Friday, January 19, 2007

power emails that get results

Email messages and subject lines, blog titles and sidebar links, and other tiny amounts of text, are called “micro-content”. Micro-content writing is a special skill that very few people have. Even business people can be stumped about what to say in an email message, and what the subject line should be.

But just think of how important email is, and how mission critical messages must be opened, read and acted upon. For sales communications, project collaborations, status updates, warnings, clarifications, requests, and questions. If you improve your email writing, it could have a huge impact on productivity, sales, and operations.

You’ll probably be astonished at how effective your emails are, once you start using these tested and proven techniques.

(1) Is email appropriate?

Be certain that email is the best vehicle for the message. Would a phone call be better? VoIP? Conference call? Fax? Google Chat? Video chat? Postal letter? Visit in person?

An email says, “Drop whatever you’re doing and read me!” Are you sure you want the other person to stop their work or interrupt their leisure time, to read and respond to your message? Is it really that important?

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. Tell recipients to save, archive, folder, or print-out vital messages.

(2) Establish legality.

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.

(3) 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”, “me”, or “Mean Bean”), 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 a spam message, that alerts the spam senders to an active email address. Then they'll sell your address to other spammers, and you'll get even 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.

Delete that junk.

Typical spam From lines: From: John Godshall From: gfdgfg fgfg From: Alert From: TECH From: news update From: mom From: service @ eBay From: UPI network From: Bald Carpenter From: Online Lenders From: Center for Lending From: egjy = Lee

(4) Subject lines.

I delete all emails with subject lines of "Hi" (except when I know the sender), FREE, no subject at all, or suspicious, pornographic, offensive, foreign language, pharmaceutical, computer or browser add-ons (“record all words typed”), or non-sensical 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 very little 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. Spammers keep inventing new Subject lines to bypass filters and get your attention.

Current gimmicks include:


Subject: Look at this

Subject: RE: How’s it going

Subject: Play and Win

Subject: Re: Your Refinance Approval

Subject: (no subject)

Subject: meeting next Wednesday

Subject: RE: Your question

Subject: This is what you were waiting for

Subject: {Business Proposal}

Subject: What is 0EM Software And Why D0 You Care?

Subject: be the man she wants you to be

(5) 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? Some insight from one of their books?

These are examples of the micro-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: “Widget XYZ marketing meeting May 10, 2007: confirmed,” rather than “RE: Meeting” or “RE: Marketing meeting” or “Confirming our meeting on marketing ideas scheduled for May 10, 2007.”

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 such as "RE:RE:RE: user observation test forms".

This proliferation of “REs” is caused by hitting “Reply” to multiple replies to the original message. To avoid this, as the subject changes or leads to new thoughts, write a different Subject line. Or, at least, go to Edit Subject and delete all but one of the “REs”. 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.

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.

(6) Write only one email—to busy celebrities and famous 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.

Commenting on each new book they publish is acceptable, or each new project they unleash. But don't expect to carry on frivolous, friendly, ongoing conversations, unless they themselves encourage it, like by asking you questions or requesting clarifications.

(7) Be specific.

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 “please respond by (date)”.

(8) Be brief.

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.

(9) Be careful about emotions.

Write the message, then stop. Don’t send it. Review the text. Do you really want to say that, in that way? Could it be misinterpreted? Is it too emotional? Too flattering and fawning? Could it be misconstrued as flirting? Too bitter or upset sounding?

Never send an email in the heat of an angry moment. Do a “Save As Draft” and let it simmer a bit. Cool down. Chill out. Wait a few hours or a day, then see if you still want to send the thing.

(10) No intimate confessionals.

People generally don’t care, nor can they do much, about your problems and illnesses. A brief mention of why you were slow to reply might be acceptable. But don’t spill your guts, don’t use the email as a way of seeking sympathy.

(11) No typos.

Some email specialists say a little sloppiness, some spelling errors for example, will convey the sense that your communication was urgent, passionate, and from a busy, thus important, person. They extend this principle to blog posts, too.

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.

(12) Use short sentences...and very brief paragraphs.

A telegraph style is acceptable. As long as you're sure your recipient will understand them, and has proven it by using them, or similar, use keyboard emoticons, chat slang, abbreviated sentences, and internet acronyms: "Am on it now", "Will do", "Say again?", "k", ":^)", ":^(", "IMHO", "btw", "LOL", "ROTFL".

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.

(13) Replying.

Abstain, unless clarity requires it, from hitting “Reply” and attaching the other person's entire 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.

In a group mailing, never “Reply To All”, unless you’re sure that your reply will be relevant to all recipients. Many times, a reply to the author of the original message may suffice. Reply with a new subject as appropriate, when you need to change the topic or ask an unrelated question.

(14) File Attachments.

Most of the time, your recipient will probably prefer that you send a text document, like a resume or story, in the body of the message. Then again, other recipients may prefer that you send a text document, generally a Word doc is requested.

If you must send a file as an attachment, 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, existing as a Rich Text Format document.

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.

When sending an mp3 file, or other large sized file, be aware that many email clients cannot receive files over 8 or 10 MB. A typical 5 minute song is roughly about 3 to 8 MB.

For larger files, consider using YouSendIt or some other large file hosting service. They typically allow your large file to stay on their server for one week, so you have to tell your recipient that they need to download it within that time period.

(15) Emails are public documents.

They may be forwarded, quoted, cited, copy and pasted, 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), libel, or accusatory hostility. Many businesses put warnings on email messages, forbidding unauthorized, non-permission forwarding, quoting, or reposting of email message content.

(16) Compose in plain text, not HTML.

HTML emails can contain viruses, and not all email client programs are capable of reading HTML messages. Many people view HTML in plain text rendering.

Email newsletters are an exception to this guideline, but are your graphics really necessary to convey the message you want to put across? Could they be distracting? Minimize the newsletter's appearing to be a web page, magazine layout, or art gallery. Link to such things if you want readers to see them.

Print media aesthetics usually don't transfer effectively to web or email applications.

(17) Configure your “word wrapping”.

Email clients generally allow a line to be around 60 to 70 characters.

Consider conforming to this standard, or your recipient's email program will break lines in bizarre spots, making your message less readable.

(18) Add a “signature file”.

Have your email client automatically append your name, title, company, web site URL, phone number, fax number, etc. Your signature file will be added to the end of all your outgoing emails. This usage of a signature file makes every email message you send a low-key promotion tool.

It also makes it more convenient for recipients to check out your web site or blog, and gain more info about who you are.

(19) One idea per email.

Avoid asking multiple questions and making multiple requests.

Generally, if you ask several questions or make several requests, something will be overlooked, and you’ll have to send another email. You’re far more likely to get the results you want by sticking to one question or request per email.

Ask one question.

Wait for a reply, before asking the next question.

In some cases, it makes sense to ask a few questions, especially if they’re sequential and all related to one topic. But most of the time, one idea per email is the best way to go. One idea per email makes your communication easier to read, easier to understand, and easier to quickly respond to. Your subject line can be more specific, and that helps increase response rates, too.

Get right to the problem or matter at hand. Don’t give long background stories. Condense your message. Edit out any extraneous verbiage. Usually we tend to write too much, and need to delete big chunks. EXAMPLE: “Hi Bill. My company asked me to come up with a list of the 20 best web designers. I have no idea how to find such a list. Any advice you can give will be greatly appreciated. Thanks. Steve.” In the above example, I refrained from explaining why my company needed this list, what I had done to try to find such a list, or any other side issues.

(20) 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.

(22) Send “gift links”.

Don’t bother people with nothing but requests and questions. Vary your message.

Sometimes send them a "gift link": a hypertext link to a site you know they’ll like, a story or information that’s relevant to their work, a blog post you wrote that mentions them, a free and legal music mp3 of your original music or music they like, or a funny YouTube video.

(23) Be patient.

Don’t expect people to respond immediately to your email. It may take them a few days, a week, or even a month to get to it. Never hound people, as in follow-up emails with “HEY, ARE YOU DEAD?” (I’ve actually received such emails) as the Subject line. That will annoy people.

(24) Be infrequent.

Don’t email people over and over again. If you want to get input on a blog post you wrote, send a link to it, but don’t do this very often. It will start to look like spam, or a cheap, lazy way to generate comments for your blog. Generate comments for your blog by consistently posting relevant content, and by posting comments at the blogs of others.

(25) 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. After they reply to your email, send a brief acknowledgement and appreciation email. Remember: the time your recipient has to spend in reading and responding to your email, this time could have been spent doing other, more satisfying, fun, or profitable things.

Should you ever send a second email, when a recipient fails to respond to the first?

If the communication is urgent and vital to you, go ahead. Often your recipient will apologize and tell you that they meant to reply, but got sidetracked. Or your message got filtered as spam, due to some word you used in the Subject line or in message content. Others may be annoyed, but it depends on your tone.

In most cases, just wait.

Or send your question or request to someone else and hope for better luck. Just avoid any appearance of spam, pleading, or bullying. Resist the urge to use a demanding, impatient tone. Remain polite, brief, and appreciative at all times. Focused and short is what email was meant to be.

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

You’ll be considered a smart business thinker and an effective communicator.

Suggested reading:

Net Words: Creating High-impact Online Copy by Nick Usborne (McGraw Hill, 2001)

E-writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication by Diane Booher (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

Crisp: Writing Effective Email (2nd Edition) by Nancy Flynn (Crisp Learning, 2003)

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