Mastering Email Subject Lines: Maximizing Impact and Effectiveness

June 1, 2020

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 we 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.Therefore, most US 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 smaller screens on mobile devices display even fewer characters. 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 X’s speech; X’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 [year] Library Shows AND $100 Off PLUS a $50 Amazon Card on [next year] 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 responses.

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/outcome, 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.

Photo: maxim-ilyahov at unsplash.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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