October 5, 2019 / Esther Choy

email subject lines take time to craft

Knowing that the first few lines of an email have to catch the audience’s attention, Michelle Garza, Manager of Diagnostic Imaging and CT at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, set out to intrigue her email audience.

“On July 1, 2017,” she wrote, “Lurie Children’s Hospital implemented a new policy on PSL. PSL doesn’t stand for Pumpkin Spice Latte of course, it actually stands for Personal Sick Leave.”

Simple yet clever. The equation of Personal Sick Leave days and Pumpkin Spice Lattes was so funny to Michelle’s team that they created magnets that they pull out whenever someone calls in sick. The magnets turn the Pumpkin Spice Latte into a mascot who wears sunglasses, jumps in puddles, goes skydiving, reads books and dresses up for Halloween. Talking about personal sick leave is no longer boring or stressful in this department at Lurie!

But what if your audience never even opens this email? How do you intrigue them right from the very beginning–the moment your email lands in their inbox? How do you write subject lines that make someone want to open the email in the first place?


Two tips:

1. Make it specific: Indicate what the goal or ask might be.

Some examples:

  • “Article on [recipient’s area of expertise] for Forbes”: A member of my team crafted this subject line in order to connect me with a subject matter expert to interview for a recent Forbes article. The subject matter expert replied 13 minutes after the email was sent! Why? Maybe it caught him right as he was sitting at his desk and he likes to respond quickly. But maybe he recognized, just from the subject line, that this request presented him with an opportunity to have his name and insights appear in Forbes, and he wanted to jump on that opportunity.
  • “How to Implement Meaningful Change on Your Campus”: This email marketing campaign was an invitation for readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education to read an in-depth report–but instead of starting with “hey, read our report!” they lead with what the readers will get out of it. Very effective!
  • “[Name of organization] fundraiser help needed”: This includes the specific ask, and it is from a nonprofit that one of the LSL team members volunteers with on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, the subject line included an acronym of the nonprofit’s name, rather than the full name, so the recipient didn’t realize what it was about! She almost marked it as spam! Once she realized what the acronym stood for, she was eager to help and opened the email right away. Takeaway: know your audience! What name do they know you by? What will gain their trust?
  • “Feast Like a King Or Queen for Sunday’s Finale.” This email from The Fresh Market, designed to coincide with the Game of Thrones finale, makes a specific promise: shop at our store and you’ll have a feast. The rest of the email is cleverly written and crafted to match the Game of Thrones theme, so, as an effective email should, it delivers on what has hooked the reader’s attention.
  • “All Hands on Deck for the Next Sales Deck”: This is the subject line that kicked off a project for a client’s sales deck used by its team of around 450 people. It signals the urgency, importance and has a small word play.
  • “Chicago Connection” or “Reena, meet Darin”: Our COO, Reena, says that subject lines with “meet” or “connection” always catch her attention. With subject lines like this, there’s no guesswork about what it’s about–and an invitation to network is often intriguing.

2. Keep it mysterious: Make it not quite clear what the email is about.

Some examples:

  • “We prefer ‘To Be Continued’ over ‘The End.’” Our friends at the meetings and special events venue Catalyst Ranch are pros at creating subject lines that inspire curiosity. Can you guess what this email is about? It’s about how they re-purpose objects like vintage wardrobes in order to spark attendees’ curiosity. So that object’s life is “to be continued” rather than ending in a landfill! That’s not what one would guess from the subject line, and that’s a good thing! Customers will be impressed with their creativity and eager to book their events there.
  • “Can big data kill creativity?” Framing this as a question keeps just enough mystery so that the recipient wanted to open the email and see what it was all about. This was, it turned out, an invitation to comment on a LinkedIn post. But instead of starting with, “Can you please comment on my LinkedIn post?” the sender started with the topic of the LinkedIn post.

An intriguing, riveting and satisfying email takes time to craft. If no one opens the email, all that effort is wasted! So the extra time spent crafting an attention-getting subject line is well worth it.

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If you need to hook your audience in an email, give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary communication training consultation today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide. Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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