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Any effective PR professional puts a great deal of thought into crafting the body of a pitch e-mail, making sure it’s informative, accurate and organized in a way that will grab the attention of the media and likely lead to coverage for clients. What many people don't consider as carefully, though, is the e-mail subject line. This brief line of text introducing an e-mail might seem insignificant at first, but in reality it can be just as important - if not more important - than what's inside.
The subject line is the first thing a contact sees in an e-mail pitch, making it an extremely powerful tool. It can cause a someone to form an instant opinion about you and your message before even clicking “open,” and can even prove the deciding factor in whether they’ll read the e-mail at all.
Here are some tips for creating subject lines that will help make sure your e-mail pitch is actually read and doesn't wind up overlooked or sent directly to the trash folder.
Make sure it doesn’t read like spam – Nobody can avoid spam messages these days. When we’re not being inundated with phony e-mails alerting us that we won some sort of overseas lottery, we’re being offered amazing deals on performance-enhancing drugs. A PR e-mail, even when perfectly informative and legit, can easily be lumped in with the trash, never to be read by its intended recipient. To help ensure your e-mails avoid this doomed fate, when possible avoid using buzz words and punctuation that are likely to flag them as junk messages. For example, it's usually a good idea to avoid using exclamation points and terms such as "free" or "click here."
Following up? Make it known – People are generally more likely to read an e-mail with a subject line that indicates they’ve had prior communication with its sender. PR professionals typically receive more responses from e-mails following up on a topic than initial e-mails because these messages make it clearer that the recipient’s feedback is requested. For this reason, it’s always helpful to follow-up on pitches and to include either “follow-up” or “RE:” in the subject line. It's not a good idea, though, to be untruthful about follow-up just to get contacts to open your e-mail, which leads to my next point…
Don’t mislead – Did you ever receive an e-mail with a subject line that makes it seem like you’ve received prior messages from the sender or have had communication with them in the past, but really haven’t? If so, I'm betting you were at least a little annoyed once you figured out what the sender was up to. Nobody likes to be tricked, so when someone tries to mislead in this way, it only reflects poorly on them and points them out as someone who can’t be trusted. It’s important to always be truthful and transparent not only in the body of a pitch, but also in its subject line.
Personalize (carefully) – It can help to include a contact’s first name or specific coverage area in a subject line, suggesting to them that you’re sending them a personalized, targeted message and aren’t simply reaching out by way of a massive contact list. Be careful, though. If written improperly, personalized subject lines can easily read like spam. If you are pitching a story idea about accounting trends and want to ask a particular reporter if they’d like to cover it, you’ll probably have more success with, “John, question about accounting story” than “John, story offer for you.”
Include numbers when available – In a recent post on this blog, Walker Sands founder Ken Gaebler wrote about the power of data-driven PR, explaining how including useful numbers in a PR pitch can be very helpful in capturing journalists' attention and leading to coverage. When you have these numbers, don’t bury them in the body of an e-mail. Make sure to include them in the subject so recipients are instantly aware of your pitch's added value. Example: If a client’s company has surveyed 1,000 small business owners to get their opinion on new healthcare reform proposed in Congress, a subject line summarizing the results, such as “Story: 65% of small business owners against proposed healthcare reform," can be very effective.
Make it convey the email's purpose – Some journalists like receiving pitches with subject lines that begin with, “Story:” or “Story idea:” so they know exactly what the purpose of the message is and can identify it as a pitch right away. This can be particularly effective in certain cases where the topic could be mistaken for a different type of message, such as a sales pitch or an e-mail from a company’s marketing mailing list. If you’re pitching a story idea with expert advice on ways to get visitors to a Web site, for example, “Story idea: How to get traffic to your Web site” will probably be more effective than “How to get traffic to your Web site,” which reads more like a sales pitch or junk mail.
These are just a few ways you can use subject lines to help set your e-mail pitches apart from the rest. What do you think? What approach do you take (or be sure not to take) when writing e-mail subject lines?