Stuck Writing Subject Lines? 7 Strategies to Get Your Pitch Opened & Story Covered

Posted in: Content | Digital PR

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There’s nothing worse than writing a killer pitch with an open rate in the single digits.

In a 2019 interview with MuckRack, BuzzFeed News reporter David Mack put it plainly:

“I get roughly 300 emails a day…Most of the time, I read a subject line and that’s it.”

And if your subject line ain’t solid, a perfect pitch doesn’t matter — it never sees the light of day.

The good news? Writing strong subject lines is a skill you can build with practice, and there are a few solid strategies that have helped me grow in my two years as a digital PR strategist. Call it at least 800 subject lines of trial and error.

As a baseline for success, as you move through these different methods, test multiple subject lines on small groups of contacts as you go. While open rates can vary based on pitching software, spam filters, the beat, national or local angles, and more, a relative rule of thumb is a strong open rate will be above 30%.

Here are some of my favorite strategies for writing effective subject lines that will get your pitch opened and story covered:

Going Through the Motions

Let’s look at this data campaign: The Best Cities for Hybrid Work. Our team scraped LinkedIn’s job database for hybrid job openings in 100 of America’s largest cities and pulled salary data across cities and industries. My basic outreach strategy was to target career, finance, and local journalists.

Working on autopilot, pitching all day, your first instinct for a national subject line might be to CMD-V the campaign title into your subject line and fire away those mass emails: 

The Best U.S. Cities for Hybrid Work Opportunities

Let’s say, locally, you do the same, and grab that first insight as written in the study:​

Atlanta Ranks #1 as the Best City for Hybrid Work

In the next seven steps, we’ll workshop these subject lines together and transform them into ‘opens’ in the inboxes of journalists at top-tier outlets.

Strategy 1: Get Personal

Strategy 1 is the most time-consuming and most effective technique for writing a subject line, which is why we’ll cover this first. This involves reaching out to journalists such as:

  • Those you already have a professional relationship with
  • Those whom you’ve thoroughly researched and your campaign is a great fit for their very specific role (e.g., An Atlanta career reporter whose last three articles have been on hybrid work practices)
  • Those who have previously covered your client’s content
  • Those who have previously covered your agency’s campaigns
  • Those who cover this particular type of content (city-rankings, Google Trends campaigns, etc)

A BuzzSumo analysis of their 600K journalists database found, “48% of journalists said that the number one thing a PR can do to get in their good books is to ‘Understand my current beat and position, and make their pitch relevant to this.’”

A common practice to begin addressing this is to localize your pitch using merge fields, adding phrases, city names, and other city-specific statistics that match with contacts from that area.

There’s no reason this can’t start in the subject line! Whether you employ merge fields for groups of journalists at a time, or do this manually, it should be as tailored as possible and jump out of their inbox as coming from someone who has done their research:

Hi [Name]another 2022 hybrid work study for you!

We’re calling her by name, we’re bringing up a previous relationship, we’re calling out her beat.

Simple Texting releases new employee data, updated with LinkedIn data

We’re bringing up a client they trust and mentioning a previous campaign.

[City] ranks high once again in nation rankings for high wages

We’re naming his location and beat while referencing a previous campaign.

And so on. Later we’ll go in-depth on how to use past coverage to your advantage. The main takeaway is this: nothing beats human connection and good research. Even in a subject line. Your ultimate goal is to be a resource for journalists. If you treat gaining coverage as a result of this, you’ll find instead of a single payoff, a single backlink for your client, you’ll build more backlinks for all of your campaigns to follow.

Strategy 1 will not only lead to journalists opening your pitches, but they will recognize your email in their inbox and your name as a credible source.

Strategy 2: Front-Load Your Subject Line

Now, let’s focus on journalists we don’t know personally. Realistically, imagine we know their outlet and beat.

Let’s front-load our first two subject lines with keywords. Most email platforms will cut off around 60 characters, while journalists checking pitches on their phones might see around 30. I want the first few words to be punchy, and The Best Cities for… is a subject line I’ve used many, many times, which means my contacts have seen it, many, many times. Sometimes it works, but this is a national pitch that needs to stand out in massive newsroom emails.

I went with this: 

Making six figures while working hybrid is easier in these cities

I know these reporters want finance and career pitches, and I, for one, would open an email that starts with the idea of making six figures. I’ve provided a specific angle: Think less of sending the title of a paper and more of a news headline. There’s no value in being vague.

Similarly, a local subject line should have the city or state in the first couple of words:

Chicago breaks the top-10 in national ranking of best cities for hybrid work

The first two words here, “Chicago breaks…” include a strong verb and the city name right off the bat.

Strategy 3: Flex Your Authority

Flex your authority. 

Is my marketing software client a direct authority when it comes to hybrid work?

Not so much. I won’t include their name in the subject line here.

An example of a case where you should? A furniture retailer on interior design:

Campaign: The Most Popular Interior Design Styles

Joybird analyzed over 130 design trends & decor items

Joybird study reveals the most popular design styles

When you can’t flex the authority of the client, you can flex a thorough methodology. I’ll ask myself, is the data collection one of the most interesting, compelling pieces of the campaign? If it is, try adding it in as a component:

The top interior design styles, according to Pinterest data

And there’s the money subject line! Apartment Therapy covered the campaign with the headline:

“These are The Most Popular 2023 Interior Design Styles, According to Pinterest”

Headline from Apartment  Therapy

Adding the general campaign type and the name of the city (at the front-end, Strategy 2!) accomplished the same technique, seen here for Joybird’s Best City for Homebodies:

[Study] Pittsburgh Among The Best Cities For Homebodies

… covered with practically the same headline by CBS News. Success! Flex your client or your method!

Headline from CBS coverage

In the case of Hybrid Work, we have a data study, specifically a LinkedIn scrape, and the method was really interesting to me. It was as easy as adding:

Making six figures while working hybrid is easier in these cities, study suggests

[DATA] Making six figures while working hybrid is easier in these cities

Make six figures while working hybrid in these cities, according to LinkedIn

Now you’re primed to shoot off some emails. A journalist at The Street plunked it from their inbox, covering it with the headline:

“Want to Make Six Figures Without Going to an Office? Move to These Cities”.

Strategy 4: Steal The Headlines

Okay, so you’ve secured some coverage. It’s time for one of my favorite, and quite effective (and easier!) strategies: Steal! That! Headline! Capitalize on that successful angle, respect what the journalists found most newsworthy, and trust they know how to write headlines in a tone their beat is going to respond to.

And make sure to pocket these headlines — specifically the types of verbs, the abbreviations, and any patterns, not just for your next round of subject lines, but for your next campaign! The more you pitch certain beats, and within that, the same outlets, you’ll have a better knack for their headline style and can work to echo it in your subject lines as you see fit.

A journalist at CNBC covered Hybrid Work with the headline:

“The 10 best cities for finding a hybrid job that pays $100,000 or more”

Headline from CNBC coverage

Coverage of another career campaign for the same client, The Most Common Corporate Lingo was covered again by CNBC with the headline:

“10 corporate buzzwords that show up in job listings the most.”

Headline from CNBC coverage

I’ve got a takeaway: My next finance campaign? My subject line will be structured as a list of 10! Paying attention to an outlet or journalist’s headline is also an indicator of what style/angle an editor is going to approve. Journalists appreciate the extra legwork.

Strategy 5: Don’t Waste Anyone’s Time

There are going to be times when you don’t find a campaign absolutely riveting. Maybe it’s a survey, and you just couldn’t predict that the insights would be a tad snooze-worthy. Maybe it’s an AI campaign that made you swear never to work with robots again. Maybe it’s a campaign so close to the client’s brand that you fear pitching it to journalists will have you labeled ‘AD’ or so far from the brand you’re now inbox clickbait.

Roll up your sleeves. This is your opportunity. You’re going to find an interesting statistic in this campaign if it’s the last subject line you write.

Because Strategy 5? Don’t be boring!

Ask a friend, a family member, or a man on the street if the insight you’ve deemed important is actually interesting. Hop over to Google News and see how others are covering the topic. Do your due diligence.

And when all else fails, don’t overextend your pitching strategy. Acknowledge the campaign’s limitations and work to find the journalists that truly would care about XYZ (Maybe it’s not you, or most of the rest of the world, but there’s seriously a beat for everything these days). Protect your relationships with journalists who wouldn’t be interested, and challenge yourself to pitch to more niche publications.

If you can’t glean an interesting subject line when all is said and done, relook at the campaign as a whole. Don’t blast just anyone’s inbox as a last resort.

Strategy 6: Commit to a Tone

Throughout this guide, we’ve walked through the Hybrid Work campaign. Our subject lines became sharper, but one could say our tone remained consistent. 


The Best U.S. Cities for Hybrid Work Opportunities

to our more interesting iterations like

Want to Make Six Figures Without Going to an Office? Move to These Cities

both are matter-of-fact and informative. While the latter is more likely to be opened, I wouldn’t say the former would automatically be off-putting to a journalist. Similarly, in their Employee Burnout campaign, I first opted to use a broad subject line:

A Snapshot of Employee Burnout & Quit Rates in the U.S. 

which received no coverage, and when I switched to a more data-driven insight

1 in 3 think about quitting their current job at least once a week

which was picked up by Forbes. While the latter was opened more and secured coverage, both subject lines are appropriate tones for the client and the campaign.

Conversely, there are many incidents where ‘spicing up your subject line’ can alter the tone in a way that will land you right in a spam folder. One of the best parts of agency life is the diverse group of clients I get to work with each day. There are many wonderful opportunities for your subject line to be silly, punny, or tongue-in-cheek. I secured a TODAY Show segment with a food pun! However:

  • Check your campaign, client, context, and climate
  • Practice your subject line humor first on radio stations and local TV news before you send a national pitch
  • If you ever fear you’re toeing the line, get some pulse checks from your team

Remember that your subject line will be out of context from the rest of your pitch. My own rule of thumb, if I’m not completely confident, is to put my humor in the hook of the pitch and try a different strategy in the subject line.

Another indicator of tone is the use of capitalization. Journalists don’t want to be shouted at in their inbox with an ALL CAPS but don’t be afraid to experiment with them for emphasis. All of these iterations are acceptable:

  • Pittsburgh is The Best City For Homebodies
  • Pittsburgh is the best city for homebodies
  • Pittsburgh is the BEST city for homebodies

For more direction, look at the coverage in that beat and see how they use capitalization or judge grammatically whether it’s more of a sentence or a headline.

Strategy 7: Establish Urgency

If you can, create a sense of urgency if appropriate. This can mean mentioning a timely event, from Christmas to National Cake Day to hurricane season. Most frequently in my day-to-day, I’ll apply this to entertainment beat pitches. Some general examples include:

  • Today is [Event] – Everything you need to know on [Campaign Topic]
  • [Date] is [National Holiday] – This is [State]’s favorite [Campaign Topic]
  • Prepare for tonight’s premiere by catching up on [Campaign Topic]

More specifically, on a campaign on Every State’s Favorite Robot, I swapped my headline multiple times during the promotion period to establish a sense of urgency.

1st Evergreen:

The Most Popular Movie Robot in Every U.S. State

2nd RoboWeek:

Celebrate RoboWeek: [Robot] is [State]’s favorite movie robot

3rd National Star Wars Day

May the 4th be With You: [Robot] is [State]’s Favorite Movie Robot

Another way I’ll establish a sense of urgency or timeliness in the subject line is to find journalists who are actively reporting on a story that my campaign might help inform. I’ll then make the subject line that one statistic that might relate most.

Finally, if a campaign is hot out of the oven, I’ll date it with the subject line:

August 2023 study reveals…


An open rate in the single digits? We’ve all been there. Give some of these strategies a go!

Strategy 1: Get Personal

Strategy 2: Front-Load Your Subject Line

Strategy 3: Flex Your Authority

Strategy 4: Steal The Headlines

Strategy 5: Don’t Waste Anyone’s Time

Strategy 6: Commit to a Tone

Strategy 7: Establish Urgency

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