The secrets to great internal email subject lines

Over the years, corporate communicators and communication experts have figured out some of the secret ingredients that drive people to open email messages.

This is the second article in a four-part content series on internal email measurement. This series, in partnership with PoliteMail, will offer tips and multiple ways to improve your internal email communications.

Your email messages to employees and newsletters might have the most compelling content in the world, but if the subject line doesn’t induce readers to click and open them, what does it matter?

Subject lines are the first—and sometimes the last—things people see when they open their inbox, so if you’re looking for readership, they’re highly important. With that in mind, asked some communicators and consultants with lots of email experience to share what they know about great subject lines.

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The value of ‘you’ and ‘me’

Email copywriting consultant Christine Brady says one word can increase open rates across every type of business: “you.” It can’t be thrown around lightly, though, she says, offering two examples: “You are not going to believe the latest news on subject lines,” and “How your subject lines can make you famous.”

“The word ‘you’ is used in both of them, but the second one packs a punch and speaks directly to ‘you,’ as in, the reader,” she says.

The second line also answers the all-important question, “What’s in it for me?”

“Who wouldn’t want to become famous for a subject line?” Brady asks. “It captures their attention to pull them into reading the rest of your compelling email copy.”

Chris Close, communications director at real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, says his subject lines often condense the headlines of the first few stories in a newsletter, but he tries to cherry-pick the stories that answer the “me” question.

“We try to put what we believe will be the stories that will be the most engaging to our employees—based largely on our data about similar stories—at the top of our newsletters so that they show up in our subject line,” he says.

SEO style

Christine Whone, co-founder of communication design firm Actually, says communicators should take the same approach to email that they do to search engine optimization.

“It’s important to include keywords from the body of the email into the subject line, so that the recipient can use the search tool in the email client to find a specific email at a later date,” she says.

If the email is about an invoice, the subject line can be pretty simple. Just “invoice” and perhaps a client’s name, Whone says. But if it’s about a specific project, such as one she’s involved with involving moving about 3,000 jewelry images from one server to another, it’s a little more complex. Whone suggests, “Content migration of product images including keyword metadata and URL mapping.”

General tips

The worst subject lines are the blank ones, Whone says.

“I often get these from clients, which make it difficult for me to locate specs, guidelines, agendas, procedures, etc., at a later date,” she says.

Also bad are email replies that keep the original subject line but have deviated substantially from the topic, Whone says.

Brad Langford, communication manager of integrated marketing for Cisco systems, says he tries to make every subject line a call to action.

“Typically I try to use action verbs, like ‘action required,’ ‘register now,’ ‘watch this video,’ ‘please read,'” he says.

Communications strategist Becky Gaylord says a great subject line has a few key ingredients: They’re short, specific, intriguing, or unique, and they offer some value or insight.

Close says one particular phrase in a subject line always gets attention from his employees: “job listings.”

PoliteMail Software provides corporate communications teams with email measurement, metrics and management tools for Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. For more information, please visit (Image via)

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