Thursday, September 23, 2004

Power Emails: how to write them


Two major aspects of email are writing effective email messages...and identifying and reducing spam.

Spam is Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE), sales promotion email you didn't request. It will be dealt with in an upcoming Spam Savvy article.

Many people, even web-based business professionals and email marketing companies, aren't very adept at writing power emails. Rare is the person who knows how to write classy, effective emails that generate fast, satisfying replies.

Just imagine all your email messages consistently being Power Emails.

Imagine the increased sales.

The improved customer relations.

Quick answers to burning questions submitted to experts.

More problems solved by technical support services.

Improved communications with family, friends, employers, clients, prospects, colleagues, and suppliers.

All due to your skill in writing email.

First, establish the legality of your email message. There are specific U.S. laws that govern email. It's a criminal act to violate them. The laws are found here:

Once you've determined that you're sending legal, ethical email, with the recipient's permission, how can you make sure your legitimate email will be read?

Not by putting "Hi" in the subject line, that's for sure. First, let's look at from lines.

From lines: I delete all emails that claim to be from lusty females (“Christy Cream”), PC product providers, casinos, income boosters, or pharmaceutical companies. A recent trend has been weird names, hoping to provoke curiosity (“Heeltoe Sillastep III” or “me” or “Mean Bean” or "TECH"), so you'll open the email.

Spammers “spoof,” or pretend their email is from a trusted source, by putting the trusted name in the from line. Example: “From: mom. Subject: my next visit.” Delete these spam emails. If you open them, that alerts them to an active email address, they'll sell your address to other spammers, and you'll get more spam.

Spammers often use multiple throwaway, or ridiculously fake, addresses. Example: when your cursor hovers over a from address, without clicking on it, and the full address appears as a name or phrase followed by an absurd, lengthy line of letters and numbers, that doesn't look like anybody's authentic email address. Don't open, delete, delete, delete.

Subject lines: I delete all emails with subject lines of "Hi," FREE, no subject at all, or suspicious, pornographic, offensive, foreign language, pharmaceutical, computer or browser add-ons (“record all words typed”), or nonsensical wording.

"Hi" is a dead giveaway that the email is spam, amateur, or contains dangerous code (virus, etc.). “Hi” as subject indicates someone who knows nothing about email, the internet, netiquette, business correspondence, or human communication.

"Hi" is not a subject. It's a salutation, a greeting that may begin the text of the email message itself, but should never be the subject line.

Use inside information or personal details: Do you know something about the person? Something relatively unknown to the general public? Some odd fact you read in one of their articles? Some useful information by which you think they may be intrigued? These are examples of content that could be in the subject line.

Keep the subject line as short as possible. But don't use just one or two vague words. Put the most important words first, with less important words after them.

Example: “Marketing meeting 10-4-2004: confirmed,” rather than “RE: Meeting” or “RE: Marketing meeting” or “Confirming our meeting on marketing ideas scheduled for Aug. 10, 2004.”

Subject lines are truncated (shortened) by email services after a certain number of characters. Have you ever seen a subject line that was a long sentence, and it was cut off before the end? It was truncated.

Don't use “RE:” It's redundant.

Of course, we all know the subject line is “regarding” something. Subject: = RE: “RE:” is old fashioned office memo style. I've even received emails with subject lines "RE:RE:RE:usability-phobic designer syndrome" or whatever the actual topic was. Only use "RE:" when required by an email discussion list.

Consider spending more time composing the subject line than the email message. If the recipient isn't likely to know you, it's the subject line, with a non-suspicious from line, that will get the recipient to "open the door" of your email message.

Real life example: The subject line of my email to Jakob Nielsen, the leading web usability expert, was: "My Boxes & Arrows article: quoting you Jakob." He replied to my question. I wrote back thanking him, and left it at that. I've written emails to famous, therefore busy, web experts and designers. Most of them have responded, sometimes at great length, to my email messages.

Write only one email—to celebrities & experts. Famous people have very little time to read and respond to emails. They don't carry on continuous emailings. Be satisfied with one reply to one email from you. Send a “thank you” email.

Avoid using ALL CAPS in your email subject lines. Spammers tend to use these gimmicks to get people to open their emails. To bypass spam filters, spammers also use unusual symbols and spelling in subject lines. For example: “GiT aLL th'e +!!!+ViCodIn ^^pa~in^^p~ills***yoU c'an swa%ll+ow” or “*****L(.)(.)k aT mY seXXXy siS#teR*****” They also use “FREE” and “URGENT.”

Be specific in your message. Include a reference, like a date, URL, page number, product number, action attempted, or exact information you're seeking. Put at the beginning of your message any “please respond by (date)” requests.

Keep the email message as short as possible. Quick, to the point, no slow, belabored build up. Quickly ask your question, or make your comment. Few of us have time to leisurely read long-winded emails. Use self-restraint. Don't go off on tangents, or try to include lots of complex points. Cut to the chase. Then stop.

Some email specialists say typos and misspellings (sp?) convey the sense that your email message was urgent, passionate, and from a busy, thus important, person. I disagree. Proper spelling and punctuation are easier to read and understand. Write like an educated person. Don't type too fast. Careful with that gourmet coffee.

Use short sentences...and very brief paragraphs. Write, then revise. Turn one long sentence into two short ones. Break long paragraphs in half. Go back over your message and chop it into little, bite-sized chunks. Minds get fuzzy when confronted with long sentences and dense paragraphs. People don't like them.

Be certain that email is the best vehicle for the message. Would a phone call be better...or a fax...or a postal, “snail mail” letter...or a visit in person?

Emails typically are read, then deleted. People have a limited amount of email storage space. If your message should be saved and referred to in the future, email may not be the best way to go.

Abstain, unless clarity requires it, from hitting “Reply” and attaching the other person's email message to your reply message. This is annoying in most cases. If necessary, just quote portions of a previous email from the other person.

If you must send a file as an attachment to your email, first get approval from the recipient, especially with large files (over 50k). Give the attachment a title that makes sense to the recipient. Example: “Streightemail.rtf” means Steven Streight's article on email, in Rich Text Format.

Always ask what format is preferred for your attachment. If you're sending an attached article you wrote for a publisher, ask if they want .doc, .txt, .rtf, .zip, (etc.) The StarOffice .sxw text file causes problems for some systems. For an image, ask about .jpeg, .gif, .png, .bmp, .svg, (etc.) formats.

Emails are public documents. They may be forwarded, quoted, posted on web sites, or printed out, and consequently, seen by unknown others. Therefore, exercise caution and tact. Don't engage in flaming (blatant anger-provoking language) or baiting (seemingly sincere, but deliberately provocative statements).

Compose in plain text, not HTML. HTML emails can contain viruses, and not all email client programs are capable of reading HTML messages. I have turned off my HTML email reading, for security, so all HTML emails I receive are unreadable.

Configure your “word wrapping” at 60 to 70 characters, or your recipient's email program will break lines in bizarre spots, making your message less readable.

Configure an appropriate “signature file” like name, title, company, web site URL, phone number, fax number, etc. It's added to the end of all outgoing emails.

Warning: never use email to transmit sensitive, financial information. Reputable firms never ask you to send such data via email. Con artists do this. It's called “phishing.” They tell you to put this data in email, or at a bogus web site.

Thank your recipient in advance for spending their valuable time reading and replying to your email. Express your appreciation for any assistance they may provide.

Follow these guidelines, and you'll greatly increase the readership of, and responses to, your email messages.

Welcome to the elite society of fully initiated Power Emailers!


Anonymous said...

thanks, that was good, concise information.

laura tomlin

steven edward streight said...

Laura: I wrote that ages ago, it seems, yet I'm so happy to hear that it was of value to you.

Thank you sweet Laura for letting me know you liked it.