When should you write the subject line of an email?
July 10, 2021 6:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm seeing a lot of sources saying to write the subject line first, then write the email. But in copywriting, it's the opposite; you write the piece first, then write 20+ titles til you find the best one. Isn't email copywriting just copywriting writ small? What's the best way to go about subject lines? (I'm working on an article on writing emails that click and convert.)
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It might depend on the purpose and audience of the e-mail, such as friends and family, colleagues, etc.
posted by NotLost at 6:53 AM on July 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Are you writing emails or sales newsletters/spam that happen to go out via email? When I think email I think person-to-person communications. I'm not sure what "click and convert" means, but it sounds like a sales term. If you're talking about writing email newsletters or spam messages then copywriting rules probably apply, if you're talking about writing to people you're on a first name basis with then it probably doesn't matter.

On preview, what NotLost said.
posted by tiamat at 6:56 AM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Write 20 titles until you find the best one? Most of my e-mails contain fewer than 20 lines.

Perhaps it's a question of how pointed the e-mail is. For work, I stick to a one-topic-per-message system, which I believe makes it easier for the recipient to manage their e-mail. Keep the topic in the subject line, so that search (by search box or by eyeball) is simple.

I get more long-winded with friends. ("How ya doin'? Finished workin' on the yard this mornin'. Lotta weather we're havin' lately.") No one's saving those e-mails for later reference, so a general subject ("Just Checkin' In!") is OK.

About the only people that fuss over e-mail subject headers are spammers, who tend to give themselves away immediately with their over-heated style. ("Your AMAZON Account has been inactivated! ACT NOW to re-activate" from "xyz123@hotmail.com".)
posted by SPrintF at 7:05 AM on July 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

I typically will write the subject line first in an email, regardless of audience. When I'm reading emails, I appreciate when they convey the main theme directly. So: "Meeting Agenda for next Thursday" or "dinner on Tues?" or "Your order has shipped." I get about 100 emails a day between work and personal inboxes, so short and to-the-point is what matters most to me.

When I see an email with an opaque or creative or punny title, it's an indicator that someone is trying to sell me something, like Old Navy's "BRRRRING ON THE OUTERWEAR SALE." It's off-putting and I tend to hit unsubscribe or mark as spam.
posted by basalganglia at 7:10 AM on July 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Given your question and tags, I'm assuming you're talking about marketing/sales emails.

I don't think there is, or needs to be, a set rule. You do what works best for you. Personally, if it's something that's going out to a large audience or something where impressions count, it really doesn't matter if I wrote the subject line first thing or last - either way I'll be reviewing it, and the email body, before it goes out, asking myself if it's the best match for the impression I want to make.

Sometimes I start with a subject line to help keep myself on message. Sometimes I can't think of a good one so I'll leave it blank or just write a basic subject as a placeholder and improve it when I'm done. Sometimes I'll read the email I've written and realize the subject I started with could be sharper or more relevant, or that the subject and body don't match as well as they could and I should adjust one or the other.

If it's part of a larger campaign I might also do things like compare it to previous emails. Maybe I'm keeping data on what kinds of subject lines have gotten the best results in the past. The point is effectiveness, and the process you follow to be effective is going to vary based on field of activity, audience, personality, mood, etc. For that reason I'd focus in your article more on how to evaluate whether a subject line will be effective than on prescribing details of process that are relatively individual and superficial. You can always put in an aside about how some people like to do it this way, some people like to do it another way, etc.
posted by trig at 7:28 AM on July 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: 99% of the emails I‘m writing are for work. I usually write the subject line first, whose sole purpose is to actually get the person to read it, so they are usually quite short, only a few words. Same for the contents - I try to be as brief as possible or no one reads them. I‘ve learned being a little blunt and getting straight to the point and dispensing with pleasantries or superfluous language Leads to much better results.
posted by Aranquis at 7:31 AM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When did you write the title of this post?
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:32 AM on July 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'll chime in as someone who is in the habit of writing the subject last, including on Metafilter posts. I don't think it's because I read anything suggesting that I do that, but mostly because I find it easier to find the exact right language once I've finished drafting the note.

It's also probably because I add the recipient emails last, right before sending. That I will say is something I do recommend strongly -- more than once I have avoided sending an incomplete email that way.
posted by andrewesque at 7:43 AM on July 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: For MailChimp-type campaigns, I typically write it last, when I've written the content already and have a good idea of what I want to highlight.

For work/personal emails, I write it first, helps me stay on-message. Plus it's part of the flow of the page itself: recipients, then subject, then message.
posted by tinydancer at 8:20 AM on July 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Write the email content first. Then write a subject line that encapsulates the content and states the benefits:

Three tips to increase email conversions

Then A/B test:

Three tips to increase email conversions
Increase conversions with these three tips!

Then send the winner out.

Unless you're in pharma, BigLaw, government of any level, etc I'd consider adding an emoji at the end of the subject line 📈

Ignore all anecdata about subject lines. Only listen to the statistics. Subject line data is extremely well researched and there is plenty of statistical information to guide a best practice article.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:20 AM on July 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

I have a friend who sends me emails with a blank subject line. It could be something about his email program, but I think he just forgets.

I think writing the subject first is just from the notion of working down the page, maybe with a touch of "don't forget".
posted by SemiSalt at 8:28 AM on July 10, 2021

I used to write fundraising emails and I always wrote the subject lines last. Plural because you always A/B test a few.
posted by lunasol at 9:01 AM on July 10, 2021

As others have said, it really depends on the purpose. I read and write so many emails at work (non-marketing) that I hate email outside of work (it's so bad that my family will text me if they emailed me something they think I should actually open and read). For personal, I keep it as short as I can (both the subject and the email itself). And if a family member/friend can't bother to open the email regardless of what subject I gave it, I may not bother emailing them again. The relationship should normally overrule the effectiveness of the subject. Just seeing it's from me, simply the relationship I have with the recipient, should really be enough to open it.

For work, I don't need to put much thought into it when emailing someone across the room from me. If I need to know where a report is, I'll give it a subject of "Widget report." If I need a handbook updated, I'll use "Handbook update." Just 2-3 words of what it's about, nothing more, nothing less. I don't need anything pithy. As soon as I click "New Email," I know why I clicked the button and I can give it a subject based on that. I don't need the subject to induce them to click the email and open it, like I would in marketing.

Out of habit, I put the subject in second, after the recipients and before the content, but that's just going straight down the fields. Outlook and other programs put the recipients at the top, the subject in the middle, and the body at the bottom. If they changed the order and put the subject at the bottom, then after sending a dozen emails without a subject, I would get into that new habit and start putting the subject last.

All that said, I have a background in writing. For longer-form writing, I would give it a placeholder title at the beginning and then likely change the title when I'm done writing it. But it's a different format of writing and a different purpose (and audience). With long-form, there is usually no guarantee the recipient/audience/reader will open it and read it. Or even if there is, like a paper for a professor, you still want the title to stand out. With email, there is a guarantee if the recipient knows me personally. I think that's probably what most of it comes down to - does the recipient know you personally? If they do, they will open it, I promise. If they don't, then yes, you may need to use the subject to convince them to open it. And in that case, put more thought into it.
posted by Meldanthral at 9:33 AM on July 10, 2021

Completely not for copywriting reasons, but I write the subject last. I do this to prevent accidental sending before its finished - most email clients will prompt you if you send an email without a subject.
posted by cgg at 9:54 AM on July 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

For important messages, I usually find it most helpful to write the subject first and then explicitly go back to edit it (if necessary) after drafting the message body (similar to what Meldanthral wrote). The first draft of the subject helps me focus when I write the body and the second pass helps me ensure that the subject is accurate now that the body has been written. I don't work in marketing but I do sometimes have to write messages that my organization needs to be read by the busy senior people to whom the message will be sent (sometimes by me, sometimes by someone else who thinks that we'll get a better response rate if they send it).

The recommendations to review past campaigns to see what worked/didn't work and review available research and data are also great recommendations if you can do that. I can only do that on a very small scale but even there it's helpful (even if it's "I don't know for sure that this worked particularly well but it seemed to go okay and I didn't get any negative feedback so let's not waste any more time rethinking this and do what I did last time").
posted by ElKevbo at 2:57 PM on July 10, 2021

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