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Candidate Search recruitment

5 Winning Subject Lines to Attract Passive Candidates

May 15, 2024

This article detailing the best subject lines to win over passive candidates was originally published in July 2020. All relevant statistics and copy have been updated as of May 2024.

As a recruiter focusing on passive candidates, you're well-acquainted with the daily ups and downs. On some days, everything clicks—every candidate you reach out to seems eager to discuss the opportunity. However, there are those challenging days when responses are few and far between, leaving you searching for strategies to increase engagement.

Subject lines can be high-risk and high-reward. In fact, OptInMonster found that 47% of people open emails just because of the subject line, while 69% mark emails as spam based on the subject line alone. While the stakes are high, the key to increasing your recruiting outreach response rates might be as simple as using the right subject line in your email. Once you know how to hook your candidate in 6 words or less, your passive candidate recruiting response rates will improve overnight.

Struggling with your outreach to passive talent? A simple change in your email's subject line could make all the difference. Learn more from @IQTalent’s recent blog:

Personalize Or Generic?

You can personalize your subject line to an individual or use a generic subject line to mass message multiple people simultaneously. Of course, personalized emails yield a better response rate, but when time is of the essence, and many candidates fit the job description, a mass email may be the best option.

Need some extra help with sourcing passive candidates?
Check out these ways to create authentic connections with passive talent.

The Five Best Personalized Subject Lines

A personalized subject line is a must if you are working on a challenging role with a limited talent pool. It may be a tad bit more time-consuming, but the results are always worth it.

1. Mention Their College Mascot

People carry their university spirit for life - "Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye." Even those who weren't the most spirited on campus can't forget their mascot. Catch an alum's eye with subject lines like "We're hunting Wolverines (U of Michigan) in (insert job location)" or "Bring your Hurricane (U of Miami FL) strength to our team."

Tapping into the pride of a candidate's undergraduate years often strikes a deeper chord than referencing their grad school days, which were likely more academically intense and less about rooting for the home team.

2. Mention Their Current Company

When people see their employer’s name in their inbox, it can intrigue them about the message's purpose. “From Facebook to (insert your company here)” or “Unsubscribe from Netflix, join a new service” are examples of subject lines that work when you are recruiting people from specific companies.

Being even more specific to your candidate’s experience will further increase your results. For example, “Your four years at Amazon: What a journey!” or “Build a startup like you built Amazon” will show the candidate you invested time in your research. Remember, however, to always maintain a positive and professional tone when discussing a candidate's previous employer.

Did you know? The open rate for your emails can vary depending on the industry you’re sourcing for. On average, for recruiting, it’s about 32.39%.

3. Mention Something They Are Interested In

Many people will list either technology they are proficient in, interested in learning, or environments where they’d like to work. Lines such as “Looking for React and Kubernetes experts” or “Bring your passions to our hypergrowth company” can appeal to candidates who have specified technologies they enjoy using or are passionate about working with startups. “Lead a small team with us” or “Close $1 million sales” would resonate with people who mention they love to assume a leadership position or who have a history and drive to close large deals.

4. Refer To Past Work/Projects

Just like dropping the name of a current or former employer grabs attention, talking about a project they've listed or a publication you stumbled upon really sparks interest. People love a good compliment! Whether it’s their college app project or an article they published, mentioning it right off the bat shows you’ve done your homework and really dug into their background.

5. Mention A Hobby

“Scuba dive in our pool of opportunities” or “Hike over to our sales team” can be clever lines for someone with a scuba diving license or a passion for hiking listed in a profile. These interest-based subject lines can be the most fun, as people who list passions and hobbies in an online profile are usually open to discussing these topics with strangers and building a connection. And making a connection with a candidate you are recruiting is crucial to getting the deal closed.


PRO TIP – If you personalize a subject line, follow up with the same subject in the body of the email. Listing someone’s company, skills, former projects, school, or hobbies in the subject to catch their attention just to have them open a generic message that has zero personal touches can be very counterproductive and maybe even off-putting.


Two Rules For Effective Generic Subject Lines

Great candidates get generic emails sent to their inboxes all the time. The recipient can tell that they are one of many people receiving the same message. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective if you adhere to some basic principles.

1. Keep The Focus On The Job And/Or Its Responsibilities

In these subject lines used for mass messaging/emailing, it’s best to list particular things about the role in the title to try and entice people who will find a specific aspect of the role interesting. The focus can be the tools they will use, the responsibilities they will have, the mission of the company, the significance of the position, etc.

  • “Be the first (insert job) on our team.” — Inform the candidate that this is a brand new position and a chance to build it from the ground up.
  • “Build new features, lead a team” — If a candidate loves technical work and leadership, this will catch their eye.
  • “Help us bring technology to the masses” — Mission-driven. This is why we do what we do.
  • “Close the largest deals for (insert company)” — We need someone who can take the reins and close large deals for us.
  • “Hyper-growth startup looking for API experts” — This captures a candidate's interest along with the tools they are an expert in.
  • “Scale, automation, reliability is our focus” — Pretty straightforward.

If it’s a rather generic position with multiple qualified candidates, the standard “Job opening for (insert job title) at (company)” cuts straight to the point: I have a job. Are you interested in learning more about it? This saves time for everyone.

2. Make The Email Message Center Around The Theme Of The Subject Line.

When you send an email with a generic subject line about joining a startup, follow up with more information about the startup and what is needed to be successful. If you mention leading a team, then specifically discuss the team and the role’s responsibilities. Nothing is worse than seeing a subject line that aligns perfectly with your work passions, just to get a generic email that doesn’t tell you anything about what the subject line referenced!

Your email strategy is only one part of your approach to candidate sourcing. Download our all-inclusive guide to create an end-to-end process for attracting, engaging, and hiring top talent.

Email Subject Lines Aren’t Magic

Over time, every recruiter will eventually figure out the law of averages and where they stand according to the statistics. The goal is to maintain or increase these averages. To find continued improvement in winning hires, you need large amounts of data and feedback to determine if your current passive candidate recruiting performance is up to par.

Contacting 30 people will provide you with a less accurate picture of your work than if you contacted 300 people. Don’t immediately change your strategy if you do not have instant success; give it a bit of time to make a rational decision on your approach to candidate outreach. You may have had the perfect subject line already, but you didn’t reach out to enough of the right people.

From alma mater shoutouts to tech passions, find out how personalized email subject lines can transform your candidate engagement. See more from @IQTalent’s blog:

Regardless of how catchy your subject line is, the content of your email is the most significant determining factor to success. If you have a great subject line and a terrible or uninspiring message, the great subject line will be lost. Experts say you must keep an email short, slightly vague, overly enthusiastic, and intriguing to get interested responses.

The truth is — if you catch someone’s attention, it does not matter how long, energetic, or detailed it is; they will read it. The content of your message or email should always be a higher priority than the subject line. A subject line should be the icing on the cake to get the ultimate results you need for your passive candidate recruiting initiatives.

Ready to boost your response rates from passive candidates? Contact IQTalent now for a demo and explore how our innovative strategies and insights can revolutionize your recruitment approach. Reach out here.