Email: Writing good subject lines

Your e-mail subject line can be more important than the message itself. I receive hundreds of emails, and I quickly look at the subject line and the first sentence to see if I need to read and respond or ignore.

What emails are people are more likely to open? We are averse to being ‘sold’, so we ignore anything that sounds like marketing or spam. Even when you send email to a co-worker or business contact, check your subject line to see if it sounds like a pitch, a plea, or a generic message, such as Hi.

In my work group, we’ll often put the action needed in the subject line to give a quick idea of what we need done: Action: Vote on restaurant for event or Input: Review Company X case study.

When writing your subject line, it’s more important to inform than to entertain. ‘Cute’ subject lines are not opened as much as accurate subject lines.

It’s also good to think about mail read on mobile phones – keep your subject line to about 5 words or about 30-50 characters.

Good subject lines share these properties:

  • Concise and accurate
  • Summarize the message
  • Do not ‘tease’
  • Are not generic
  • Indicate any time constraints (Urgent)

Your subject line should say only want it needs to say to let the recipient know what the message is about. Avoid adjectives and adverbs – verbs are good.

If you can’t easily summarize the message because it’s about many different things, you may want to make each issue its own message. You might need to wait to write the subject line until you’ve written the email, as you’ll have a better idea of what the subject should be.

One more thing: Change the subject line if the subject wanders off course after a series of exchanges. A subject that starts out “Let’s meet for lunch” might change to “Vote on lunch location.”


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