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How to Construct the Perfect Email Subject Line


How many times have you received an email with a subject line that said something like “Question” or “FYI”? Or, worse yet, had no subject at all? For all the millions of email messages that traverse the Internet every day, the ability to effectively formulate an indicative subject message seems to be fairly unimportant to most people. A quick skim of the last 100 or so email messages you’ve received will likely support my claims.

It is because of this seemingly global issue of email subject apathy that I give you this (what I consider to be) definitive guide to creating the perfect email subject.

There are 3 simple tips that, if implemented properly, will make your email subject (and, subsequently, your email) much easier to read.

  1. Use ‘Keywords’ – All email messages fall into one or more of 4 possible categories:
    • Questions (or messages that elicit a response from the reader)
    • Responses (messages that are in response to questions or other inquiring messages)
    • Informational (or FYI – messages that are meant to inform but don’t require a response)
    • Spam (jokes, pictures of your nephew’s baseball game, etc. – as well as actual spam)

    The first tip is a simple one – label your messages with one of these keywords. For example, if I’m going to be emailing my buddy Ted about the fishing trip this weekend and I’d like him to respond, my subject might look something like: “Question: Fishing Trip this weekend”. Alternately, if I need to email my entire family about my upcoming appearance in GQ, it might resemble this: “FYI: Upcoming GQ appearance”.

    Basically, use a keyword from one of these 4 categories to immediately identify what type of message it is. Personally, I like “Question“,”Response“,”FYI” and “Spam“. This makes it very easy to quickly skim the inbox (or, better yet, sort it) and pick out which stuff needs to be acted upon. Very GTD-ish, eh?

  2. Briefly describe the subject – This is best done before you start writing your message. Finding the right balance between vague and overly-specific can be tough. Personally, I think it’s like anything else – you get better at it with time. A few examples of what I mean:

    Let’s say you’re emailing a coworker about a presentation you’ll be giving to Joe’s Chili Cookery next week. You’re not sure if you should use the green pepper graphic or the red pepper graphic. Some people would be tempted to create a subject like this: “Are we using the green pepper or the red pepper graphic for the Joe’s Chili presentation?”. For extra bonus points, they might also leave the email body completely blank (for shame). Honestly, it’s called “Subject” for a reason – you don’t need to spell out the particulars in that field, it’s just there to give an idea what the body of the email is about. A better subject might be : “Question: Joe’s Chili Presentation – Graphic”. Hell, you could omit the “Graphic” bit altogether. You know why? Because the recipient will read all about that in the body of the email. The point is to be brief and concise.

    Using the same example, some other folks might have a subject like this: “Graphic”. Obviously, that’s terribly vague and says virtually nothing about the rest of the message.

    Give a preview of what’s to come – don’t try to shoehorn the whole message into the subject, and don’t make the recipient open the email just to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

  3. For Pete’s sake, never leave the subject blank – This is something I’ve mentioned before, and it bears repeating. Let me break this down for you…

    Tom walks over to Mary’s desk and asks, “Mary, can you fire over that Proposal template again? I’ve somehow lost my copy!”. Mary says “Sure thing, Tom!” and immediately opens a new email message. She drags the document into the window, fills in Tom’s address and hits “Send”. So, what’s wrong with leaving the subject blank in this situation? Well, a blank subject accomplishes one pretty crippling thing:

    It makes damn sure Tom will never be able to find the email again – Most email applications (I’m looking at you, Outlook/Outlook Express) have what could only jokingly be referred to as “search capabilities”. So, if Tom takes the email and drops it into his “Templates” archive folder, the next time he needs it he’ll have to search through every message Mary has sent him without a subject (and there will surely be several) to figure out which one contains the template he’s looking for. So, Mary’s doing Tom a disservice by being to lazy to type “Proposal Template” in the subject line of the email before sending it.

The subject of an email isn’t as superfluous or unimportant as the world would have you believe. Taking just a few seconds to build a proper and accurate subject will save you (when you go back through your Sent Items) and your recipients (when they’re digging through their Archives) much happier people. The email subject becomes much more important a few months down the road than it is initially, I think.

So, please, fill in the subject. And do it correctly.

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