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Does “Free” Work in an Email Subject Line?

Last week in my monthly e-newsletter, I listed a few email subject lines and asked subscribers to identify which ones answered the question “So what?” for readers. Here are the first five subjects:

  1. February Insider
  2. Potatoes
  3. Free Infoline Attached
  4. The Secret to “On Time and Under Budget” 
  5. Essay Contest! Opportunity to Attend the YES Leadership Summit in California

I said numbers 3, 4, and 5 answered the question “So what?” for me, and that is why I opened them.

A quality engineer named John wrote to warn me about number 3. Here are his comments:

“Your suggested email subject lines include an example that may tell why a recipient would want to open and read the email, yet almost certainly should not do so.  A subject line that only says, “Free <insert any noun> Attached” is almost certainly spam.  Many spam filters would quarantine this message before an intended reader ever saw it.  Opening “Free” attachments is an excellent way to infect a computer with viruses.”

I thanked John for his reminder and explained why I would open “Free Infoline Attached”: It was from ASTD National, one of my professional organizations. I was familiar with ASTD and their “infolines,” and getting one free appealed to me. 

But John’s advice is worthwhile. Before including “Free” in subject lines, think about whether your message will be blocked by a spam filter. If your reader doesn’t know you well, will he or she just click Delete?

Or will your reader, like me, be pleased to get a useful item at no cost?

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.