Emma: Hey, let’s do something kind of fun and easy today.
Andy: Email subject lines! We’ve all probably written thousands of them, and generally I think they are pretty low stakes.
Emma: Yep, no biggy, just blop something in there and hit send. Most of the time, the person on the other side is going to open it. Which means, yes, I have crafted some truly lame office- and team-wide subject lines in my day.
Andy: We all have!
Emma: It’s true. I’ve actually found it’s a pretty fun COVID-era game to scroll through my inbox and outbox and see all the bananas subject lines that have transpired.
Andy: Looking through my outbox, my most common subject line is “Unsubscribe.” Lol.
Emma: But every once in a while, I’ll be writing a subject line and just become completely stricken. I do that thing where I type something in and then backspace it away and try something new again and again. It usually happens when I’m trying to Be Impressive to some sort of important person. I become convinced there is a right way and a wrong way to write a subject line.
Andy: I really pay attention to that feeling, and use it to recognize that I need help. I need to ask someone, or create a scorecard, or do some observational learning: What do other people do? What do I like about that or dislike about that? What’s worked in the past? What hasn’t worked?
I do this about lots of things: my outfits, my hair plan, my email style, my meetings, my 1-on-1s. I’ve learned to love that little panic feeling because when I listen to it, I can see where I want to grow.
Emma: There isn’t really a right way to write a subject line. Or, there is, but in the same way there’s a right way to diet, which is to say there are a lot of options, and some people are going to be more uptight about their way than others. We’re not uptight — but I do appreciate when the subject lines that appear in my inbox are efficient, informative, and set the right expectations.
Andy: Agree completely. Precision is great. I like to think about it as a mini summary of what’s to come. My aim is to distill the content’s information and emotion into a single line. I don’t worry too much about a length cut-off, since most inboxes will show a full sentence, but around six words is usually the right amount to hit the sweet spot of “not vague, not wordy.”
That said, like a lot of things in the office (and the world), there’s a power dynamic here. If you’re in power, you can write really bad subject lines that’ll still get emails opened.
Emma: If that’s you, I still recommend being precise and useful! It saves everyone else so much and energy they can use elsewhere.
Andy: If you’re not in power, the flip side is true: you can have the most persuasive, actionable subject line and still not get an open or a response. Remember: email is not the only tool to get what you need. You can try a face-to-face meeting, look for another resource. My favorite move is sending emails that ask for a veto, rather than permission.
Emma: Oh dang! That’s some next-level emailing.
How to Write an Email Subject Line
Let’s start by walking through the goals of the email subject line (aka a mini scorecard) with a bunch of before’s and after’s.
1. The recipient knows if there is any action needed
Before: The Smith bid (req #2244)
After: Feedback needed by 2/12: The Smith bid (req #2244)
Before: Covid vaccine
After: 6 Covid vaccine spots available this Wed—Sat
Before: Sara Buttaneli
After: Are we ready to make Sara Buttaneli an offer? (Thanks to Ask A Manager for this example!)
If no action is needed, they should be able to skim the subject line and get the takeaway
Before: Project Alpha
Before: New deadline
Before: Feb 7
After: Project Alpha deadline updated to February 7
2. The recipient can easily identify and sort the email by topic / project / category of work
Before: A few questions
After: Questions re: work from home stipend
Before: Quick edit request
After: Edit request – Sneaker product page
After: Coffee next Tuesday?
Before: Meeting invite
After: Please add Ryan to the Weekly Stand-up
3. The recipient won’t be surprised by what’s inside the email
Overly vague subject lines can shock both ways: either your reader expects the worst and everything’s fine, or they assume it’s nothing and everything is not fine. Both of these are problems. The first one has a happier ending, it’s not best practice and it’s not fair to anyone’s cortisol levels. Precision prepares the reader.
After: Voter registration update: 96% to goal 3 weeks before deadline!
Before: Urgent request
After: Help needed addressing envelopes for Sponsor’s Dinner
After: Incident report: Elevator malfunction; 2 injured
Before: Have you seen this?
After: Sales down 500% this week
A Few More Pro Tips
Recurring emails get recurring subject lines. It’s helpful for inbox scanning, messaging filtering, and email searching. It’s also so easy to do: just update the date — no creativity necessary!
Not great: Hiring is still going strong!!
Great: Weekly Recruiting Update — 1/6/21–1/13/21
Use “urgency” very sparingly. Literally as sparingly as possible. No amount of red exclamation points can make someone care about something that’s not urgent to them. If there’s something actually urgent, it’s fine to mention that.
Not great: URGENT! Timesheets due Friday at 5p
Great: For Immediate Review: Press Release re: Product Recall
Not great: URGENT! Please read regarding your residence!
Great: Fumigation Per Diem: Approval Needed by July 9
Don’t change subject lines when forwarding or replying. You’re creating a crack in the space/time continuum: two threads with two different names and the same content. Yes, this means you may be forwarding some bad subject lines. Just do your best in the first sentence of your email body to convey the right info.