During the online marketing bootcamp I presented for a local AFP chapter recently, one of the participants asked, “If we have been sending out terrible email newsletters and I want to revamp them, how do I get all those people who have been ignoring them to give us a second chance and start reading them again?”

I told her that her best hope was several awesome subject lines in a row. Here are seven tips for how to get there.

1. Make the Short Version Work

You’ll find lots of conflicting advice about whether shorter or longer subject lines work best. But there is no arguing with the fact that many of the programs people are using to read your emails (including mobile, desktop, and web-based services) are cutting off your longer subject lines. Put the most important words in the first 30 characters, and make sure that those words make enough sense on their own, without the rest of the subject line that may be cut off.

2. Highlight Everything and You Highlight Nothing

If your newsletter covers six topics (which is too many, but that’s another blog post), you might be tempted to include one or two words in your subject line for each article. Don’t — you can’t really give readers enough information about any of the topics that way. Make a strategic decision and focus on one topic (or two, tops) in your subject line.

3. Include Your Response Words

People are skimming, looking for words that pop out at them. These are often called your “response” words. They are the timely, hot-right-now words that haven’t yet degraded into jargon or trite buzzword status.  It may take awhile for you to discover which words resonate most with your readers, but when you learn them, use them anytime you have related content in the body of the email.

4. Avoid ALL CAPS and *Crazy* Punctuation!!!

It just looks like sales or spam, neither of which is likely to be opened. And it makes you look like a crazy person.

5. Play It Straight with Strangers; Clever with Friends

If the people on your list really aren’t that familiar with your email newsletter or aren’t really that engaged with your organization, a clever or quirky subject line can backfire. You are better off using your subject line to simply state what’s inside the email. If your list is more familiar with you (e.g. they are members of your organization or current donors), you can try more clever, funny, or quirky subject lines to get their attention.

6. Don’t Get Too Pushy

Here’s another area where you’ll find conflicting advice: Should the subject line be a clear call to action or not? Rather than framing the question that way, I’d fall back on the “Tell It, Don’t Sell It” approach. Sometimes an urgent call to action in the subject line is exactly what you need to motivate people. Letting your readers know that something is truly urgent is part of telling the story. But other times, when the urgency is really of your own making, a call to action in the subject line can feel like a pushy sales pitch.

7. Promise and Deliver

The bottom line is that every subject line is a promise that you are obligated to deliver on with the body of the message. That’s how you build trust and readers who will open every email you send, regardless of the subject line.

I’ll be sharing more tips during our webinar Getting Your Emails Opened and Your Links Clicked on November 10, 2010. Can’t make it? Register anyway and you’ll get access to the recording for two weeks. All-Access Pass holders get access for three months.