What would you do if you got an email from a stranger with this subject line: “SCT #4675711001574222”?
Well, if you’re like me and received this email in the early 2000s – when you were terrified that spam could vaporize your big desktop computer – you would probably press delete immediately.
So delete I did. And I kept on deleting that re-sent email daily for 2 weeks, even though I was getting curious.
Then I got the phone call
“Attempts to reach you have been unsuccessful,” the recorded message said. “Please contact Enterprise Rental Cars immediately to resolve your insurance claim.”
The case of the mysterious subject line solved
It was all beginning to make sense. A few weeks before I had been driving a rental car in New Jersey when a large metal ring the size of hula hoop fell off a truck, rolled across the median, and collided with my car. Nobody was hurt, but as I learned, a rental car accident is complicated. And there are a lot of numbers involved.
And that subject line contained one of those numbers. The rental car claims agent who sent the email (I later learned), always put the incident report number in the subject line to help her keep track of her emails. That number meant everything to the agent. It meant nothing to me. Annoyance happened.
Even if they don’t contain 16-digit numbers, most subject lines need help
We did work it out, finally. Obviously, most email subject lines aren’t quite as obscure as a 16-digit number string, but many subject lines are bad, and most need fixing. If fact, I’ve seen the problems of bad subject lines hundreds of times in my career as a writing coach and consultant.
Recently a friend told me about a subject line hassle she dealt with at work. She was frustrated because she had to schlep over to a colleague’s office in another wing and floor of a giant building to get information she had asked for by email a couple of days before. Her colleague hadn’t answered her email ,and she and her team were mighty annoyed.
“This guy basically kept my team waiting for two full days when he didn’t need to", she said. "He knew we needed an answer and he just sat on it. Why don’t they just respond to emails when they know you need the info?”
She got the info she needed but only after taking a long walk and collaring her colleague in the flesh. "This happens all the time," she said.
“What did you put in the subject line?” I asked.
“I put in ‘For your review!!”” she replied, in a tone of voice that said “you can’t get much clearer than that!”
I didn’t tell my friend quite so bluntly, but “For your review” is not a great subject line – unless you are happy to get NO RESPONSE EVER.
A subject line like “For your review,” is code for “It would be nice if you would read this in the next several days or weeks, but it’s no biggie, so chill.” It’s kind of a more formal cousin of “FYI.”
Subject lines are info-starved – and so are our readers
In much business writing, we often write subject lines so generic and vague that they offer no information for the recipient. They'd be just the thing if you’re a spy and need to give NO INFORMATION WHATSOEVER, but for the average non-CIA employee, without camera pens or shoe phones, the no-info subject line has got to go.
Here’s some other favorite bad subject lines:
You get the idea. I’m sure you have some like these in your inbox right at this second. And maybe there are one or two in your sent box too?
Subject lines matter
Your inbox is probably the most important screen you look at all day. It offers a kind of to-do list - a snapshot of all the stuff you need to do. And the subject line tells you why you need to read the email. So readers need specific action-focused subject lines.
We humans are busy. And a tiny bit lazy.
To be efficient, readers have to prioritize when they don’t have time to read every email. Most readers will take advantage of any excuse to ignore or delay reading an email when they are rushed. So if your subject line stinks, they can easily "forget" to read yours. Because right below your lackluster subject line is one from someone else that’s specific, clear, and easy to read and answer. Which one is the busy reader going to click?
To make sure you write subject lines that get your emails answered, here’s what to do
Bad subject lines Good subject lines
Client information Client X needs 1054 forms by Friday
Please read Please confirm you’ve read this email by 4-14-16
Update Accounts receivable moving to South Campus this summer
Assignment info Clinical assignments for your team
And what about my friend and her “for your review”? She said that she should have written “Please approve by 4-8-16 so we can print.”