First impressions last

Have you ever rolled your eyes when an email popped in? Assumed something is junk mail on the basis of the poor English in the subject line? Or made a judgment about a person or a company because of the first impression they made with their email?

Email subject lines are important. They are easy to get right. And they are so often messed up.

This isn’t a blog post about how to write effective email subject lines – there’s plenty of that on the internet. This is about how to avoid five common mistakes that affect the first impression you make electronically.

Full of typos

When you’re firing off a million emails a day, it’s easy to make spelling errors. It’s also easy to identify them, thanks to the lovely red squiggly lines we all appreciate deeply. Unfortunately, subject lines of emails don’t afford us that luxury.

‘Check out this new atricle about scniece’

One way to eliminate these errors is to write the subject line in the email body or in Word first to check it. However, this won’t pick up the best typos: when the mistakes create actual words – like ‘best’ to ‘bets’. My favourite ever email subject line went something like this:

‘New research has impact on pubic policy’

Genius.

Tip: check carefully for typos – especially the invisible kind.

Badly punctuated

There is no excuse to omit an apostrophe in an email subject line. It baffles me how often people fail to punctuate their subject lines properly. And simply because they are short and not covered by the standard spell check service as the main body of the email. That’s laziness.

‘Biziorek, Wed like to welcome you back to Kaiser Permanente’

In this example, provided by Travis Biziorek, the company Kaiser has missed the apostrophe in we’d. The result is jarring, unprofessional and annoying.

Another thing with noting about this is the capital letter of ‘Wed’. Presumably this is the result of the recipient’s surname being automatically entered into the subject line, and the person responsible for the text probably thought it looked more acceptable starting with ‘W’ in the absence of the name.

Tip: check your subject line carefully for correct punctuation.

Too complicated (and wrong)

People notice when your grammar is wrong. Some people will tell you: Matt Korostoff is a man I can relate to. On this forum, he politely informs Bibucket that the subject line of one of their automated emails is grammatically incorrect, because ‘I thought you would like to know.’ Thumbs up to Matt, and thumbs up to Zach Davis from Bitbucket, who responds ‘Thanks Matt… this will definitely be changing (to the “You have been granted…” form, if you’re curious)…’

The subject line of the original email was: ‘You have hereby been granted write access to organization-name/repo-name.’

When I read this the word ‘hereby’ jumps out at me. Why? It’s unnecessary. It’s old-fashioned. It’s almost certainly grander than it needs to be.

Tip: treat your subject line like any other sentence. Read it aloud. If it sounds wrong it probably is wrong.

Inflexible

These days we don’t all boot up a desktop computer to read our emails. Between smartphones, tablets and pop-up notifications, email subject lines get squeezed and distorted in all sorts of ways. You really have to think about this when writing them, as pointed out by Bill Lampton, PhD on this Business Know-How blog:

‘When I received my copy of the New York Times online, the title of one article was supposed to read: “No one sure what will happen to Ken Lay’s assets.” Because the title was too long to fit the allotted space, the ETS got cut from ASSETS.’

Tip: cut your subject line in different places to make sure it makes sense, makes an impact and doesn’t make anyone giggle.

Ridiculous

Groupon’s got this one in the bag:

‘Father’s Day deals for the man who gave birth to you’

Tip: it’s always best not to say something completely stupid in your subject line. If you’re unsure about what you’re saying, ask a colleague/friend/sanity checker to read it before you hit send.

It’s pretty simple – just pay attention and pause before you send. Read the subject line. If it’s bad, it will make you look bad. And if it’s the start of a long exchange of emails, it could wind up making you look bad repeatedly.

From now on, if I receive an email with a subject line that falls under one of the categories I’ve listed here, I’ll correct it. Will you?


4 responses to “First impressions last

  • Gergana

    About pubic policy… I made this mistake once. I wished the ground would open and I quietly sink inside…

    • thelucyg

      Gergana, you are not alone… I’ve actually seen it more than once. Luckily it’s a typo that nine out of ten people don’t notice (and the other one just laughs a bit)!

  • Mark Drew

    A couple of points, we sent an email today that had the subject line “Come and Meet us in May and June!” and I am in a quandary with regards to the capitalisation of the whole sentence. Should “us” be “Us”?

    Another point, and this is a mild criticism I am afraid, using underline should be banned unless it’s a link. Of course on paper it is passable, but nowadays an underline (and oh god why do blogs/content management systems let users use it!?) is basically a fake link. Like reaching down there only to find the other gender’s genitals.

  • thelucyg

    Good question! I would have uncapitalized ‘Meet’, personally. I’m not a big fan of capital letters. May and June are of course proper nouns, so require them. ‘Us’ is interesting – it’s little, like ‘the’ or ‘and’, but it would require a capital in this instance.

    Thanks for the feedback – I have duly removed the underlining! Honestly hadn’t occurred to me. but thanks to your graphic analogy I won’t be forgetting it any time soon!

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