401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

Running business on email: The mighty subject line

Email has become the message medium of our age. Just as we learned how to address and stamp an envelope, just as we learned how to fill out a FedEx form, we are now – still – learning how to use email effectively to run our businesses, and to buy and sell products and services.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time this week talking about how frustrating it is when someone doesn’t do what I’m about to recommend. Suffice it to say that stream-of-consciousness, flaky subject lines don’t help you manage your business or increase your revenues.

What is really happening – and we all know this, because we are experiencing it every day – is all activities, and all communication about activities, happen via email. It’s become the central communication tool for all projects.

That being the case, the subject line has become the “tab” on our electronic filing folders, which we are using to organize our business and our work. When you want to find something, alphabetized subject lines are the best way to find it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve appreciated the vendor, manager, employee, or client who understands this and uses a subject line effectively. In less than a second you can find exactly what you’re looking for.

Contrast that experience with the one where people have continued to re-use a tired, old, subject line for a string of replies. It says, “Should we talk on Wednesday?” Long after that “Wednesday” conversation occurred, the “talk on Wednesday” subject line survives. The lengthening chain of emails with that subject line contain conversations and decisions about dozens of unrelated topics.

If you’re just having an email discussion with a friend, it’s fine to reuse a subject line. If you’re using email to do business, it’s ridiculous and rude to reuse a subject line.

The first word in a subject line is the most important. “Should we talk on Wednesday?” uses a meaningless word as the first word. The subject line in this case should have been “Website changes – meeting – Wednesday?”

When you’re managing a large project, subject lines are so important that you should even go to the trouble of having someone make up a list of acceptable subject lines, or a set of guidelines for subject lines that allow for some flexibility, or simply a system that you follow. Sounds crazy, but you’ll love it when you’re trying to find an email on a particular aspect of the project, and the correct subject line leads you right to everything on it.

For example, let’s say that you’re instructing someone to create something complex. You’re having a lot of discussions – and making a lot of decisions – about how they should make it and what they should put into it. Your subject line system could be set up so you always list the “Item” first, then the subsystem in the finished product where the item will be located, then the attribute of the item being discussed.

Using an example we can all relate to, if you were having someone build a house, your email to the builder about the bathroom sink would be entitled:

Bathroom – sink – countertop possibilities


Bathroom – sink – countertop decision

When it was time for the builder to focus on the bathroom sink, he’d be able to sort his emails by subject line, find the bathroom sink emails, and even know what’s inside the email without having to open it up. He’d know if a decision was made or if the issue had not yet been resolved.

When creating your subject line guidelines, the nature of your business – or the task you are working on – will make it clear which words should begin the subject line. Categorization of information has become one of the most important skills you can develop as you build and grow your business using electronic communication and information systems.

Of course, getting this right will mean you will have to pay attention to the subject line when you begin to compose an email – or a response to an email. That’s tough sometimes, given how rushed we all are, but it pays off in spades if you discipline yourself to do it. And whoever gets the email from you will appreciate that you took an extra minute to construct a useful subject line.

All of us open emails that we just can’t respond to immediately. We’re in the middle of something else, or the email that was sent requires more concentration or more information than we are able to apply at that moment. So, we put it aside. Sometimes it gets closed inadvertently, so it is no longer “open” and “waiting,” but filed away in one of your email folders. When you are reminded to go looking for that email, you have to be able to find it quickly. You can waste scarce working day time searching for it (even using the “search” function doesn’t always get you right to it), or you can just use a proper subject line and go to it immediately.

When I look at what PR people do with their subject lines, it reminds me of someone who hasn’t yet learned how to address and put a stamp on an envelope. I get dozens of these releases a day. Why don’t they put the name of the company as the first word in the subject line? That way, when I went to find that release, I could simply look for the company name. Why don’t they then show the subject of the release? As in:

3M – PostIts – Electronic – New Product

As I type this, I can hear marketers groaning. How uncreative! How boring! Well, how about, “How USEFUL.” I mean, what’s the point of sending out a release if someone can’t find it later, doesn’t know who it’s from, or what it’s really about? No one is going to be dazzled by your creativity. They’ve seen it all anyway – a thousand times. Email is a tool for them, not a place for you to prove how clever you are.

Emails are working documents that are used to provide instructions, describe things, clarify things, answer questions, help someone understand how to do something and when you expect it to be done, and more. It’s the main tool we all use to keep the ball rolling as we manage projects, sell our products or services, or buy products and services from others. It’s a system, and all systems work best when best practices are created, followed, and enforced.

Those of you who have signed up to receive Revenue Journal articles via email know that every single issue has “Revenue Journal” in the subject line. Yes, that takes up precious subject line space. But if you want to find an article later, you know exactly what to do. The email is also set up so that if you want to comment or reply, you simply have to hit the reply button, and the email will come right to me. How is your company’s email newsletter set up?

It’s time all of us in business learned how to “address and stamp our envelopes.” Nothing matters as much as the subject line – including your carefully crafted messages. If they can’t figure out what the message is about, because you’ve used a “creative,” vague subject line, they’ll never open the message. And, if they have opened the message, and they want to find it again later, the subject line is the sign they need pointing the way.

If you’re asking people to do things for you, your logical, well-designed subject lines will help them to have everything they need at their fingertips, when they do that work for you. Think of the efficiencies we could all introduce to our businesses if we never again sent very important messages hidden beneath very meaningless subject lines.

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