How To Make Your Email Message Stand Out In A Cluttered Inbox

Aaron Couch 06-11-2012

cluttered inboxHave you ever sent an email you felt was important only to be answered many days later, or worse forgotten about? Granted, sometimes it’s out of your control, but there are things you can do to improve the chances of your email being opened, read and replied to.


The great thing about these “tricks” is they really aren’t overly complicated – they are simply habits that just make sense. I can’t promise that these will always work, but I can say that they will make a difference and that overall you’ll see an improvement in communication with your email contacts.

Highlight Your Name

I actually hadn’t actually heard of this method until not too long ago and I certainly can’t claim credit for the idea. I read an article by Josh Grillo on Dirty Marketing Secrets that talked about how to go about doing this. Basically you copy arrows (or whatever object you’d like) and paste them on either side of your name. Then when you send an email, it’ll look something like this:

cluttered inbox

For me, this is somewhat controversial and it might be for others too. On one side it certainly works and it’s not too invasive. On the other side of the spectrum, if there are people you are communicating with regularly and who always are replying to your emails, this may be a nuisance to them.

It’s All About The Subject Line

When it comes to getting your email from “unread” to “read” status, I put the most weight on the subject line. There are several different ways you can create it and many, if not most, you can combine.


1. Be specific and brief

A vague subject line is the worse. Such subjects like “Hi there” or worse… “(no subject)” – that one I really don’t know why it still exists. I remember when I was first using email, this was fairly common, but as email has evolved, we have too – do put a subject in, else it will likely get deleted (or filtered out Save Your Sanity: Block & Filter Those Forwarded Emails We’ve all received them – those dreaded emails. Perhaps they don’t even deserve to be held in the same regard as "emails". Read More ) before ever being opened.

2. Use a sentence

It might not be natural to, but putting a sentence in the subject line is actually not a bad practice. Our mind works in sentences. We communicate in sentences. Why not start your email with one? Instead of just a subject line that says “Question,” write “I have a quick question about [blank].” It makes it more personal and will likely make your email more attractive to open up. I will note that the sentence you chose should summarize what your email is about. And obviously you don’t want a vague sentence, otherwise it is counterproductive.

3. Ask a question

cluttered email inbox

Above we talked about using a sentence – this is basically an extension of that one. So instead of saying “I have a quick question about [blank],” you could phrase it in the exact question you are wondering. So if the question is about how to make emails stand out for instance, you could type “How do I make my emails stand out better?”


The benefit of asking a question is that it’s a bit more powerful and engaging than a sentence. Of course if your email isn’t about a question, then a question wouldn’t be appropriate. It must be relevant and it should be the primary question of the email.

4. Use user-specific words

If you are emailing about a subject which is specifically interesting to your contact, put that word in the subject line. So if you’re emailing someone about a question concerning search engine optimization and they are particularly fond or skilled in that area (which they should be if you’re emailing them about it), include “SEO” in the subject. An example might be: “Wondering how to improve SEO on my blog.”

5. Use brackets and colons to create “sub-subjects”

I very well could have just made up that word “sub-subjects,” but to me it makes sense. Basically I’m talking about creating further explanation in the subject line and using brackets or a colon to separate it from the primary subject. For instance if we were to stay on the same example you could say “Question: How do I make my emails stand out better?” or “[Question] Making emails stand out better.”

A little grammar lesson: In my opinion colons and brackets are similar, but don’t serve the exact same purpose. A colon prepares the reader or further explains to them what they’re about to read. Brackets, on the other hand, label what we are reading. Those are how I view them and I may not be completely accurate, but it seems to make sense to me.


6. Caps are ok, but use sparingly

cluttered email inbox

Sometimes there’s a need to emphasize or draw attention to something, but because it’s in a subject line you have limited formatting options. This usually means you have to resort to using capital letters. This can be good, but it also can be bad. We’ve all gotten that email in which the subject and message were in all caps – annoying. I want to delete it right then, but it’s usually someone elderly and I’d feel bad. But if you are anyone else you are not excused so don’t be surprised if you don’t get a prompt reply back, let alone a reply at all. Below are good and bad examples:

  • Good: “[URGENT] My account has been compromised – please help”

The biggest downfall in using caps is that it can come across “spammy,” which is actually the final point of creating your subject line.

7. Don’t be “spammy”

cluttered inbox


I don’t think I need to give you the definition of what email spam looks like – we all get it and we all recognize it. So why do some people fall into the same habit of making their emails look spammy? It beats me, but here are a few things you can do and not do to keep your emails from looking so… unintelligently spammy.

  • Limit use of caps (already mentioned)
  • Watch out for commonly filtered words like “free”
  • Don’t be vague – give a reason for emailing
  • Remove “RE:” or “FWD:” from the subject line
  • Almost never use exclamation points
  • Do everything else I just mentioned

Don’t Forget About The Message Itself

Although a lot can be done to get the email opened by tweaking the subject line, the message itself is also important and shouldn’t be disregarded. There are many things you can do to prevent your email from being opened, skimmed and then set aside to take care of later. Now sometimes I do this simply because I don’t have the time to respond to something that I at first thought was more relevant to me than it turned out to be. Other times, however, it’s because the email body is too long, poorly formatted or confusing and requires more effort to understand what is being said. So in other words:

  • Don’t make your email unnecessarily long
  • Break it up into relevant paragraphs
  • Be thorough and to the point
  • Don’t make the introduction (or any of the email) vague

Now I’m not saying to never send long emails. Sometimes you have to. But other times you think that what you have to say needs to be explained into more words than necessary. So the final point is proofread your email. Gmail has a great feature that allows you to “unsend” an email within a given time. I’ve used this feature numerous times even after proofreading something. I’ll click send, skim over my email once more as it’s “sending” and then catch something I want to correct. I can quickly cancel the sending process, make the changes and click send again. It’s pretty nice.


These are just the initial steps of proper emailing etiquette and there is much more to learn. Bloomberg BusinessWeek posted a great image indicating many of same topics which I covered in this article and pointing out the examples visually (which is always nice).

Have you discovered any techniques which have been proven to work for you? Or perhaps you have a question on something I shared? Either way, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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  1. john rigby
    November 7, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Be careful about being "cute" in emails - even to literal friends!
    My pet hates:
    1. People sending me forwarded "funny" emails in quantity.
    2. Lying subject lines (Instantly to spam)
    3. Being "forced" to use Gmail because it is so good at filtering spam. It does lack a few management features, like sorting, but...
    4. People using my "good" address on those "tell a friend" lists.
    You should all get 3 Gmail addresses:
    1. private. AND tell everyone not to abuse it.
    2. general. Put on SUBSCRIBED lists. ( Easily harvested by spammers)
    3. Spam address. Call it abcz@ and filter it straight to junk.

    • Tina Sieber
      November 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm


      From my understanding, sort options are replaced with search features in Gmail. You can do a lot more with a search than with a few limited sort options.

      But I do see your point. Could be nice to sort by sender, subject, date etc.

      And I just noticed that I have never missed sort options or even thought about them missing until reading your comment. Note that I was using Thunderbird for years and heavily relied on sort options before fully switching to the Gmail web interface last year. Funny...

  2. Nikhil Chandak
    November 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for tips
    these tips are very useful !!

  3. Mac Witty
    November 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Highlight your name is fine for me if it is someone I know. It will go direct to the trash if it is a bulk mail. So no no for marketing

    Most of the tips are great, the problem is just to remember them.

    I nearly agree and like ”2. Use a sentence” but as you not always see a long line I would say instead of “I have a quick question about [blank].” I would prefer ”Quick question about [blank].”

    ”3. Ask question” is great! We have, most of the time, hard to resist to answer a question when reading and then why not write an answer.

    ”Don’t make your email unnecessarily long” but long is a relative term and sometimes you have to write a long message. My experience is that people who read their mail on phones hardly catch a long mail if they don’t get ”help”. One thing I have found helpful is to start with a number list of the content and then write with headlines.

  4. Yitzchok Mickler
    November 6, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I put arrows around my ?name? and Gmail sent my message to the spam folder. Not a very gtood way to get noticed.

    • Mac Witty
      November 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      Google is our friend! ;)

  5. Boni Oloff
    November 6, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Wow, this is still new for me, but i think there will be many people will use this tips you said here.

  6. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    November 6, 2012 at 5:42 am

    The importance of 'question-based subject' shouldn't be undermined. I personally will open that kind of message first because it spells urgency more than subject written as statement.

  7. Chaos Emperor
    November 6, 2012 at 5:23 am

    I never know i need to use bracket for sub subjects.Thanks for the tips

  8. Sarah Lam
    November 6, 2012 at 3:32 am

    The subject is most important. One can usually identify whether it's spam or not by looking at the subject.

  9. Ashwin Ramesh
    November 6, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Nice tips! Thanks for sharing this Aaron!