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Subject lines that get your email opened, read and acted on

Be honest – how many unread emails are currently sitting in your inbox? And how many of those emails will you delete without even opening them?

Even with the growing number of team messaging platforms, email is still the primary workplace communication method. (Did you know phone calls account for just 2% of workplace communication?!) Email is great, but it has its downsides, and the main one is the sheer number of them! 

Professional inboxes are bulging with company announcements, newsletters, alerts, updates and requests. In fact, the average working professional receives 141 emails a day. It’s true. We counted. This lofty number means a lot of emails simply go unread, which is obviously a big problem when yours is one of them! Your email is important so you need to make it stand out in your reader’s inbox. How can you easily boost the chances of your email getting opened, read and acted on?

First impressions matter

The subject line is the unsung hero of effective email communication. Of course, the subject line is the first thing people read when a new message appears in their inbox. It’s crucial to make sure that it’s not the only thing they read! 

The reality is most of us receive dozens of emails every day that don’t really matter to us. They might be conversations we’re CCed on that don’t really require our involvement, company announcements that don’t directly affect us, or newsletters we haven’t unsubscribed from. So what do most people do? They quickly scan the subject lines to decide which emails are worth looking at – and which ones aren’t. If a subject line fails to make the email’s relevance clear, it’s going straight to Trash.

Tell your reader what’s in it for them

Above all else, the subject line must be clear and informative. By reading the subject line alone, the recipient should be able to tell exactly what they will find in that email and why it matters.  

No one has the time to read a complexly worded subject line with lots of punctuation. Keep your subject line short and sweet – a good target is no more than 9 words or 60 characters. This will ensure that the entire subject line shows up on screen, even on mobile devices. 

The recommended limit also forces you to be as specific and concise as possible. Use key words that stand out and put the most important information first. You can directly address the recipient if appropriate to make your email sound personally relevant and not generic. 

For example:

“For security reasons we are changing the way we manage the online accounts of our clients.”

would be better rewritten as:

“Important security changes to your account”

Communicate urgency

If you need your recipient to act on your email (which is usually the case), consider stating your request directly in the subject line. With a vague subject line, it might not be obvious that the email demands prompt attention and action. Your recipient might assume the message is unimportant and put off reading it until the deadline has already passed – or, worse, never open it at all.

Make it easy for your recipient by clearly stating what they need to do. You can even add a deadline to make your call to action (CTA) more effective.

For example:

“Please find attached the application form for your kind attention.”

would be better rewritten as:

“Please return this application form by March 22”

When your recipient is aware of the deadline, they’ll be more likely to respond promptly. Even if there isn’t a specific deadline, you can still suggest an optimal timeframe. Avoid using phrases like “as soon as possible” though – imprecise timeframes give people an excuse to procrastinate.

But don’t shout

Some subject lines attempt to seize attention with a loud “ACTION REQUIRED” or “URGENT”, but it feels a little rude and shouty. Emails marked “URGENT” without any supporting information or context make the sender seem unprofessional and pushy, which can harm the relationship between sender and recipient. 

Stay up to date

If the subject of an email thread changes, the subject line needs to reflect that. For instance, if you want to inform your colleagues that an assignment has just been greenlit, the subject line should not still have “pending” or “TBC” in it. Update the subject line in your follow-up email or start a new thread. This prevents confusion and makes it easier for recipients to find the correct email if they need to revisit it later. 

Another good indication that you need to update the subject line? “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Fwd: Re: Fwd: Fwd”. It looks like spam, which has no place in anyone’s inbox!