Why E-mail Subject Lines Matter

Why Email Subject Lines Matter

It’s somewhere between 5:30 and 7 AM and I’m taking my first peek at email. This is my personal mental preparation time. I am not yet “on the clock” but I am the perpetual preparer…and so I look at my inbox and all of the subject lines that fill the space.

Every day is a new day, and whatever surprise is in this box, it will give me clues as to how challenging the day that lies ahead may be.

Dramatic, huh? Does it make you feel like you are in a weird version of The Hunger Games? Regardless of the tone that has been set, the fact still remains that a subject line matters. A subject line holds power. And more people should use them to their advantage.

Take the following two subject lines as an example:

  • Subject: Don’t know what I’m doing – HELP!
  • Subject: Question: Lost when adding different user types

Both could contain the same information and the same request, but the second one is likely to allow me to reply with a helpful response much more quickly because the sender is setting the scene and being specific in scope. With the second email, from the subject line I would assume that I would have less hunting to do before I understood the question…this message is essentially my low-hanging fruit. However, with the first email, I would guess that it might take more time for me to understand the question, and that I might need to block off some time to respond. While both messages should be addressed in the same general day, the more specific one will probably get the first response.

Suggestions on how to make subject lines clear:

  • If there is a due date – say it. This helps the recipient prioritize.
    • Subject: Need signature by 2/4
  • Specify what the reader needs to do in one to two words. Action, FYI, Read Later, Question (or Q/A), etc. If this is an FYI or Read Later, the email may get pushed to a little later in time allowing me to focus on the most critical needs of the moment.
    • Subject: Action: Need signature by 2/4
  • If priority is important – add that in as well. This one is often combined with the due date. A priority may not be necessary if there is a due date attached. Urgent, High Priority, Low Priority, etc.
    • Subject: High Priority – Action: Need Signature by 2/4
  • Differentiators are helpful in our organization…when we communicate internally and when we respond to client inquiries, as well. The client, vendor, or product being referenced is always helpful…as sometimes it cannot be assumed that the recipient is immediately on the same page as the sender – simply due to the volume of messages that come in on varying subjects.
    • Subject: ACME, Inc. – High Priority – Action: Need Signature by 2/4

We all have heard that habits are hard to break…but habits can be hard to form, too. If it has never occurred to you to think strategically about your subject lines, then this could be a huge opportunity for you! Especially if your email strings tend to need a lot of back and forth correspondence to clarify what must be remedied or addressed. Give it a try! If you don’t already, start including a more specific snippet of your message’s content in the subject of your email. You might even start with your internal emails to co-workers first – see if there’s a notable difference in response time and time to resolution. Then, work your way into incorporating this technique within external-facing emails. It may be slightly awkward at first if people aren’t used to your subject line candor, but people will generally appreciate the heads up that your revised approach affords.

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Image credit: Message to the Mail Man by gajman (contact)

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