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Carefully crafted email subject lines are vital for effective communication

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

As professional communicators we don’t usually consider we should have email expertise. We tend to think that emails are more in the domain of direct marketers.

But when you pause to consider the number of times PR people and organizational communicators use emails, we actually depend on them to influence and persuade more than we realize. We need them to sell our message, especially the subject line.

Pitching to media

For instance, one-to-one emails are used to pitch story angles to media (they should be personalized to the recipient’s name).

Emailing employees

It’s not just one-to-one emails – it’s emails to multiple recipients. Just think of your emailed corporate newsletter. And think also of the mass emails to employees on major issues. In this day of email overload, we should always be prepared to ‘sell’ the email to readers to get them to open the email and read further.

The first key point is your “From” line. If your organization’s name is in the “From” line, you don’t need to repeat it in the subject line, but many people do. I’ve seen it done by my professional body with promos and with newsletters. I’ve seen Bob Nelson, the employee recognition guru, do it with his regular newsletter. This wastes valuable space.

The second key area is the subject line of emails. This is the most important line in the whole email.

Around 40 characters max.

The subject line is a tight window of opportunity. The message you write in this line needs to be limited to around 40 characters including spaces. That’s only 5-8 words on average. It means that you need to compress your message tightly. Why?

Email domains often limit the number of subject line characters displayed in the inbox. AOL, which is responsible for approximately 22% of the US email market, limits subject lines to abut 38 characters. Yahoo!, with 21% of U.S. email, has an approximate limit of 47 characters per subject line.

Hotmail, which has 14% of the U.S. email market, uses word wrap to display subject lines on multiple lines, allowing approximately 45 characters per line.

Therefore, 57% of U.S. email recipients see only the first 38 to 47 characters of a subject line when making the decision to open an email.

Further, the email window pane for many people automatically cuts off around 40 characters. The message disappears under the next column, which is usually the “Received” column. To see the remaining words of a longer message, you need to push the “Received” column to the right.

Additionally, the growing reliance on mobile devices — and their smaller screens that display even fewer characters — affects this trend as well.

Therefore, for maximum impact, your first few words are crucial. Don’t waste them!

Start subject lines with keywords

Start with your keywords or phrase. Write it as in a headline, except it would probably be the most effective if you write it in the passive voice, which allows you to set up the key words at the start of the line where you can be sure recipients can read it.

For instance, this actual PR industry newsletter subject line contains 114 characters including spaces:

“GM and Chrysler react to Obama’s speech; Obama’s ultimatum to automakers; 10 tips for successful public speaking”

Half of these words are wasted – they disappear into the “Received” column on my computer screen.

Likewise this actual promo message I received recently, which was really a form of spam, has 90 characters including spaces:

“Last Call for 2008 Library Shows AND $100 Off PLUS a $50 Amazon Card on 2009 Show Packages”

Writing the subject line is often the last and rather rushed part of email messaging. It should be the first – so that it sets the theme of the message.

Always state the benefit

When you write your subject lines, focus on the objective – what you want people to do – and give a call to action that specifies the benefit from taking the action.

You will be most successful if you write subject lines that tell the reader exactly how they are going benefit. Whether it is a commercial, marketing email or an email sent to employees, you need to state the benefit where possible, eg to save money, save time, make their life easier, learn valuable information etc... by opening and reading your email.

If you can state a benefit AND create curiosity, so much the better (ie “Discover this proven strategy that will increase your communication effectiveness!”)

But again, the key when writing subject lines is to emphasize benefits by considering your product or service from recipients’ point of view:

Will they benefit from reading your email?
What will they learn?
Is your product or service going to save them time?
Is it going to save them money?
Is it going to improve their lives in some way?


I was responsible for building the professional development program for my local PR institute for 7 years so that the events became our biggest single source of revenue. Before that, the institute struggled financially. I believe one of the main reasons for the success of the program, apart from the actual content, was the fact that I wrote promotional emails for the events according to the simple formula discussed in this article. We always succeeded in attracting enough registrations whereas previously we couldn’t rely on getting enough response.

If the subject is a notice to employees about a change, you may be limited in what you can say in your subject line about benefits. Nevertheless, much of the time you can outline the benefit, eg “New procedure for [whatever it is] will improve [result] for employees.”

And “Changed vehicle procedure will improve employee safety” not “Updated policy on employee use of vehicles.”

So look at every subject line you write to a key audience and rework it to feature keywords at the start and an overall focus on benefits if possible, within 40 characters including spaces.

Even with a captive audience, writing subject lines that emphasize benefits will dramatically increase your email effectiveness.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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