I spent the entire week updating my résumé and writing the perfect cover letter, the day tweaking my LinkedIn and Twitter profiles to be just right for the job I was applying to, and HOURS crafting the email I hoped would get me the job.
I’m sure you’ve been in that position too—refreshing your email inbox every 15 minutes hoping for a response that just never comes.
Whether you’re applying for a job or just trying to get your boss to answer a question, a lot can hang on a simple email. Getting people to open, read, and answer your emails could mean the difference between staying stuck at your boring job with the fluorescent lights and the copy machine and getting hired as a Ruby developer. Or going unnoticed for your hard work and getting a raise.
As annoying as it is when people ignore your emails, it goes both ways. How many times have you received an email and let it sit unread in your inbox all afternoon, and then all week, until it finally disappears into the abyss of your inbox? Heck, right at this moment I’m staring down the barrel of an inbox with 13 emails I want to read and answer, but just haven’t gotten to yet. And that’s not even including the newsletters. (::gulp::)
But I have a secret weapon that can get you out of that waiting game: subject lines.
Think about it. Before someone can even think about answering your email, they have to open it. And before they open it? They see your subject line.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m much more likely to open an email that says “Free stuff inside just for you! (time sensitive)” than I am to open one that says “2 quick favors please.”
It might seem strange to focus on subject lines, but in reality, they’re a lot like headlines on blog posts and news articles—the subject line or headline is all you see before you decide to read a post or email, or ignore it.
According to a Quicksprout study by Neil Patel, 8 out of 10 people will read headlines while only 2 out of 10 will read the articles behind them. According to that study, “a writer should spend half the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline.” Half!
Those numbers might not correlate directly with email, but I’m willing to bet that tweaking your subject line could improve your “click-through rate.”
Why You Ignore Emails
But before we dive into exactly how to craft the perfect subject line, let’s talk about EXACTLY what makes us ignore emails, even when we don’t mean to. I want my own emails to be read (and answered! promptly!), so why do I fail so miserably at handling inbox overload? A few reasons:
- I’m busy.
Most often? I’m doing a million and 1 other things besides checking my email, so unless the subject line says URGENT URGENT NOW NOW, or I was anticipating the email, it’s going on the backburner.
- I’m stressed.
If the email is about a stressful topic, like paying a bill, scheduling something, or dealing with a conflict, I’ll do anything to push it off.
- I’m annoyed.
ANOTHER reminder about something I don’t care about? The 15th email from the same sender this week? Yawn.
- I’m already drowning in emails.
There are just too many emails! I don’t see them all, especially if a catchy subject line doesn’t speak to me.
I’m sure you can sympathize.
Easy Tips to Get Your Emails Read
But there are plenty of ways to get around these barriers, and aside from changing your name to Taylor Swift, your best bet is to up your subject line game.
Luckily, there is a TON of research out there about what kinds of headlines get more clicks.
For example, I’m sure you’ve noticed how many “listicles” are out there these days (55 reasons puppies are cuter than kittens). That’s not just an Internet phenomenon—it’s based on relentless testing and data (by people like me!).
Here are some of the top findings YOU need to know about what kinds of headlines work:
According to Patel, “People want to increase efficiency, [and] seeing a numbered list (easy steps) fulfills this need.”
In the context of an email subject line, that means changing “Need your help on this” to “2 questions about the meeting.”
It’s also better to use digits rather than spelling out numbers.
In my experience crafting headlines for Skillcrush, using the word “you” gets higher click rates.
In email, that means changing the subject line, “2 questions about the meeting,” to “2 questions for you about the meeting.”
Mysteries make people nervous. Unless you’re trying to use a cliffhanger, like “you’ll never believe this” (which I wouldn’t recommend for most personal or professional emails), the more specific you can be about what’s inside, the better.
That means changing the subject line, “2 questions for you about the meeting” to “2 questions for you about the marketing meeting.”
You know when people stop procrastinating? When the deadline is near. Make sure your email doesn’t let the reader push it to the back of her mind.
In an email, that means changing our subject line “2 questions for you about the marketing meeting” to “2 questions for you about today’s marketing meeting.”
To stand out in someone’s inbox, you need a subject line that looks different than the others. Using unique words or phrases can help catch your reader’s eye.
Depending on the culture at your office, that could mean changing a subject line from “Do you need a better content marketer?” to “Do you need a more effective content marketer?”
Your Emails Will Get Read If They…
But just adding all the right components won’t do it—you also need to make sure your subject line resonates with your reader. I talked to my team about what kinds of subject lines make us open emails, whether they’re from someone else on our team or a job applicant. We agreed we were most likely to open emails that:
Even CEOs like the I Haz Cheezburger cat. Say you want to show your boss all the research you’ve put into a project. Get them interested by saying, “Look what I discovered about our users” rather than, “My data findings.”
The big dilemma with email is that it is usually urgent to YOU, the sender. The trick is getting your recipient to think (or realize) it’s urgent as well. So instead of asking, “Can you get this to me in 4 hours?” try “Before your 3:00 meeting.”
This point is particularly important when it comes to job application emails. If you can make your subject line seem helpful rather than stressful, you’ve made a big step.
Plenty of job listings ask for a specific email subject line, but if your job listing doesn’t, try changing something like “Application for the Junior Developer Position” to “I can use data to get you more customers.”
You’ll just have to use your best judgment to decide if a nontraditional subject line like the above is appropriate.
Highly specific subject lines are best for negative or stressful messages. So “our payment system is down” beats out “I think something is wrong.
Mysterious subject lines are best for neutral topics or very positive topics. So, “you won’t believe our stats!” beats “Today’s numbers.” And “About our conversation yesterday…” wins over “Following up on our conversation.”
Tools You Can Use for Better Emails–Now!
If all of this feels a little overwhelming, that’s okay. Even if you only apply 1 or 2 of these techniques, I’m willing to bet you’ll notice a change in how frequently and quickly people answer your emails.
But if you want something more concrete, here are 2 tools you can use.
Writer Jeff Goins suggests following a simple formula when it comes to headlines:
Number or Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise
For email subject lines, I would modify that to be something like:
Number or trigger word + Keyword + “you” + time/urgency.
Ex) 3 Reviews You Should See Before Monday
Ex) Do you need these 2 links before the meeting?
Another great tool to use to write better subject lines is a headline analyzer. These are my 2 favorite headline analyzers on the Internet. If you enter your subject line, they’ll give you a score, plus tell you about your subject line’s emotional value.
Advanced Marketing Institute’s Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer
CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer
Now, before you become your office’s least favorite spammer, or the weirdest job applicant a hiring manager has ever encountered, there’s a caveat: context. If a headline feels weird, chances are, it is. Try playing with these tricks a little at a time, and see if you notice a change.