Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 37;   September 13, 2023: Subject Lines for Intra-Team Messages

Subject Lines for Intra-Team Messages


When teams communicate internally using messaging systems like email, poorly formed subject lines of messages can limit the effectiveness of the exchanges. Subject lines therefore provide a powerful means of increasing real-time productivity of the team.
A graphical metaphor for what happens when we send or receive email messages to or from a group of recipients

A graphical metaphor for what happens when we send or receive email messages to or from a group of recipients. Image by geralt courtesy pixabay.com.

We all get so much email — and we are so busy — that all we can afford to read much of the time is the message's subject line. If you want to contact someone by email, the conventional wisdom is that you must write a subject line that's compelling enough to get the right people to actually read the message, and clear enough to enable everyone else to skip it. But as is common with conventional wisdom, there are some nuances that make this basic idea a little too basic.

If you surf around in search of tips for effective subject lines, you'll find that most of the material available is aimed at the email marketing audience. This advice addresses a different problem: enticing people who aren't looking for your product to open your email message and consider purchasing it.

In the workplace, The task of the intra-team message subject
line is to deliver information about the
message efficiently, to help recipients
assess message importance
both real and virtual, the subject lines of email messages addressed to members of your own team must address a different problem. Unlike the email marketing message subject line, the intra-team message subject line isn't responsible for inducing the recipient to read the message. That responsibility is the team member's. Briefly, the task of the intra-team message subject line is to deliver information about the message efficiently, to help recipients decide message importance.

  • The subject line must indicate (briefly) the issue this message relates to
  • The subject line must be clear enough to distinguish this issue from other issues of interest to this team
  • The subject line must indicate (briefly) whether the subject line of this discussion has mutated and, if so, from what
And when we receive messages, we want to understand what they're about. We also want to use the ability to sort messages by subject line to help us group related messages together.

Eight tips that make subject lines more useful

Strip off excess reply prefixes
Things like "Re: Fwd: Re:" are just silly. Try to have at most one of these. Some email clients can suppress this subject prefix (aka reply prefix). In others you might have to use a scripting language (such as VBA) to suppress this behavior. Suppress it if you can.
One subject line, one subject
If you include in your message any material that doesn't properly fit in the topic indicated by the subject line, start a new thread for it. Tossing multiple topics into the same basket creates confusion, especially when people start replying to the message that contains the off-topic material.
Be explicit
Write the subject line not only for today's audience, but also for the audience of next year or the year after that, when people are looking through the message archive, hunting for something they vaguely remember. For example, say, "User confusion in Marigold user interface" rather than something vague like, "Many ways of fooling the user".
Use a hierarchical structure
Good grammar isn't necessary in the subject line. So use a hierarchical structure that groups related messages together when people sort the messages of a mailbox by subject. The structure of URLs on the Web is a good model. As on the Web, put the most general element of the subject first. Example: Instead of "User confusion in Marigold user interface," use "Marigold/User Interface/User confusion".
Be terse
Some email clients limit the number of characters they display in subject lines in the message summary pane of an email client window. Use abbreviations and other standard shortenings when possible. For example, instead of "Marigold/User Experience/User confusion," use "Marigold/UX/User confusion"
Exploit context
If the message is sent only to people who discuss a particular constellation of issues, you needn't indicate the name of that constellation in the subject line. For example, if a message with a subject line of "Marigold/UX/User confusion" is sent only to a Marigold discussion list, use "UX/User confusion" instead. This approach often leaves room at the end for another level of hierarchical detail.
If you're changing the subject, change the subject line
When replying to a message, most email clients present a message buffer with a pre-filled subject line that matches the subject line of the message you're replying to. Some prepend the token "Re:". But if you're changing the subject to something related but not identical to what you received, as a courtesy, you can indicate the change by revising the subject line.
If you alter the subject line when replying, use "Was:"
When you make a revision because you're changing the subject, it's helpful to recipients to indicate the change by appending to the end of the revised subject line the original subject line, after a "Was:" token. So in our example, you might see something like "Marigold/Online help revision Was: Marigold/UX/User confusion".

Last words

Among the advice you find for email marketers is encouragement to add to your message something called a "preheader". The preheader is a short swatch of text or images that appears at the top of the message when the recipient's email client displays a portion of the message to the recipient.

For intra-team email communications, which can be much shorter than email marketing messages, the preheader provides little net added value. It forces recipients to scroll past it to get to the heart of the message. Invest instead in well-crafted subject lines. Go to top Top  Next issue: Personal Boundaries at Work  Next Issue

101 Tips for Writing and Managing EmailAre you so buried in email that you don't even have time to delete your spam? Do you miss important messages? So many of the problems we have with email are actually within our power to solve, if we just realize the consequences of our own actions. Read 101 Tips for Writing and Managing Email to learn how to make peace with your inbox. Order Now!

Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!

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