Write Stronger Email Subject Lines

POSTED: Jun. 22, 2016

Most writers fail to take advantage of the one of the most powerful elements of their emails; the Subject line. Well-written Subject lines will greatly increase the chance that your email will not only be opened but get the desired response, and get it more quickly.

People who tally such things say that the average business person receives more than 100 emails every work day. Imagine those emails in your Inbox as books on a shelf. Now imagine those books have titles on the spine like “Question?” and “Project Update” and “Need Help!” None of those commonly seen email Subject lines is going to be of any help to the reader in figuring out what the emails contain, or encourage the recipient to open and act on the email. What’s inside the email is a total mystery to the recipient.

Don’t be the Agatha Christie of business communication by making your emails a mystery. The first and most important way to make your Subject lines work harder for you is to craft them to actually inform the recipient about the contents. Use the Subject line to let the reader know what it contains and, when appropriate, what the reader needs to do.

Replace “Question” with “Question about location for Kent State writing skills training”

Replace “Project Update” with “Quarterly project update information: Onboarding process improvement”

Replace “Need help!” with “Need help covering reception desk week of June 10”

Do those Subject lines take a bit longer to write? Yes, a few seconds, but the very small additional time will be more than repaid in faster, better responses.

Stand Out from the Crowd

When you open your email and see the Inbox crowded with new messages, you scan them. Which ones scream for attention and which can you ignore for now? Strong Subject lines make your emails scannable. At a glance, the recipient can tell whether your email requires their immediate attention.

Just as important, the recipient can tell if they don’t need to attend to your email immediately. Many, possibly most, emails are informational CC’s that require no action by recipient. Your readers will greatly appreciate it if you help them instantly identify the emails they can defer for later attention.

On the (Audit) Trail

The benefits continue even after the reader has opened, responded to and filed or deleted your email. One of the major values of email communication is that it provides a record of the conversation, an audit trail that can be followed to determine what was said or done by whom and when.

That audit trail is often hard to follow, though, due largely to opaque Subject lines. Your searches for specific emails will be made much easier if your Subject line includes the key words you are likely to use when looking for that email later.

My work is project based, so every email begins with the name or an acronym for the related project. While working on Phase 3 of the leadership skills program for Alcoa, every email had the prefix “P3” representing Phase 3, followed by the specific topic of the email, such as “P3: Innovation Course Pilot Plan.” Those Subject lines made it a snap to find every email related to the project simply by searching for “P3.”

Here’s a bonus tip unrelated to Subject lines. When trying to follow the thread of an email, once you find any email in the thread, right click on it in the Inbox or other folder and select Find Related in the pop-up menu. Every email in that thread will be included in the results list.

The No-Body Email

When presenting my Efficient and Effective Email program, I suggest a way to be super-efficient in your emailing. Some attendees find this technique annoying but most leave the course eager to put it to work for them.

For information or action requests you can communicate in a single sentence, make that sentence the Subject line and leave the body of the email blank. Examples might look like these:

Lean Training Event: Please send attendee roster by Monday morning

BDI Leadership Skills Program: Plan to arrive at 7:30 a.m.

Customer Service Course: How many workbooks needed?

I understand how some email writers could be concerned that this technique feels overly curt or that it might confuse the reader. My experience has been that recipients appreciate the technique because it makes it so fast and easy to glean the content and respond. In a few seconds, they can deal with your email and have the satisfaction of clearing an item from their Inbox.

Some participants in the email program said that they clarify for the recipient that the Subject line contains the entire message by adding the suffix “EOM” (end of message) or characters like “|||” at the end of the Subject. My email recipients seem to figure it out with no suffixes required.

Boost Your Email Effectiveness

Research shows that within five seconds of viewing an email, the recipient will decide whether to respond, delete or defer it. A clear, action-oriented Subject line makes it much more likely that they will act as soon as the they see it. Business emails generally have one of two purposes: Share information or get action. Either way, stronger Subject lines will help accomplish your communication goal.

Learn more about Kent State’s Efficient and Effective Email program facilitated by Tim Kraft.