Sub: Email subject lines

Here is the next installment of our doing email better series.

The most important part of any email is the subject line. This is the part of the email that will almost surely be read, often many times. It, more than anything else, determines what the receivers will do with your email. Interesting subject lines get opened. Vague or ridiculous subject lines may get trashed or just filed.

But good subject lines are important for more than just getting your emails opened. They also show that you respect your reader’s time and can create efficiencies for the whole organization. Let me show you what I mean.

Relevant subject lines give your emails more impact. For example:

Subj: Donuts

Next Wed we have a status update with the team. I’d really like you to lead the discussion about the 3 new clients. Be prepared – I hate it when we waste time in meetings.

Also can you bring the donuts?

Yes, the email mentions donuts, but is that really the point of this email? No! In journalism terms, you buried the lede.

This can also happen when an email has been forwarded or replied to a bunch of times and the thread isn’t about the same thing as the original message or when someone picks up an old email and responds to it because it has the same recipients as this new message. For example:

Re: re: re: Meeting notes

I brought donuts to last week’s meeting. Do we want to do that again?

This message is a double bad example. Not only does the subject line have nothing to do with the email – but it asks an open-ended question. It’s going to take at least 3 more emails to answer this question (Do we want donuts? Sure, let’s do it. Who’s going to bring them? Marco will…)

But enough with the bad examples; what about some things we could add to our subject lines to make things more clear?

Some companies I know encourages the use of prefixes on their emails to make the intent of the email more clear. For example:

  • [FYI] = This email is for information only. No reply needed (or wanted).
  • [REQ] = This email requires a response.
  • [NOW] = Urgent email, open this now.

Companies that use these prefixes consistently can apply email filtering rules to make sure the most important messages get read first!

The best emails I get are the ones that carry all their information in the subject line. When my assistant sends me phone messages they often look like this:

Subj: Mary Thromos called re: Confirming Tuesday’s meeting. 773-555-2121 [EOM]

The [EOM] tells me that this is the “end of the message” I don’t have to open the email because there is no more information inside. Now that’s bliss.

Want to go further? Go nuts: List of email subject lines

Do you spend a lot of time — or any time — worrying about the subject line of your emails?

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