Why the Email Subject Will Never Die

Mark Zuckerberg does not favor email as a mode of communication because he finds it too clunky and formal. “You have to think of the email address, you have to think of a subject line. You write, ‘Hey Mom’ at the top. You write, ‘Love, Mark’ to conclude it.”

I agree with him about the email address part – any email client that does not automatically fill in the addresses in your recipient field deserves to fail. But I do not agree with the subject line part.

In the social world, it makes sense. Most people share relatively linear relationships with their friends and can contextualize a random message based on past and current circumstances. The person’s name is usually enough to clue you in on the content of the message. You do not need a subject line for a SMS or Facebook message.

But that only works until personal takes a business turn. When tasks, goals or projects are outlined in text between two or more people, it becomes necessary to separate and categorize different messages. All mixed together, task items become difficult to track and organize. To me, Facebook messages are an organizational nightmare. Don’t you dare try to do business with me through Facebook.

The naked subject line does not work AT ALL when you do not know the sender. The subject line is the sender’s only chance at catching my attention. Like a book title, the subject line must explain who the person is and hook me into reading the message. I get over 90 legitimate emails per day, 75% of which are not spam or newsletters and a large chunk from people I do not know. If I spend two mintues with each email (which is on the short end of what it usually takes), that’s nearly 3 hours a day in Gmail. I do not have time for that. Without the email subject, I cannot prioritize, categorize or contextualize.

Email subjects are titles. We are a title-driven culture. The title is a necessary barrier to entry. They always say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But the cover is all we have to make a choice. As long as we have choices to make, we will have titles there to help us. As long as I have a million emails to read, the subject line better be there to help me.

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