February 7, 2007

10 Commandments of Email Subjects

When Barry at “Staring At Empty Pages” recently posted about email subject lines, he hit on one of my pet peeves. As he mentions, subject lines in email messages ought to be descriptive. I find they are rarely descriptive enough.

Some people are trained to think about their audience, and they’re used to the effort that goes into coming up with a succinct way to communicate. Subject lines, in a way, are like poetry — an extremely restrictive medium in which you have a chance to really showcase your communicative skill. But people rarely approach it as a challenge.

I won’t rehash all of the same ground as Barry. Instead, I’ll summarize my thoughts in a frightening list.

The 10 Commandments of Email Subjects

  1. Make sure your subject is relevant to your message and that it introduces the body.
    • But don’t start a sentence in the subject and continue it in the body.
    • Your subject is the first thing your recipient sees of your message. It should, at the very least, make sense.
  2. Fit your subject to every recipient on your To: and CC: list.
    • Consider each recipient and ask “will they understand what this subject means?”
  3. Don’t dazzle them with a joke that distorts what the message is about, nor shock them with what sounds like a frightening (but untrue) revelation.
    • Save your jokes for the body of the message.
    • And it’s annoying to be frightened by a subject that you find out was only a joke. If someone could react badly to your subject, try to think of what will happen if they see it on their way out of the office and don’t have time to read the body.
  4. Compete for attention with meaning.
    • Your message may be one of thousands in a person’s inbox. Your subject must be unique and meaningful because it is competing for attention. But in meaning-space, attention is not won by the loudest and most garish “IMPORTANT!!!!” subject. Rather, it is won by the most meaningful one.
  5. Make your subject help the reader decide when to read your message.
    • Busy people can’t always read every message immediately. A subject of “Your purchase confirmation number: 445396182” gives all the necessary info, and perhaps additional details can be found in the body.
    • A corollary: Make your subject help the reader know when to delete your message.
  6. Make your subject easy to find.
    • Both by human scanning in a list and by keyword filters
  7. No surprises
    • If there is some really important announcement in your email, don’t hide that with a vague subject. Your message may get overlooked, or given less-than-appropriate attention.
  8. Make subjects not too short and not too long.
    • Too short is when your subject doesn’t convey enough info. How long is too long? Remember that people will be skimming subjects as they look through their inbox.
  9. If you’re having trouble covering your entire message in one subject, maybe your message is too long and needs to be more than one message.
    • There’s nothing wrong with sending multiple, more precise messages. In fact, it’s better than long rambling ones.
  10. When you reply to a message, re-apply some thought to your subject
    • In multiple replies, sometimes a chain of messages can radically change subjects. Also, important information contained in a chain of replies becomes completely hidden. Was it that 3rd reply from Ralph where he explained how to log in to the new server or was it in the 7th?

I’m joking about the 10 Commandments bit. I don’t expect people to vet every subject they write through a list of carved-in-stone rules. No, the point of that list is to just get people thinking about subject lines, especially if they haven’t paid much attention to them in the past (and most people haven’t, in my experience). You’ll write better subjects if, as a general rule, you think from the perspective of the recipient.

I have more to say on the subject, but since it is less useful and more speculative, I’ll save it for a later, separate, more rambling post.

Technorati Tags:
, , , ,

Posted by James at February 7, 2007 9:13 AM
Create Social Bookmark Links

Mine often have vulgarity in there... where does that fall? :D

Posted by: pippa at February 7, 2007 10:27 AM

I kept yelling and yelling at my boss for not using ANY subject line (which is compounded by his using AOHEll and not having the previous message attached to replies). A typical email string would go like this:

From: Boss
To: MJ
Date: 1/1/07 10am
Subject: (blank)

Call Fred and tell him about XYZ.
From: MJ
To: Boss
Date: 1/1/07 10:01am
Subject: RE:(blank)

Do you mean Fred A at ABCD agency?

>> Call Fred and tell him about XYZ.

From: Boss
To: MJ
Date: 1/2/07 5:45pm [a day and a half and several unrelated emails later]
Subject: RE: (blank)


Yes? Yes WHAT? :wtf:

So I bugged the boss and now he finally uses subject lines. So now I see this in my inbox:

From: BOSS
To: MJ
Subject: STUFF

Sometimes the subject is MISC, just to mix things up a bit.

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at February 7, 2007 12:32 PM

Ouch, that's pretty bad.

Posted by: James at February 7, 2007 12:45 PM

I don't know about all of yinz, but I generally get over a hundred spam messages a day (probably related to having email addresses on public websites) so if people don't put a subject or put a subject that just says "hi" or "hello" or "mr. smallest ramrod of the year 2006" then I generally skip them.

But the first one on there, about starting a sentence in the subject and continuing it in the body annoys the fuck out of me. I don't see it in emails much, but I see it on blogs all the time where they allow (or force) comments to have a title.

Posted by: DG at February 7, 2007 2:48 PM

Blog and forum titles are the subject of a future post. But yes, a lot of blog software automatically takes the beginning of your post and turns it into a title, which is horrible. It's a big part of why I don't directly post my entries from Google Documents, which is where I edit most of them. GD doesn't seem to correctly carry the title of my document over as the title of my post.

I think I have violated every one of the items on my "email subject" list over the years. Learning the hard way.

Posted by: James at February 7, 2007 2:59 PM

I'm glad you liked my post, and thanks for the follow-up.

A point on your commandment 3, bullet 2: There've been a number of times (sadly, too many), when I've had ill friends who might have died at any time (and eventually did). It was tempting, when sending status updates to other friends, or when just saying something general about the sick friend, to just make the subject "Lance", for example. And as I started to type it I realized that someone just glancing at the subject might think, "OMG, Lance has died!" So I'd always put "Update on Lance" or "Funny story about Lance", or some such, to avoid alarming the recipients.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at February 7, 2007 10:57 PM

Sometimes the message you need to send is so succinct you can basically fit it in the subject. A lot of people I work with will do that sort of thing like this:

From: GWhiz
Subject: Working from home Thursday 3/1. 978-555-5555 [EOM]

The little "EOM" marker means end-of-message. That's a courtesy I appreciate because I know as soon as I've read the subject there's no reason to crack the message open, the contact info is right there, and after Thursday I can toss it... all right there in a subject that is not too long.

If you don't include it there's an assumption that there is more the sender wants to tell you, like, why they are home, or perhaps even instructions for you in their absence.

Posted by: Chuck S. at February 8, 2007 7:36 PM

Nice tip, Chuck. Quite right. And [EOM] is a common convention on forums where the most popular way to view threads is in a sort of "list view" which is very similar to the way we scan email.

It's perfect for the sort of message you cite, and more. And it has the added benefit of getting people to think about the subject as communication and not something superfluous.

I ought to add that I think these rules apply much more strongly to formal emails than they do friendly ones (although they're always good).

Posted by: James at February 8, 2007 8:20 PM

Chuck, do you still have our post about e-mail etiquette? Years back in the earlier days of Foliage, people sent all manner of things to the company mailing list. Invariably, someone would get pissed about something or other. Then someone else would suggest that people include [NI] or "Not Important" for non-work related messages. Chuck and I got in early one morning and put a bit of an exclamation point on the whole thing.

Posted by: briwei at February 8, 2007 9:59 PM

Yes I remember that Bri... naaah I have no idea where it is though. It was funny, tho. There was one guy, Joel IIRC, who was most likely to complain that a message should be marked [NI], so we added [NIJ] for "not important to Joel", and a bunch of other goofy stuff like that.

Posted by: Chuck S. at February 9, 2007 2:04 AM

I've never seen EOM (and when I look at it, I think OEM), but I've seen NT (No Text) used in the same way.

We had a problem here where people would sometimes post subjects like "Leaving at 11" and someone complained that they couldn't tell who the message was from unless they opened it. (I'm not sure why, since the default view includes the sender's name.) So after that, for a while, people started posting subjects like "Leaving at 11 THIS IS DOUG" or "Not-Doug leaving at 11." But that only lasted a short time. I can only assume that the original complainer has since learned how to display the FROM column in FirstClass.

Posted by: Julie at February 9, 2007 10:24 AM

When I see "EOM" I think of "Elephant Orchestra, Mogadishu."

OK - not really.

Posted by: James at February 9, 2007 11:07 AM

Heh. Nice use of Mogadishu. Reminds me of Acro. I miss that game.

Posted by: briwei at February 9, 2007 11:32 AM


Acro lives. In a clunky but playable form, anyway.

Posted by: Mike at February 9, 2007 1:02 PM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved