Media Skills: The Email Subject Line: Persuading People to Open Your Messages

This is the third post in a new series in which we explore a variety of essential skills for using digital, social, and visual media. We’ll present the information in ways that you can share directly with your students, and we hope this information will enhance your lectures and class discussions.

The email subject line may seem like a small detail, but it is one of the most important parts of an email message because recipients use it to choose which messages to read and when to read them. Many businesspeople receive dozens or hundreds of email messages a day, and subject lines help them decide where to focus their attention. In addition, the subject line often serves as a “browsing label” when people scan their inboxes to find a message they’ve already read but need to find again.

The optimum wording for a subject line depends on the message, the situation, your relationship with the recipient(s), and whether you are using the direct or indirect approach in the message. For routine, direct messages among close colleagues or subordinates who are likely to read all your messages, a straightforward description of the message’s content is often sufficient. However, if there is a chance that recipients might ignore your message or delay opening it, the subject line requires some creative thought.

To write a compelling headline when you need to persuade someone to open your message, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. How can you relate the content of your message to this person’s immediate needs and interests, and how can you catch his or her attention in just a few seconds?

Start by identifying issues that are important to the recipient and how he or she is likely to feel about them. What can you do to add positives and remove negatives? For example, someone working in sales wants to close as many deals as possible as quickly as possible, so anything you can offer that relates to that desire could make good material for a subject line. Similarly, a department manager cares about such things as hitting budgets, keeping employees motivated, and avoiding expensive mistakes. If your message relates to any of those goals, use that in the subject line. Whenever you can, give recipients a “selfish” reason to open your message by conveying that it relates to them and their needs.

Next, if a response is needed by a specific date, indicate that in the subject line (such as “Marketing plan draft for your review; please respond by Dec. 14”). Conversely, if a message doesn’t require immediate action, recipients will appreciate knowing this so they can focus on other messages. If you are forwarding information that someone wants to have on file but doesn’t need to attend to right now, for instance, you can add “(no action needed)” to the subject line.

Finally, look for ways to add intrigue to your subject lines, when appropriate. For example, “July sales results” may accurately describe the content of a message, but “July sales results: good news and bad news” is more intriguing. Readers will want to know why some news is good and some is bad.

For every message, keep these general tips in mind for effective subject lines:

  • Make sure you clearly convey the subject of the message. Vague subjects, such as “Interesting idea” or “Update,” don’t give the reader much motivation to open a message.
  • Shorter is better. Assume that recipients will see your messages on mobile devices, which often display fewer characters than full-size screens.
  • In addition to the subject line, the inbox listing in many email systems and mobile email apps displays the first line or two of the message content. You can use the first few words of the message body to continue or expand on the subject line. Alternatively, if you are replying to a message, you can include the opening line of the original message to remind the recipient which message you are replying to.
  • Revise the subject line if an ongoing thread has altered the focus of the conversation or to distinguish newer messages from older messages with the same subject.

 

Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business Communication Today, 15th Edition, 2021, pp. 197–198. Email skills are also addressed in our titles Excellence in Business Communication, Chapter 8, and Business Communication Essentials, Chapter 6.

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