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Email Subjects: Specific vs. Vague

What type of email subject gets your attention?

This week I deleted 1226 messages from my email inbox. Viewing their subject lines, I was reminded of what typically makes me read a message: specificity–something specific in the subject.

These are specific email subjects from my inbox:

How to transition to the virtual classroom – an E-book [from a company called NetSpeed Learning Solutions]

2012 Global Ebook Awards Now Open for Submissions [from Dan Poynter, Para Publishing]

The Reader – Expanding rail in Seattle [from our mayor]

The Reader – Important update on budget priorities [another example from the mayor]

The specific subjects offer me something. If I am interested in the virtual classroom, e-book awards, expanding rail in Seattle, or the city's budget priorities, I will read the message. The subject got my attention and quick consideration.

Compare these vague subject lines:

Announcement from XYZ Company [I have disguised the company name]

Digest Number 603 [from a professional organization, listing a job opening]

Digest Number 605 [from the same association, listing a job opening]

Your Confirmation [from a hotel]

Those, I ignore. The "XYZ Company" regularly sends me its vaguely labeled announcements, and I never read them. How important can an announcement be if it doesn't even merit a specific name?

The "Digests" each list one job opening. Why couldn't the sender include the job name in the subject? That would get me to open it and perhaps forward it to others.

I did open and read "Your Confirmation" because I had reserved a hotel room and was expecting such an email. But I wonder why the hotel did not include its own name in the subject. Doing so would have instantly informed me and would have later made it easier for me to find the message by subject.

What type of subject do you prefer on the emails you receive?

I wish you a productive, rewarding 2013. I am off to a good start, deleting, deleting, deleting.

Syntax Training

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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.

12 comments on “Email Subjects: Specific vs. Vague”

  • The subject line is the most important element in any email. It’s the “grabber” that pulls the reader into the body of the email. Copywriters spend hours on the subject line — that’s how important it is. Otherwise, the reader will hit the delete button. If you have the time, you could try doing a split test of two different email subject lines to see which pulls best.

  • Hi, McClain. It is easy and fairly inexpensive to do A-B testing with subject lines. I can do it with my Aweber email mailing service. You just need a sizeable subscriber list and the right email service.

    Thanks for the link to the article about the Obama campaign’s testing of email subjects. I was shocked to see that the vague subject “Hey” pulled in millions of dollars. I am certain that is one message I instantly deleted.

    Depending on which class you teach, I think focusing on giving a clear, concise, specific subject might be more helpful for students than thinking about what gets results in a huge campaign. I don’t think you would want to encourage them to use “Hey” as a subject, would you?

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Hi, Jeannette. Thanks for suggesting the split test. I believe I will try that for my next newsletter later this month. I will make a note to report on which subject line inspired more opened emails.

    I am certain my subject won’t be vague!


  • How common (or rude) it is to write the whole message in in the subject line? I keep getting such emails (mostly intra-office emails) and at first they seem stupid but they seem to make the job done (especially when you need to go over a couple hundred emails a day).

  • I look at both the subject and the sender of an e-mail. The “Hey” subject worked because it was from an organization of interest to me, not a spammer.

    If an e-mail concerns an upcoming event, usually I include the date in the subject (usually including the day of the week) to orient the reader. This is often lacking in the mails I receive.

    A related question: The pros and cons of editing the subject of an e-mail for clarity before replying.

  • The email that alerted me to the presence of this column had only “Business Writing” as its subject line. That’s not very specific.

  • Hi, George. Thanks for your view of the “Hey” subject from the Obama campaign. You are right: The sender can make all the difference.

    Putting the date of an event in the subject is a great suggestion. Of course, one must also include the date again in the body of the message. Otherwise, people may not find it!

    You may enjoy the discussion of changing the subject in two posts on this blog. One is “Efficient Update of an Email Subject Line”:

    The other is “Don’t Change the Subject!”:

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your views.


  • J. Venis, you are correct. When I upload a blog post, an email automatically goes to blog subscribers, and the subject is always the name of the blog. In my case, all the emails will have Business Writing as the subject.

    I wish I could tamper with that feature so I could give you the title of the specific post. I am hoping that subscribers will be willing to open the message and read the title.

    Thanks for helping me recognize the reason some subjects may be vague.


  • Good points Lynn! I need to go read your blog posts about changing the subject line, as I do that quite frequently.

    Specific subject lines are much better if you must go back and find a specific email, so I try to return the favor and use specific subjects. It sure helps when I’m looking for an email, amidst all my colleague’s subject lines like “Another thing from the meeting…” or “You might remember this…”

    Thanks for the help, Lynn!

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