Subject Line is Key to E-mails with Impact

Last Updated Dec 8, 2009 9:18 AM EST

How can you make sure your e-mail is read and acted upon? Most tips are pretty straightforward: Be concise, request a specific action, avoid adding CC recipients.

Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman has an idea I've never heard before. Streamline your entire message so it can fit on the Subject line, and keep the body of the message blank.

Example: Subject: "FYI, I'm going to make one more quick pass through the case draft tonight, then send it to you for your mark-ups."

This idea sounded crazy to me. So I tried it by sending that subject line to a couple of my own e-mail accounts. And I have to say, this tactic does make your e-mail stand out, and the reader gets the gist right away. It's tough to ignore the message. Try it yourself.

He tells the Boston Globe:

"I also find that having an informative and concise subject line is great for getting strangers' attention. It's far more likely that they'll see the content without even opening the e-mail,'' making it great for users of BlackBerrys and other mobile devices.
I see two shortcomings with this approach. An e-mail without a message can be flagged as junk mail, so you have to be sure your e-mail address is trusted by your recipient.

The second downside is that when I get an e-mail missing a body, I automatically think it was a mistake by the sender. So if you try this, add an <eom> (end of message) at the end of the subject line message.

BTW, recent research shows that when you send an e-mail to a group of people, there is less chance that anyone will respond. So another key to getting your e-mail read and acted upon is to send it to the one person who can make a difference.

Are you a creative user of the Subject line? Share some tips!

Related article from BNET:

Stress Ball: Are You Run Over by E-Mail
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  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.