The (New) Science of Email Subject Lines

donna-berryBy Donna Berry Glass, Senior Counselor
Recently, I received an email from The Wall Street Journal with an email subject line entitled, “The New Science of Email Subject Lines.”  Okay, actually it wasn’t an email but The Wall Street Journal published a story on this grapevine artist ed young recently and I found it intriguing that they’d cover this not-so-sexy-but-relevant-to-just-about-everyone topic.
Anyone who sends or receives large amounts of email each day – to the tune of an average of 105 emails per day and growing – has often wondered “Why didn’t so-and-so respond?” or “Was my email received/opened/read” or “What the heck does it take to get a response?”  The answer may be that you’re trying too hard. The following tips from the WSJ article can help:
Tip #1 – Make the subject line about the person receiving the email.  In fact, use the word YOU if you can. “Nothing is more fascinating to people than themselves,” said former magazine editor Tina Brown, who has wrangled many a notable celebrity in her day. Some examples:  “Great Story Opportunity for You,” “Thank You, You’re Awesome!” or “What do you think about this?”
Tip #2 – Be as plain-spoken as possible. While subject lines that were provocative, mysterious or clever used to work, they’ve lost their effectiveness over time as email boxes explode. In fact, email (especially on a smart phone) is looking more like a Twitter feed. If you want someone to open your message, be as direct as you can. Try subjects like: “I need you to review now” or “Investment opportunity in hot start up.”  According to email newsletter maker MailChimp, a review of 200 million emails in their system found that straightforward (and even a little boring) email subject lines have an open rate of up to 90 percent, whereas more ostentatious subjects were opened by less than one percent of recipients.  Ouch!
Tip #3 – Keep it short. This was not in the WSJ article, per se, but it’s a tip from yours truly. If your email can’t be seen on a reader without going off the end of the page, it’s too long. Five words max is about right. This can be tough in the PR business, especially when the press release is supposedly “dead” (please see my last blog post on that topic) and we’ll do whatever we can to get a reporter to read what we’re sending.
None of this is, ahem, rocket science, but in our increasingly crowded email world, a small tweak might make a big difference. So before you send that next email, give it a little bit of thought, try some of these tips and leave us comment on how it works for you.
Questions or comments? Please leave them in the comments section below or email Donna at [email protected].

6 thoughts on “The (New) Science of Email Subject Lines

  1. Donna,
    I couldn’t agree more. I always try to let the recipient know what they need to do – if there is action require on their part as soon as I can either in the subject line or first sentence of the email.

  2. These small tweaks can make a world of difference. Thanks for sharing Donna…

  3. “Your subject made me pay attention.” You are correct Donna – make it personal and grab ’em with your subject line or you fall into the circular file. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the reminders about using email subject lines effectively, Donna. It’s such a small but important piece of a message that often gets overlooked. Whenever I receive an email about an important topic that only says “hey” as it’s subject line, I immediately rename that thread to something meaningful so it can be filed away and easily found the next time I need it.

  5. Totally agree, Donna. I would add, put a trigger word in there so that if they are sorting by Name, the subject of the email will pop out and be very clear as to what’s in the content. We made this a company policy – one that I haven’t mastered yet, but do see the value in.

  6. Well said. Yeah, it’s definitely not rocket science, but just requires an extra few secs/mins of thought to make a difference.

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