Do your subject lines look like spam?

A lot of different things in the email inbox—not necessarily all work-related—are vying for a reporter’s attention. To compete successfully, you must first prove you’re a human being.

For good or for bad, lots of media relations work is done by email. We want journalists and producers to open and respond to our emails out of the hundreds they receive each day.

Beyond pitches, we’re competing against real life: stories they’re actively working on, demands from the boss, even emails from the spouse about home stuff.

It’s tough to be seen among such volume, so we media relations folks examine everything: What’s the best time to send an email? How much follow-up is OK? Is the pitch short enough? Are we on target, or is there a better person to pitch?

These days, we can tell within hours which Facebook ad is doing well for a social media client, but there isn’t such instant feedback available for media relations pitches. Short of hard data, though, here’s what I know regarding approaches to pitch subject lines:

Twitter is your friend

Spend a few minutes looking at someone’s feed before you pitch, even when you’ve already read/seen previous stories to know they are a good fit. (Yes, read those, too.)

Twitter might reveal whether their favorite sports team won this week, when they’re attending/covering a conference, or that they’re angry about the weather. Reference any tweeted clues in a subject line and in the opening sentences of your email, and you’ll show that you’re pitching another human being, not being robotic about the process.

You never know what little thing will begin or deepen a relationship.

Reference a recent story

Show that you’ve read their work. A format that can work in this way is, “From [insert subject of recent article] to [client issue]. Just recently, I wrote a subject line that read: “From real estate apps to car insurance tools.”

I found a freelancer who writes for a business journal network, and after reading a current piece, I wanted to let him know about a car insurance website should he do a similar roundup story down the line.

Granted, he is a new contact for me, so I don’t yet know whether I will break through. I’m hoping the reference to that story will open the door and begin an exchange.

Demonstrate your knowledge/offering

Anne Fisher, who writes small-business resource pieces like this for CNNMoney and is known for her “Ask Annie” column, is a godsend for PR pros because she does read at least the first few lines of every email. (THP thanks you, @anbfisher!)

That puts a little less pressure on having the perfect subject line, but you can help yourself, Anne tells me: “A subject line that says, ‘[Type of company] founder tells how s/he manages remote workers’ (or finds cheap office space, or…whatever the biz owner’s pet topic may be), for instance, will *always* cause me to drop everything to read that email.”

So, we’re back to having to be on target again, knowing a person’s coverage areas and fitting within that framework. Yes, being an “informed pitcher” is rule No. 1.

After you work so hard on the pitch itself, what are your own guidelines and tricks for a subject line that gets an open?

A version of this story originally appeared on the Hodges Partnership blog, The Gong.

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