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Tips for writing top email subject lines

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Email remains the key daily means of electronic communication in workplaces and in many marketing campaigns. Therefore, it is vital to write effective emails whether you have a captive audience such as employees or an external audience such as potential customers.

The key element of an effective email is the subject line. In effect, this is the equivalent of a headline in advertising. The experts say the headline is worth 75-80% of the impact of an ad.

However, many communicators tend to overlook the importance of crafting a good subject line. Here are some guidelines:

1. Keep the word count tight in the subject line

These days, readers tend to focus on only the first 3-4 words in a subject line. If these words aren’t carefully written, the reader may not be interested and will delete the email. Accordingly, as in SEO, write the keywords up front and use a maximum of 50 characters in the line (including spaces), preferably 40. Another reason is that many Inboxes are set to show only a certain number of characters on the screen, and will not show the second half of long subject lines until the message is opened in full. All this means a good subject line can be a challenge to write, but it is worth spending time crafting a tight line.

You can draft a subject line at the start of the activity, but it is best to hold back and write it after you have written the body of the email so your mind is around all the content of the message. Then rewrite and edit your initial effort. Although it may be tempting to just make do with an early draft, persevere with some other options and you will find the best one.

Why bother? Even a captive audience like employees won’t bother to read the email if it is not written well – and therefore you will have watered down the impact of the message.

2. Focus on your objective

Decide the action you want your readers to take. Base the subject line on that if you can. Don’t write an informational subject line if you want readers to go to a link on a new organizational policy. And remember in marketing communication that a subject line itself is not the tool for selling. It is a tool for getting readers to read the body copy in which the more detailed sales message is contained.

3. Make good use of the ‘From’ line

Think about what your readers see. The ‘From’ line should be relevant. If it is an internal email, include your name and position or department so people can understand the context. If it is an external, marketing email, use a ‘From’ line that briefly mentions your organization and its role. For example, don’t just use the company name ‘Century Products’, but write something more effective like ‘Century Products office supplies’.

If the ‘From’ line mentions the name of your organization, don’t repeat the name in the subject line. It’s overkill. Just focus on the key point, eg new office products newsletter’.

4. Urgency creates action

Readers of your email are more likely to act if your call to action creates a sense of urgency or scarcity. For instance, ‘PRSA crisis conference bookings closing – response needed by [date]’.

If you are conducting a marketing campaign, create a sense of urgency or scarcity through a subject line such as ‘Office equipment offer closes midnight tonight’.

These tips and guidelines will lift the open rates and response rates of your email messages to any audience.

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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