Have a strong subject line

Have a strong subject line

The email subject line is the most miraculous form of business communication since the pneumatic tube. The simple miracle of the subject line is the fact that with one tiny input field, you can instantly communicate the essence of your message. And you can make it very compelling, because the subject line is, however briefly, scanned by your readers to see what’s inside.

This is where you come in. What can you do with those 50 milliseconds of scan time to influence someone’s behavior?

First, let’s back up and look at an example of the subject lines you usually get.

Subject:     RE: RE: will you have that schedule ready by tues?

We see communications like this all the time. Guess what? I’m NOT going to make reading this email a high priority. I can tell that an email checking on some schedule was sent to someone, and was then replied to, and was then replied to again, with me added. It can probably wait.

Now, the more genius among us will, instead, use the subject line and those 50 milliseconds to strongly communicate 3 specific things in a specific order, creating a strong subject line:

  • Project or effort name, in square brackets. This helps with searching, sorting, and creating inbox rules. Square brackets are a big time saver.
  • A verb, describing what action is needed. This should be very brief, like “review needed”, “please confirm” or “approval requested”. You can skip this if no action is needed by the reader.
    • Note: There’s nothing more pathetic than PLEASE READ!!! in an email’s subject. Never do this. You may as well just wear a t-shirt with Ineffective Communicator across the front.  
  • A noun, describing very simply what is in the email. It should be just a few words, like “quarterly budget”, “weekly status report”, or “project plan.”

Here’s an example of a strong subject line:  

Subject:     [Data Center Migration] approval requested – network testing schedule

Why this works

Communicating with a strong subject line works so well because it’s so efficient.

Instantly your reader knows this email is regarding that damn Data Center Migration project. Everyone knows the priority of that project, so they also know this email is probably pretty important. Right away, you’ve established this email passes the 50-millisecond scan test. Your reader will keep reading.

Next they see that you aren’t just sending a general communication to a broad distro list, but rather that you expect some action from a group of approvers – you want them to review and approve the schedule for testing the network.  

You’ve effectively communicated all this in just the subject line, with exactly 8 words. You are a communications genius. Imagine a world where every email you receive has a strong subject line.  Ahhhhh! Communications utopia!