Writing Productivity Workflow

How to Easily Nail Email Subject Lines

A Simple Strategy for Improving Email Interaction

Featured in The Startup

Writing persuasive and informative email content is a skill that everyone who communicates to others on a regular basis needs to develop, but having a strong approach to email subject lines Is an even more critical skill to possess.

In the last ten years most email applications have ditched rich email previews for a more simplistic truncated style.

This means that now, more than ever, your email subject line does most of the heavy lifting when grabbing attention, and more importantly, reinforcing a call to action.

We are bombarded by so many forms of communication, catching attention is critical, even if its just to have someone simply read the title of your email and be interested in finding out more.

Why do we continue with email?

Lets be honest, the primary reason most of us still suffer with email is for work purposes. Be it in your own small business of one, or the largest corporation, we are all at the behest of our email client and by extension those who remain reliant on email to do business.

In our personal lives, while email still perseveres, conversations have evolved to be housed on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Business is catching up with the rise of IRC-like non-email centric modern platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, but they pose their own challenges in the workplace.

So we persist with the reality that email is still a thing.

How can we improve the likelihood of response?

While there have been numerous attempts by software companies to evolve email past its shortcomings, most improvements revolve around client features and rely on multiple people being a part of the same ecosystem.

But there is a much simpler way to improve your email experience through the use of smarter subject lines.

Before I delve into the conventions I use to achieve a smoother email experience, we should understand why its so difficult to have people read, and more importantly react, to emails we send.

When does email work?
When does it fail?

Think about the emails you interact with on a daily basis. I’d hazard a guess that the most effective emails you open are when they are sent from a specific person or service that you’re highly connected to.

Beyond this personal connection, it’s a catchy, prominent, or intriguing subject line that you’re more likely to open. It’s this method that both traditional marketers and unscroupulous email scammers often employ to attract a person to open and respond.

While these kinds of email are often discarded, there are lessons we can take from these messages on how to better craft our own email subject lines to be more effective.

Most personal email I receive is background noise and typically falls into a few categories:

  • Company X you purchased from once before is sending you their regular mailer about new seasonal products.
  • Social media platform Y is emailing you about a new follower/like/whatever.
  • Mailing list Z you signed up for on a whim to achieve a free ebook is contacting you about their new thing.

Work emails can follow a similar pattern as well:

  • The informational email you (and the rest of the universe it seems) have been included in by a colleague.
  • A cold-call email from the service company you once asked for more information about their products.
  • Non-targeted workplace email from your employer.
  • A specific email to you about a piece of work you would / should / are doing.

So how do you cut through the noise?

There are plenty of strategies when it comes to gaining the attention of your intended recipients. But I’ve found that most of these methods heavily rely on clickbait-like propositions, which will only ensure your email will add to the noise.

But there is a much easier way for your email content to penetrate the wall of text that otherwise occupies our inboxes regularly.

Put what you need right at the front of the subject line.

Yes. It is that simple.

By indicating what your email is about right up front serves to clarify your intent both raising your subject lines readability, and remaining consise.

Here’s an example:

INFO: New Website Launch

By placing the purpose for the email at the start of the subject it allows you to be more succinct in the description that follows. Writing the requirement text in all caps also grabs more attention, as long as you don’t set the entire subject line with all caps of course!

The additional use of title case for the remainder of your subjet can also draw more attention to your subject line.

Here’s another one:

DISCUSS: Where should we go for lunch?

In this example, the requirement is still capitalised. The use of title case is dropped for a more informal subject, but this doesn’t lessen the impact of the title.

Here are a few more subject line examples:

  • RESCHEDULE: Meeting about red and blue pens
  • DECISION: Red or blue pens?
  • REVIEW: New Pen Policy
  • APPROVE: Annual Company Pen Recommendation
  • URGENT: Change to pen policy
  • ACTION: Document Signing Required with approved pens

These are just a few examples but I’m sure you can come up with a host of your own. But there is a fine line to making your subject lines purposeful, don’t go overboard.

No one wants to receive or deal with (let alone respond to) an email with a subject line thats overloaded like:

  • URGENT ACTION DECISION : What flavour ice creams should the cafeteria stock?

Not only does this cloud the purpose, you should probably rethink the main points your email contains and stick to the basic premise of your content.

Why does this work?

Great question.

Starting your email subject line with its purpose ensures that the person receiving it can quickly identify what you’re asking them to do.

Of course, this means they can make a conscious choice about their interaction with your email as well.

Because you’re being direct about your emails purpose you are clearing away the subterfuge inherent in the majority of the inbox noise we receive daily. This in turn frees the recipients to respond and make decisions more easily rather than forcing them to open your email to find out its purpose.

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By Tim King

Tim is a Creative Copywriter & Content Strategist from Victoria, Australia.

He's been designing and developing digital content online for over a decade working with artists, entrepreneurs, business owners, and corporate clients to help them cut through the noise and build kick-ass content with bite.

Tim loves digging into the big topics that shape our world, applying his own brand of thought along the way. You'll usually find him writing content and thinking far too hard about the future, often with a good glass of red in hand.