Effective emails: From subject lines to signatures

Since we retain so little of what we read it’s especially important to communicate effectively when we send emails. There is a lot that can be misinterpreted, especially when people are busy.

Subject Lines
People who get a lot of email scan the subject line to decide whether to open, forward, file, or trash a message. If your subject line is vague—or even worse, if it’s blank—you’ve missed your opportunity to inform or persuade your reader.

If you don’t put a subject line, you’re sending the message that your name in the “From” line is all your recipient should need to make it a top priority. This is arrogant and thoughtless. Take advantage of the opportunity to get your recipient thinking about your message before even opening it.

Over 35% of SPAM is detected from an email’s subject line. The definition of SPAM is irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent to large numbers of users. How much of your email that gets through SPAM filters is SPAM? A lot! How much of daily office email is irrelevant? A lot! Be considerate.

  • Subject Line: Important!  What is important to you may not be important to your reader. Rather than announcing that the secret contents of your message are important, write a headline that communicates the message: “Emergency: Cars in lower lot will be towed in 1 hour.”
  • Subject Line: Quick question  If the question is quick, why not ask it in the subject line?
  • Subject Line: Quick question  Particularly irritating is the email where the sender has left the subject line from an earlier email but the contents now have entirely changed to something new. It doesn’t help anyone to have a subject line that doesn’t relate to the message.
  • Subject Line: Follow up about Friday  Fractionally better—provided that the recipient remembers why a follow-up is necessary.
  • Subject Line: File you requested  If you’re confident that the recipient will recognize your email address and is really expecting a file, this would be fine. But remember, many people get virus-laden spam with titles like this. The more specific you are the more likely a spam-blocker will let your message through.

The general rule of thumb in email marketing is to keep your subject line to 50 characters or less. BUT, what if it’s being read on a smart phone? They get cut off at 20-25 characters. And it could be embarrassing. Test your subject lines.

There are online tools to check your subject lines on various email clients. Your emails and subject lines look different in Outlook on a desktop vs. Gmail vs. Yahoo! Mail, vs. on a Blackberry.

Here’s what the results of a subject line tester look like:subject line tester example

Greetings and Salutations
Email greetings and salutations matter. They are the bookends of what you want to communicate. Start and end your emails professionally. Be polite without being too familiar.

Greetings to avoid:
• Hey there,
• What’s up,
• To whom it may concern,

Better options:
• Dear,
• Greetings,
• Good morning,

Salutations to avoid:
• Cordially,
• Yours truly,
•  xoxo (and all derivatives)
• (none)

Better options:
• Kind regards,
• Sincerely,
• Thanks,

More on email sign-offs and etiquette can be found online, as well.

Email Signatures
Give the recipient information to contact you without having to look it up.
Sometimes a return phone call is warranted—or a visit to your office. Include phone, fax, physical address—whatever would be included on your business card.

Email signatures: Virginia Tech Style
The Virginia Tech Brand Guide specifies a preferred email signature. The font should be Ariel or Franklin Gothic and your title should be in bold.

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