Re: Fwd: URGENT!

How to make sure your e-mails are read: it’s all in the subject line.

By Julian Sancton


Accentuate the Negative

“I’ll open anything that sounds like it’s about to damage my business,” says Richard Fine, founder of pharmaceutical startup Help Remedies. “I once received an e-mail ... that said something like ‘Help Remedies recall.’ It was about recall policy or something, but by God did I open that thing within 5 seconds.”

Only Connect

Establish a bond. Nine and a half years ago, as a self-described “nobody,” Warren Adelman e-mailed Go Daddy founder Bob Parsons out of the blue. Subject: “How I Know You.” He got the interview. A decade later, Adelman’s the CEO.

Less Is More

A recent study by e-mail marketer MailerMailer, which analyzed a trove of 977 million messages, concluded that shorter subject lines attract more clicks. (More than 50 characters and you’re wasting your time.)

Referred by ______

Fine: “I will go on LinkedIn, I will find somebody within my network who knows [the recipient]. I’ll write them and say ‘Would it be OK if I ... use your name?’ Providing they say ‘Yes’ I then use the line, ‘Help referred by blah-di-blah.’ I can’t think of a time that hasn’t worked.”

Re: What Again?

Tacking “Re:” in front of a subject line can backfire. “Our company has 60 people, so I’ll sometimes glaze over [e-mails with ‘Re:’],” says Brod. “I’ll always open something that seems fresh, unless I’ve asked somebody a question.”

Curate Your Recipients

The smaller the list of recipients, the more likely the e-mail will be read, according to the MailerMailer study. “If you put more than one person in the ‘To:’ then you’re basically allowing people to say ‘Oh, that [other] person must be dealing with it.’”

No Sex, Please

Even if you have a legitimate business reason to use explicit words like “sex” or “penis,” avoid them. They’re almost certain to be caught by spam filters.

[No Subject]

Bold but risky. “The lack of anything in the subject line is close to meriting an automatic ... delete,” says venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki. Adelman agrees: “At Go Daddy, if you get a message with no subject line, you can delete it.”


While it’s polite to say hello, it’s not always sufficient for subject lines. “That’s too familiar,” says PR maven Alison Brod, “and it could be perceived as spam.” Adds Adelman: “Those kinds of personal admonitions tend not to make the cut.”

Be Important

There’s an inverse correlation between how powerful you are and how clever your subject lines need to be. “I try to be direct in the subject line,” Adelman says. “I have an advantage: I’m the CEO, so there’s a higher propensity for them to open it.”


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