In this episode of The Public Speaker: Grrr…I just got yet another work email with a blank subject line. It really bugs me. Not only did I almost delete an important message, I had to open and read the email just to figure out if I needed to read and act on the message. I had one of those one-sided conversations with my screen, “You couldn’t take a second to fill in a meaningful subject line? Sure, go ahead waste my time.” But then, after I cooled off a bit, I thought, “Well he must have truly been in a hurry. He has to know how important the subject line is!”
00:55 – Unfortunately the email just before this one was from somebody who obviously doesn’t have me in his address book. He must have just searched in his inbox for the very last message from me, then hit reply. How did I know? Because the subject line was the same subject line that I wrote to him 4 weeks ago; but his message had nothing to do with that topic. Argh…
So by now you’ve probably guessed that today’s episode was inspired by my inbox. If you want to ensure that you email gets read, then this article is for you. Today, I’ll cover 4 tips for better email subject lines.
Tip #1: Summarize Your Message
02:16 – Obviously, having no subject line at all, or a completely inaccurate subject line, are basic email mistakes. I’ll assume you aren’t doing that. Right? Also, if you’ve followed the advice of my Quick and Dirty Tips colleague Stever Robbins, the Get-It-Done Guy, then you may remember his episode on Writing Good Email Subject Lines.
In essence, his advice was to summarize your message for the reader’s benefit. He provided the following example, “Saturday staff meeting, unpaid, 7 a.m., main headquarters.” In general, for an informative email, I would agree with his advice. By summarizing the message you are providing all the key information at a glance.
Tip #2: Arrange the Key Words in Order of Importance
However, there are a few more steps you could take to create even better email subject lines. You not only need to think about the key words that concisely summarize your email message, you also need to think about the order of the words. For example, if I were writing the email message for Stever’s fictional staff meeting, I would change the order to, “Saturday 7a.m. staff meeting, main head quarters, unpaid.” This gives the time and location higher priority. This way if someone is scanning through their emails they will see the most important information first.
Tips #3: Create and Use a Consistent Format
The purpose of the email subject line is to motivate the recipient to open your message.
Another option to consider, especially for repetitive emails such as ongoing staff meetings, is to establish a standard format for everyone to follow. For example, I participate in my local Freecycle group and when someone is posting an email to the group, they must follow the standard format or the email gets rejected.
Today I saw the following: “Offer: Vintage Victorian columns 08109” and “Taken: 4 sheer green curtain panels 08107.” The email format, in this case, is a status, the item, and the zip code. They even define the words for each status (offer, wanted, taken, etc.) so that everyone is clear on their meaning. In a work setting, you might see something like:
Staff Mtg: Sat 7a.m. HQ
You might even define what to do when a change occurs, so that people notice. For example, you might instruct everyone to add the word “change” and capitalize the part that changed. Here’s an example of a revised line:
Staff Mtg (Change): MON 7a.m. HQ
Again, the idea is that for repetitive emails it’s best for you and the rest of your team to use a consistent format. This makes communication more efficient, effective, and familiar.
Tip #4 Use a Standard Format Combined With a Benefit Statement
More good examples of email subject lines that follow a standard structure are the following emails I received from Stanford Technology Ventures:
ECorner: Entrepreneurs Must be Storytellers
ECorner: Entrepreneurs Aren’t Afraid of Commitment
In this case, it’s not just a summary of the main ideas communicated. It includes the familiar title of the newsletter, ECorner, and then a short phrase that describes the theme of the issue. I’ve found this structure to be a winner in terms of open rates. Here are a few variations of this structure that also seem to do well:
[TeleSeminar]: Theme or Benefit Statement
Invitation – Webinar on “Theme or Benefit Statement”
“Company Name” News – Theme or Benefit Statement
So another real example would be: Invitation – Webinar on “Powerful Presentations that Inspire and Get Results”
No matter the goal of your email, the purpose of the email subject line is to motivate the recipient to open your message. Keep in mind the 80/20 rule—about 80% of people will read the email subject line and who it’s from, but only 20% will read the rest of the email. So particularly in the case of persuasive emails, you need to think more creatively to increase the likelihood that your email gets opened.
Copywriters refer to this type of persuasive subject line as a hook or a headline title. The idea is to create interest or intrigue that compel the recipient to open the email. Think of it the lines you hear from the TV morning show host just before he goes to commercial break, “Up next we’ll have…” Those next words need to be concise and compelling—compelling enough to keep the audience tuned to the program. In fact, by paying attention to and copying how those lines are written, you’ll improve your ability to write creative hooks—really!
Again, in my experience, the best subject lines combine summary or descriptive words along with a hook, or creative flair that mentions the benefits for the recipient.
In fact, I’m sure that you’ve opened a number of emails that use this combined strategy, “N Tips To Improve [Topic]” or “N [Topic] Mistakes to Avoid.” These list type of email subject lines do really well because they promise a benefit –usually an improvement, savings, or productivity gain—and they also summarize the topic. Of course, they also promise to be short, packed with info and easily digestible. Hmm, I wonder why I titled this article, 4 Tips for Better Email Subject Lines.
What will you be doing differently with your subject lines? Let me know in comments. This is Lisa B. Marshall, passionate about communication; the more you learn, the more you earn.
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