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Subject Lines Matter - Avoid Business Disasters with Relevant Labels

Submitted Tuesday, May 19th 2015 3:29 pm by Timothy S. Jacobson
in   e-mail    communication    subject lines    organization    forward    reply    e-mail etiquette  


Avoid Business Disasters by Using Relevant E-mail Labels

By Timothy S. Jacobson

~The Nonprofit Provocateur~


Treat your email program like the movies – give a preview so they know what to expect.

— Jordie van Rijn, e-mail consultant


Would a prudent person put blood pressure medication in an old aspirin bottle and leave it on an office lunchroom shelf where someone might mistakenly take it for a headache?

Before heading to the airport, would someone tape a card with the word “EXPLOSIVES” written on it to one’s suitcase?

If not, why is it then that people routinely send bosses, co-workers, and volunteers messages about important deadlines minutes or hours away but do it by replying to a message with a nondescript or off-topic subject line like “lunch” or “supplies?”

Is there anything more important to the success of your business or organization than the timely and accurate exchange of information? Are you struggling in the office to separate the signal from the noise; to wade through mountains of spam, messages linking to cute kitten videos, and social media notifications to reach mission-critical communications?

Labels have real-world consequences.

Undoubtedly, my employees have hated me over the years for my repeated insistence on using meaningful subject lines on e-mails.

Have you ever missed (or nearly missed) a deadline or a meeting because a co-worker’s or client’s e-mail subject line neglected to alert you? Have you ever been embarrassed to run into someone who’s e-mail you ignored because the subject line made the message look trivial when it wasn’t? Have you ever struggled to find an important message, tucked away in a folder for future reference, because the sender used an off-topic subject line? Do you volunteer for more than one nonprofit organization or serve on more than one board of directors and get confused by a flurry of messages that only list something like “meeting” in the message header, wondering which organization or meeting the messages pertain to?

I have had all of those things happen to me. Unfortunately, at least one, if not many, of these things seems to happen every week.

And each of those situations is easily avoidable.

I don’t know about you, but I get thousands of e-mails over the course of a single month, and I use multiple e-mail accounts for business and personal matters. Rather than waste huge volumes of paper printing e-mails, I try to neatly organize messages into a hierarchy of folders for future reference. Sometimes, I may save as many as 2,000 messages on a single project that spans several years. As a business executive, writer, and filmmaker who serves on the boards of multiple organizations, I usually have hundreds of messages in my in-box that either haven’t yet been sorted into a folder, deleted or responded to.

I can’t count the number of times it’s been helpful to me to be able to locate a snippet of information or a contact I received much earlier via e-mail. But bad subject lines make the task much harder.

One of the most common situations in which bad subject lines proliferate is with a string of messages being exchanged by two or more people. A string of messages may start with an invitation to lunch but then morph into a serious business or legal matter a day or two later, without the subject line reflecting the change. You may think you have a message in your inbox commenting on the weird sidewalk musician the day before when you’re really sitting on a message about an urgent customer service problem, because the person who replied to the previous day’s message didn’t pay any attention to the subject line.

Here are some tips about subject lines, along with some bonus e-mail etiquette to help ensure that your important electronic messages get opened in a timely fashion and are interpreted appropriately:

·      If you’re e-mailing to remind a person to join a conference call in an hour, don’t use a subject line like “communications committee,” which might not get opened for several hours or the next day. Instead, use: “10:00 TODAY - Communications Comm. call.” [This happened to me on the day I wrote this article.]

·      Place the most important words first. Some e-mail clients (programs) and mobile devices only display part of the subject line. Don’t let the important words get missed by burying them at the end of a long subject line.

·      Include the name or acronym of the organization or committee in the subject line. If you’re a board member serving on three different committees for one organization, and attend lots of other meetings for various other groups, getting a message with the subject “next meeting” is particularly unhelpful. [I received multiple messages like this on the day I wrote this article.]

·      If you are replying to a thread of earlier messages but the subject of the message has changed, edit the subject line accordingly. This is easy using e-mail programs like Outlook, but it can be done using web-based e-mail clients like Gmail, too.

·      If you are adding a topic to a message you are replying to, make sure the subject line reflects both the original topic and the new topic. For example, “Annual report edits; starting next newsletter.” (The first item represents something winding down or nearing completion, while the latter item is a new project. If the message discusses both, the subject line should reflect that.)

·      Don’t click the “high priority” button on each message you send. Eventually, people will treat all of your messages to be low priority.

·      Use all caps rarely and sparingly, and only for alerting recipients of a message that must be addressed urgently.

·      Use logical keywords for filtering and searching.

·      There are few things more embarrassing than receiving a message from someone and then criticizing that person in what’s supposed to be a message forwarded to someone else but which is actually a reply to the original sender. Before clicking “send,” review the recipient(s).

·      The auto-fill feature is great most of the time, letting you avoid looking people up in your contacts list. But sometimes the wrong “Jane” gets entered on the “To” line. Don’t be in such a rush that you deliver your message to the incorrect person. [I received a message in this way on the day I wrote this article.]

·      Don’t type your entire message in the subject line of the e-mail. I have worked with a couple of people who routinely filled the subject line with multiple sentences but put little or nothing in the body of the e-mail. Not only will this make you look bad, but it also makes your message difficult to read. Sometimes, the recipient will have to hit “reply” before the full message can even be viewed. Subject lines are for labels only.

·      Don’t start a sentence in the subject line that you finish in the body of the message. It’s confusing and hard to read.

·      Never, ever send an e-mail without filling in the subject line. Type the subject line before composing the body of the message. [I received at least one such message in the past few days.]

·      Avoid using e-mail for communicating about emotionally sensitive topics or for doling out criticism. Because it’s difficult to communicate tone in writing, the recipient may get the wrong impression or get offended unnecessarily. Face-to-face communication, while sometimes difficult, usually works better in the long run.

·      Don’t treat e-mail like something nobody but the intended recipient will see. It’s incredibly easy for your message to get forwarded to the wrong people.

·      Think like an advertiser when composing a message. What will entice the recipient to open the message, while still ensuring you’re on-topic? This is especially important for mass e-mails sent to business customers and nonprofit donors.

·      Before clicking “send,” look over your message. Is it going to the correct recipients? Is the subject line relevant? Is your message free of typos?

By using appropriate and relevant subject lines with your e-mail messages and following these rules of etiquette, you will greatly improve the effectiveness of your communications, and people will appreciate your thoughtfulness and precision.

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Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you appreciate the importance of subject lines. What e-mail mishaps have you experienced? Share your stories!


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Tim Jacobson, CEO of Visjonær Consulting, has served as a board member and executive of a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2015, the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his organizational consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.

This article is copyright (c) 2015, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.


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