to Geek: Classical Rhetoric & the Modern Web
  • Blogging: Why So Many Women Are Doing It
  • Digital Divas: How Girls Rule the Digital Universe
  • Monetizing Mommy

Lists of Three

There is something memorable, readable, and easy-to-count about lists of three. This method is especially successful when the third item is overly specific or doesn’t fit. See “Things that Don’t Fit Together” above.

  • Drugs, Milk & Money: Social & Regulated Industries
  • Credits Coins Cash: Social Currency & Finance 2.0
  • Free Coffee, Bad Apples & the Future of Currency
  • Clouds Here, Clouds There, Clouds Everywhere

Pop Culture References Can Make Awesome Email Subject Lines

If you know your audience, you slip them some “Funky Cold Medina” in the form of a pop-culture reference. For your geeks, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” will do. For the younger generation, something from the “Harry Potter” series might make a connection. Music is usually a sure bet. Can you name the sources of the following references?

  • Star Trek and Social Media
  • Do Gamers Dream of HTML5 Sheep?
  • The Cloud as Skynet: Conquering Digital Overload
  • Get Smart! Hack Your Brain for Peak Performance
  • Wall-E or Terminator: Predicting the Rise of Al
  • Gimme Shelter from the Storm Clouds
  • Defense Against the Dark Arts: ESAPI
  • The Field of Dreams Manifesto
  • Is That Your Final Offer? Mobile Dynamic Pricing
  • Not Your Mommy’s Blog: The Evolution of Dad Blogs
  • Why Doesn’t Congress Grok The Internet?
  • LEAN STARTUP: Baby Got (Feed)Back – Putting the Lean in Learn
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Babelfish: Automated Translation
  • U.S. Military’s Mad Science Revealed: DARPA Projects predict the future
  • Dear Miss Manners: the Social Web, WTF?
  • Social Media and the NBA
  • Zombies Must Eat: How Genre Communities Make Money
  • Minority Report: Social Media for Decreasing Health Disparities
  • My Prototype Beat Up Your Business Plan
  • Geppetto’s Army: Creating International Incidents with Twitter Bots
  • #FAIL: Infamous social Media PR Disasters

Contrarian Email Subject Lines, why not?

  • Stop Listening to Your Customers: Researching customer needs without asking them.
  • I’ve Never Met My Coworkers: Running International Teams
  • Who Are You and Why Should I Care? Personal branding
  • When Facebook Falls: Future-proofing Your Social Media Efforts
  • 27 (Fun!) Ways to Kill Your Online Community
  • HTML5? The Web’s Dead, Baby.
  • A World without SXSW
  • Fail big, Fail Often: How Fear Limits Creativity
  • Congratulations! Your Brand is About to Become Obsolete
  • The End of Reading in the USA

Science or Science Fiction References

  • The Next Rocket Scientist: You
  • Do Tablets Dream of Electric News?
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Pure Shock and Awe Email Subject Lines

Boring subject lines make me want to poke needles into my eyes! Sometimes it makes sense to hit readers over the head with something that is just plain shocking. Sometimes.

  • How Not to Die: Using Tech in a Dictatorship
  • How Mexico’s Drug Traffickers Harness Social Media
  • Language of Mutilation: Grammar for Ads & Life
  • Demographics Are Dead: Unlocking Flock Behavior
  • Everyone Is Gay: Social Media As Social Action
  • Media Measurement: Science, Art or a Load of Crap
  • Please Touch Me! Enterprise Delight via Multitouch
  • Your Social Media Job Is Dead: Now What?
  • Avoiding Bulls**t Personas: A Case Study
  • Eat, S**t, Sleep: Enlightenment Through Unemployment
  • Bordering Incest: Turning Your Company into a Family
  • Baby’s Gotta face For Radio: Web Based Radio?
  • Grow some balls: Build Business Relationships
  • Social Media and Comedy: F**k Yeah!
  • Kill Your Call Center! Bring Your Support Home
  • Bend Over? Surprise! Agencies Are Screwing You
  • How Blogs with Balls are Saving Sports Media
  • How to Personalize Without Being Creepy


  • Bloggers vs. Journalists: It’s a psychological Thing
  • Seven Reasons Your Employees Hate You
  • Influencer Throwdown: Proving Influence Once and For All

Email Subject Lines with Invented Words

If you find yourself with subjectlinitis, tossing a memebomb or two may be your best hope. New words can turn a deletophile into a reader.

  • Adprovising: Agile Marketing Made Easy
  • The Making of Twittamentary
  • Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas
  • Discover the New Frontier of the Glocal Internet
  • The Local Backbone of the SoLoMo Revolution
  • Coolhunting and Coolfarming with Social Media
  • Wireless Wellness: App-tastic or Just Fun & Games?
  • The Hyperlocal Hoax: Where’s the Holy Grail?
  • Radically Onymous: How Ending Privacy is Awesome!
  • Old Spice Resurrected: How Aging Icon Pwned Internet
  • The Future Enernet: a Conversion with Bob Metcalfe (Internet founder)
  • Technomadism: Becoming a Technology Enabled Nomad

Rhymes and Alliteration

Sensual subject lines supplement the bottom line. Alliteration is the repeated use of consonants. Rhymes grab your readers like a musical phrase. Don’t be afraid to add a little poetry to your prose.

  • Social Music Marketing: Bands, Brands & Fans
  • An Unusual Arsenal: Tech Tools to Topple a Tyrant
  • Invention & Inspiration: Building a Better World
  • Contextual Communication: Crowds and Coordination
  • Check Yo-Self Before U Wreck Yo-Self, Startup Metrics of the Masters
  • The Creative Collaboration Conundrum
  • Binary B****es: Keeping Open Source Open to Women
  • Teaching Touch: Tapworthy Touchscreen Design
  • Defining the Diaspora: Global Collaboration and Social Change
  • The Man in the Van needs Geo Location
  • Chatter Matters: Using Twitter to Predict Sales
  • People as Peripherals: The Future of Gesture Interface
  • Of Fanboys & Fidelity: Adopting Comics for Broad Audiences

Twisted Euphemisms

  • Cure for the Common Font – Secrets of selecting type
  • Influencers Will Inherit the Earth. Quick, Market to Them!

Create a Common Enemy

You may find your reader united behind you by identifying a common enemy – like the delete key.

  • When IT Says No: How to Create Fast Feature Flow
  • The Systematic Undoing of Copyright Trolls
  • Screw the Job Market: Young + Passionate ≠ Broke
  • Rise of the Social Spammers
  • Can Washington Make Your App Illegal?
  • Epic Battle: Creativity vs. Discipline in Social
  • Why Your 5-Year-Old Is More Digital Than Most CMOs
  • Has Twitter Made the Sports Reporter Obsolete?

Insult Someone

Don’t be a wimp. When all else fails drop the political correctness and tell the reader what you really think.

  • Advise THIS! Matchmaking Startups & High Profile Advisors
  • Shut Up & Draw: A Non-Artist Way to Think Visually
  • Flash: F Bomb or Da Bomb?
  • Big Ol’ Babies: Why Baby Boomers=Public Media FAIL
  • Your Marketing Sucks: Why You Need to Think Local

Powerful Email Subject Lines: Lead With a Number

Four session titles that use numbers. When we offer the reader a specific number of things, they know they are going to get a manageable set of tips or tricks that is easy to scan and digest.

  • 11 Reasons QR Codes Are Not Engaging Consumers
  • 3 Secrets to a Killer Elevator Pitch
  • 100 Things Designers Need to Know About People
  • Enterprise Social Media: Five Emerging Trends

Big Email Subject Lines Make Big Promises

If you’ve got the goods, big promises will make you rich in as little as three days. Big promises make the reader ask, “So, how can you do that?” even if they are skeptical. Of course, if you can’t deliver on the promise with sufficient proof in your email, all is lost – including your credibility.

  • Expanding Our Intelligence Without Limit
  • How to Live Forever
  • We Are Legion: Digital (R)Evolution
  • Change the Course of History with Greasemonkey
  • UCB Comedy presents: The Best Damn Stand-up

New This Year: Add an “i”

Turn your subject line into an iLine! All it takes is one little vowel.

  • iVision Africa: New Media’s Role in Reframing Africa
  • iPlant: Advanced Computing to Feed the World

Any Email Subject Line Will Do

There you have it. Over 100 titles to tantalize and titillate your email mind like a jolt of electricity from an unlicensed nuclear reactor, guaranteed to help you get lucky and make your ex jealous – if you’re not a total iDiot. Did I miss anything?

Hit us with your favorite subject lines in the comments.

Even the most abstract subject line can be used to make a point. Here’s how I would tie one from the list to an offer for my business:

From: Brian Massey, The Conversion Scientist

Subject: OMG! My Pancreas Just Texted

OMG, my pancreas just texted.

My Liver just phoned.

My stomach just tweeted.

My brain is sending smoke signals.

Every cell of my body is dying to tell you about a new video I’ve just released.

Why am I (and all of my bodily parts) excited? Because online video marketing is rocking conversion rates.

Search engines love it.

Visitors love it.

Businesses like yours are getting more leads and sales from it.

And I think I’ve made it easy for anyone to understand how to use video on their Web site.

In just 11 minutes, I’m going to show you how to present a video on your site that will significantly increase the number of leads you’re getting from the traffic you already have.

Skeptical? Maybe I’m crazy.

I challenge you to take a look and see. If you don’t come away with a better understanding of how to increase conversion rates with video, I’ll get my spleen to cut down the chatter and leave you alone.

If you DO get it, I invite you to join a very special mailing list in which you’ll start to understand how to make all of your marketing convert visitors to leads and sales.

Watch Getting a Reaction from Online Video, and let me know what you think.

My heart will thank you for it.

Best regards,

Brian Massey

Brian Massey
10 replies

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