The New Science of Email Subject Lines – At Work – WSJ

Posted on Apr 22, 2014


In the cutthroat world of corporate email, where attention spans are measured in fractions of a second, a well-crafted subject line can make all the difference. Just don’t try too hard.
Dan Moskovitz, a rabbi based in Vancouver, used simple flattery to grab the notice of Amazon Inc. chief Jeff Bezos with the subject line, “Thank You! You’re Awesome.” Though the note was unsolicited and of relatively small concern to Bezos—some praise for a little-heralded Kindle feature—Rabbi Moskowitz received a personal reply, according to a recent account of their correspondence in Marketwatch.

Second-person subject lines often do the trick, especially for busy and high-profile recipients, and they need not be complicated.

“I always find the content line YOU makes people open up fast,” says Tina Brown, the former magazine editor and founder of next month’s Women in the World Summit, for which she wrangled notables like IMF chief Christine Lagarde, former President Jimmy Carter and actress Meryl Streep.

“Nothing is more fascinating to people than themselves,” Brown added in an email sent via a spokesperson. (Subject line: “from Tina.”)

But appeals to ego only get you so far. The next-best advice for subject lines, according to people who regularly snag VIP replies, is to be as plain-spoken as possible. When everyone worth talking to is dealing with a daily torrent of messages, clarity trumps cleverness.

“What you’re trying to do is stop the scroll,” says Anne Lewis, the CEO of digital marketing agency Anne Lewis Strategies, who has worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton, the National MS Society and others. “Odds are very good that whoever’s looking is looking on a mobile device, just scrolling through, much like a Facebook feed.”

Years ago, a successful subject line was “clever, oblique, evocative,” says Lewis, citing a 2007 email from Clinton’s presidential campaign that simply read, “Let’s do Lunch.” The message, which registered an open rate 25% higher than the campaign average, announced a lottery in which supporters could win a chance to eat with the then-senator at her DC home. It raised $600,000 in the 72 hours after it was sent out, according to a campaign spokesman at the time.

But time is more precious now, and so subject lines must explicitly spell out why the recipient should open the email. In her own inbox, the subjects that best grab Lewis’s attention are the least complicated: “I need you to review this now,” for example, or “I need your feedback.”

Choire Sicha, a co-founder of the website The Awl and a former editor at Gawker and the New York Observer, says he has already begun to treat his inbox like a Twitter stream: catch what you can.

Subject lines styled as coy headlines—”Will the ACA spur most employers to drop health coverage?”—can be easy to ignore, Sicha says.

“‘Do I need to click that? Mmm, maybe later.’ Oh it’s gone, scrolling down the page, oh well,” Sicha wrote in an email, describing his inbox maintenance routine. (Subject line: “re: for WSJ: email subject lines”.)

For his own outgoing emails, Sicha says he often keeps his subjects short and direct: “Reporter request.”

Entrepreneur Rob Biederman took a similar tack in July, when he sent an unsolicited email to Texas billionaire Mark Cuban seeking an investment in HourlyNerd, a business Biederman founded that connects M.B.A.s with small companies for freelance assignments.

Biederman found Cuban’s email address on the investor’s website and tapped out a note on his iPhone. The subject line was unambiguous — “HourlyNerd – Investment Opportunity”. Cuban responded within 15 minutes, Biederman recalls, and the two immediately outlined out a financing agreement similar to the one that was sealed in writing a few months later.

The subject field was “not the catchiest,” Biederman says, “but I just wanted to quickly communicate the name of the company and why I was emailing.”

The typical corporate email user sends and receives about 105 emails per day, according to a 2011 study by California-based researchers at The Radicati Group, a number that is growing by double-digit percentages each year.

“Anything that even hints of spam gets thrown away immediately,” reads an online guide to subject lines by the staff of MailChimp, the maker of an email newsletter tool. Based on research culled from 200 million emails with open rates ranging from 93% to .5%, the company recommends subjects lines that are “pretty straightforward…Heck, some people might even say they’re boring.”

MailChimp found that somewhat banal-sounding subject lines like “Preliminary Floor Plans for Southern Village Neighborhood Circle Members” and “Idlewild Camp – Important Travel Information” were opened by more than 90% of recipients, who likely knew exactly what they were going to get upon reading. On the other hand, more ostentatious subjects such as “Tempting August NUSA Specials!” were opened by less than one percent of recipients. (Names were changed in each example.)

But accuracy doesn’t have to come at the expense of liveliness. Michael Musto, a journalist and gossip columnist formerly of the Village Voice, says he typically doesn’t use a subject line at all. “If they’re going to read it, they’ll read it,” he says.

But when he does fill in the field, he tries to make it exciting. Recent examples: “Job opportunity for you!” and “Great new Miley dish!”

via WSJ