I read a few interesting posts (Barry Leiba, Raymond Chen) about email subject lines. I get about one email a minute, and even after you strip out the offers that aren't really that personalized (I already get those from Canada, thanks, and I don't even have one of those, and as for that, are you serious?) I get dozens and dozens of real and important emails every day. And at a quick guess at least half have a terrible subject line. If you've heard me speak, you've heard me try to teach the art of a good subject line. Let me try some more here:
- Never use the name of a project or client, and only the name of the project or client, as your subject line. My "City of Kawartha Lakes" outlook folder contains roughly 50% emails that break this rule. Most of my staff were on the project at one time or another and were typically on other projects too. So when they emailed me a question or a status report, they put "City of Kawartha Lakes" or "CKL" or "City web site" as the entire subject. The problem with that is it's so ephemeral. This morning it distinguishes your mail from the others in my Inbox you sent me about a different project. 6 months from now, when I'm trolling the client folder trying to establish when something was decided, it's really of no value to me at all. The City staff were no better: they used to write with subjects like "our website project". It was during that project I started to train my staff on subject lines.
- Really try to imagine someone using your email a year from now. Then you'll naturally change "weekly status report" to "status report, week of Jan 2". That's doubly true if it's not date related -- at least I can sort my emails by date.
- Never use a subject line that will make little or no sense if it's forwarded, or could offend. "Need a ruling on bug 234" is ok, but just "bug 234" will not make sense when it lands in the client's inbox, and "Can you please get these morons to make up their minds?" is also bad. If I have to change your subject line in order to forward the message, then when you're cc'ed the subject line change will confuse you.
- Barry points out the problem with "meeting with Barry" or anything else that has some sort of directionality in it. Even "today's results" becomes mislabelled tomorrow.
- Probably the second worst subject line in the world is "question". The worst: "couple of questions". I prefer separate emails for separate questions, so I can reply to them one at a time, forward them to those who can truly answer them, and so on.
- If you don't get any spam at all, and have a way better spam filter than me, or are luckier than me, take a look at what is getting dropped once in a while, and don't use those subject lines. "question" is real popular in my junk box, as are "Good day", "Approved", "Document", "Request" and so on. Plenty of folks (and spam filters) drop those unread.
- If I am not likely to recognize your name, take extra care with your subject. Email from a known correspondent with a confusing subject line will at least be read. It may not be very file-able, but I'll read it. The same subject line from a stranger might go straight to the trash. At events I recommend mentioning the event in the subject.
- When replying, feel free to fix subject lines. Most importantly, remove [ACTION REQUIRED] and similar flags if you are not actually requiring action in your reply. I don't object to folks using these tags but it gets tiring when my folders are full of ACTION REQUIRED messages that say "ok you will have it by end of day".
Finally, as a Raymond-commenter points out, make your first line or two really count. It may be all I read. If you want me to review something, start the email "can you review this document by Friday?". Then you can provide the backstory after that. I file a lot of things unread, because I get cc'ed on things. This is good. It's better still if the part I can see in my two line preview says "yes, we can do this for your by Friday" or "go ahead, I have approved the budget" so I don't even have to open the message.