In a world of clogged inboxes and the wide-spread use of portable devices, conciseness and quality content are of the utmost importance when sending email.
An effective subject line is a great place to start.
Although I consider myself adept at communicating through the written word, I used to find myself struggling to come up with the perfect, oh-so-clever (or, at the very least, informative) subject line to send along with my emails. Instead, I ended up sending out drivel like, “Hello”, “Monday” or “Important”.
Below are 4 tips I’ve found to write effective subject lines.
Tip 1: Relevance is Key
Everyone has a philosophy on the subject line, but almost everyone seems to agree that a subject line should be more than an afterthought. I spoke with people in various industries and one of the main complaints about the subject line is that it tends to lose its relevance as it proceeds down the forward and reply chain. Or, the subject line never had any relevance.
For instance, Mitch, the production manager at a business publication, complained to me about receiving emails from PR reps and reporters with the subject line, “FW: Re: Thanks for the Interview!” Mitch doesn’t care about the interview or the PR’s flack’s gratitude, only the photo attachment that needs to be placed in the paper. If the sender has changed the subject line to, “Photo of Acme Co. CEO, Joe Schmoe” Mitch will save valuable time on deadline day when he needs to locate that attachment.
Tip 2: Make it Searchable
Searchability is one of the primary reasons to write a good subject line. It behooves not only the recipient of the email but also you, as the sender, when you get a reply to that message.
I spoke with Mike, who works in the design field and juggles multiple clients and projects. His greatest frustration is when a client or coworker sends an email with a generic subject line such as, “Issues” or “Contract”. This guy deals with a lot of issues every day relating to a lot of contracts with many different clients. Of course he could create folders or labels and sort the emails, but what if he hops on an important call and forgets to do so? Tracking down those issues then becomes more of a headache than dealing with the actual issues. If the subject line read, “McCullion Project-Issues with Drawing A3.54 Elevator Vestibule” it would save him and his client a great deal of time.
Tip 3: Say it in One Line
As more and more people rely on portable devices, emails are increasingly shrinking in length. Subject lines become even more important in this context since it saves people the trouble of opening up an individual email message. Many believe that even desktop emailers should rely exclusively on subject lines in certain situations. It saves everyone time and lets people off the hook in using social niceties, like greetings and salutations.
Emailers on the go would also argue that it’s nice to know as much about the issue (or lack thereof) simply by reading the subject line in order to facilitate prioritizing which emails to get to first. For instance, an email from your boss with the subject line, “Never Received Documents for Today’s Presentation. Send ASAP!” will most certainly take precedent over an email sent from your mom entitled, “NYTimes.com: Woody Allen’s Quest to Find New York’s Best Chicken Soup.” Similarly, your mom’s email might be bumped to the highest priority if the subject line reads, “Call home immediately. Emergency with Dad.”
Examples of good vs. bad one-line emails:
Good: “Running 15 minutes late for 2:30 meeting.”
Good:“Re-Send Tartofsky Memo as Attachment ASAP”
Bad: “Read This”
Good: “Article from WSJ on Budget Deficit that we Discussed”
Good: “Are you free to grab coffee next Tues. at 10 a.m.?”
Good: “Meeting notes from Wednesday June 6, 2009”
Tip 4: Use Acronyms
Taking this to the next level involves using acronyms at the beginning or end of a subject line to help the recipient decipher the intention/importance of a message.
Katie, an event planner at a nonprofit organization, receives an onslaught of emails every day. Her organization has established some guidelines for sending emails that encourage staffers to use acronyms to help other staffers prioritize their inbox. These acronym are used widely today and are touted by efficiency experts.
Katie’s organization, for instance, uses “RRR”, which stands for “Read, Review, Respond”, at the beginning of a subject line, such as, “RRR: Proposal to Cooper Foundation.” This allows Katie to easily identify an email that needs attention, as opposed to an email that’s non-work related, but sent from a colleague, or a low-priority work email. If it’s non-work related, staffers are encourage to use “ZZZ”, such as “ZZZ: Peet’s Coffee coupons in the kitchen”. If it’s work-related, but more office-oriented, they write, Office Related Matter, “ORM: printer broken on 4th floor”.
Two widely-used acronyms are “EOM” or “End of Message”, which lets the reader know that the whole message is contained in the subject line, and “NRN” or “No Reply Needed”, which frees the recipient from any obligation to reply to the message.
Other widely-used acronyms are: AET: Answer Expected Today; AR: Action Required;
and RR: Reply requested.
If this all seems overly-complicated or a potential time-suck, just remember, the whole point in writing good subject lines is to save time. Think about the most important/actionable item in the email and stick it in the subject line. And, be sure to think about what will help you and the email recipient save valuable time when searching for an email if it gets buried in an inbox. A couple of extra moments spent on a subject line might save you a whole lot of time and frustration down the road.
And, if you are looking for some inspiration, take a look at Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, where he discusses the BBC’s brilliant use of precise communication in its headlines.