Heather Coleman's post on email subject linesThe other day I needed a bit of comic relief (we were gearing up for the #HopeProject launch and it was a bit frenetic, to say the least), so I posed this question on Facebook:

“Complete: ‘You know you have a winner when the email subject line reads _____.’ “

I learned a great deal from this exercise. Specifically:

1. PR and Marketing folk don’t sleep. I posted this at 10:43 pm ET and the answers kept rolling in.

2. There are a lot of prizes floating around the Internet; apparently so many that they’re tough to keep track of.

3. The word “pants” is possibly the most potent one you could use in a subject line.

4. If you use ALL CAPS you don’t even have to write anything else.

5. If you think this word is spelled correctly – “editer” –  when you’re applying for a job as such … !!!

Facebook question on email subject lines

Originally I posted this because, as I said, it was a typical pre-launch night and I needed a laugh. But more than that, I’m exhausted of receiving poorly written emails with even worse subject lines.

So while this exercise was in jest, it reminded me of just how important it is to write smart, simple and (ideally) succinct subject lines that don’t sound spammy, or superficial, or flat-out ridiculous.

What’s in a subject line?

To me, a good subject line will:

  • Tell me what you’re writing about
  • Tell me what you’re looking for
  • Tell me why I should do it

All that sounds easy, but it’s really, really hard. I think of myself as a pretty good writer and editor (after six years of blogging, we’ve gotten past the cutesy self-effacing stage, right?), but smart, simple and succinct headlines don’t always flow off my keyboard.

I can’t tell you how much I agonize over them, and most of the time I’d say I’m about 85% satisfied (that’s when I remind myself that “good enough” is good enough and hit “send”).

But good subject lines are critical. Email is where the bulk of our work is initiated and takes place. When we are inundated with emails coming at us from all angles, including outer space, which ones will we be inclined to open?

Elegant is as elegant does

The ongoing exercise I give myself is to see how I can write an email subject line that does those three things above. If it’s elegant, then that’s icing on the cake. Sometimes I may put less emphasis on the “elegant” bit (e.g. my clients might not care so much about it, but a blogger or influencer I’m pitching might).

At the end of the day, I want to write an email subject line that will get the email opened, read and, most importantly, acted upon.

Fun interchanges, like this one on Facebook, remind me that no matter how good we are, there’s always work to do.

And now my rule of thumb is that if my subject line doesn’t do at least two of the three things above (again, depending on the intended recipient), my email’s not going out until it does.

What are your tips on writing good email subject lines? Are there any exercises that have been particularly helpful for you? Do share, I’d love to know and learn from you. And many thanks to all who played along on Facebook, you gave me a lot of laughs and lessons!

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps smart businesses make bank by taking their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso®, which provides online, on-demand training that helps you unleash your inner Social PR superhero. Shonali is mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke