If you’re like most professionals, you probably write dozens of emails a day but barely think about the subject line. It’s an afterthought that you add just before you hit send.
If so, you’re making a big mistake. The subject line often determines whether an email is opened and how the recipient responds.
We asked career, email, and marketing experts to offer their best tips for crafting the perfect subject line. Whether you’re looking for a job, emailing co-workers, or reaching out to potential clients, here’s how you should approach it:
1. Write the subject line first. One of the top mistakes people make on email is forgetting to write a subject line, says Amanda Augustine, career expert at professional job-matching service TheLadders. An email with a blank subject line will likely go unread or get lost in a cluttered inbox. Write the subject line before the email so you know it’s taken care of.
2. Keep it short. A typical inbox reveals about 60 characters of an email’s subject line, while a mobile phone shows just 25 to 30 characters, says Augustine. Get right to the point in about six to eight words.
3. Place the most important words at the beginning. A whopping 50% of emails are read on mobile phones, says Dmitri Leonov, a VP at email management service SaneBox. Since you don’t know how much of the subject line will be viewable from a smartphone, it’s important to put the most important information at the beginning. Otherwise, compelling details could get cut off.
4. Eliminate filler words. With such precious space, don’t waste it with unnecessary words like “hello,” “nice to meet you,” and “thanks,” which can easily be included in the email’s body.
5. Be clear and specific about the topic of the email. The subject line should communicate exactly what the email is about so that the recipient can prioritise the email’s importance without having to open it. For example, writing “Do you have a sec?” is vague, says Augustine, since the reader will have to open the email or reply to figure out what you want. If it’s a job application, she suggests including your name and the position, and if it’s to another co-worker, you should identify the project that the email refers to.
6. Keep it simple and focused. Especially if you’re sending a marketing email, Kipp Bodnar, a VP at marketing software platform HubSpot, says it should be focused on one action, which should be communicated in the subject line. Offer one takeaway, indicate how the reader can make use of it, and specify how you will deliver it.
7. Use logical keywords for search and filtering. Most professionals have filters and folders set up to manage their email and probably won’t focus on your message when they first see it, says Leonov. That’s why it’s important to include keywords related to the topic of the email that will make it searchable later.
8. Indicate if you need a response. “People want to know whether they really need to read this now and if they have to respond,” says Augustine. If you need a response, make it clear in the subject line by saying “please reply” or “thoughts needed on X topic.” If not, simply start the line with “Please read,” or tack on “no response needed” or “FYI” to the end.
9. Set a deadline in the subject line. Especially if you have a lot of information to convey in the email itself, including a deadline right in the subject line exponentially increases the odds that readers will respond. For example, after the email’s topic, you could say: “Please reply by EOD Friday.”
10. If someone referred you, be sure to use their name. If you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance, do not save that for the body of the email, says Augustine. Put it in the subject line to grab the reader’s attention right away. Moreover, she suggests beginning the subject line with the full name of the person who referred you.
11. Highlight the value you have to offer. If sending a cold email to someone you don’t know, “you need a subject line that indicates value and communicates what they’re going to get,” says Bodnar. Pique the reader’s interest by offering them something that’s helpful. Whether you’re providing a speaking opportunity, a discount, or a service, make it clear in the subject line what’s in it for them.
12. Personalise it with the recipient’s name or company name. You have to know who you’re sending the email to, and they have to recognise that it’s about them or a subject interesting to them, Bodnar says. Using their name or company name is one of the best ways to do that, he says, and makes the recipient much more likely to open the email. For example, you might write, “Increase Company.com’s traffic by 25%,” or “John, see how you compare to competitors.”
13. Don’t start a sentence that you finish in the email’s body. If you begin a thought or question that ends in the email, then the reader is forced to open the email. It’s annoying, and since clarity and being respectful of the recipient’s time is the goal, it’s not very helpful, says Augustine. Consider whether instant message, a call, or an in-person chat might be a better medium for your question.
14. Make sure you reread the subject line. Augustine also warns against copy-and-paste errors. Sometimes when people are sending a similar email to multiple people, they forget to tailor it to each reader and end up with the wrong name or title in the subject line. The easiest way to avoid this is to reread the subject line before you hit send.
15. Don’t put words in ALL CAPS. Using all caps may get someone’s attention, but in the wrong way. It’s the digital equivalent of yelling, and your job is to make the email as easy as possible for the recipient to read rather than giving them anxiety, says Leonov. Instead, use dashes or colons to separate thoughts, and avoid caps and special characters like exclamation points.