Monday 10 September 2012

Business emails - surviving the inbox

The inbox is a dangerous place for business communications – full of shysters, spammers and the occasional piece of interesting content. All ruled by a tyrant with a trigger-happy delete finger. This post will help ensure your emails survive long enough to deliver their message – while our top tips will help you convey it more effectively.

Did you know that 294 billion emails are sent every day? That means over 70 million were dispatched in the time it took for you to read that sentence. And, while the vast majority of these will be offering almost unbelievably good job opportunities and cut-price pharmaceuticals to consumers, millions will be sent to, from and between businesses.

There’s no doubt about it, since Ray Tomlinson – a bearded US programmer – sent the first one in 1971, emails have become a vital part of our working lives.

Do I have space for good manners?
I like to think of emails as something of a hybrid between a letter and a text message. As a piece of direct correspondence, from one person to another, they need to be personable – like a letter. After all, you’re usually addressing the recipient by their first name and always entering their personal inbox. Yet, unlike their handwritten counterparts, emails need the economy of a text.

Professionally, emails fit into two categories: let’s call them Covering and Promotional. Both must carefully consider email etiquette. 

There's a delicate balance to be struck between being friendly and taking up people's time - the letter/text trade-off. What’s more important: personabiltiy or economy?

A paragraph about email length EOM
Some people like to preface the meat of an email with ‘Hope you’re well’ or a banal observation about the weather, (we’ve touched on this before, I know). Others get straight to it. Some don’t even offer a cursory Hi. 

In fact, I know a Senior Civil Servant who was trained to write the whole message in the subject line, followed by EOM. (That’s ‘end of message’ for those of you who have never been part of the First Division.) There was no further text so you didn’t even need to open the email. Marks for efficiency: 10 out of 10. Warm and friendly score? An ice cold zero.

It's all in the subject line
The Civil Service approach might be a little curt for some more delicate recipients; but there’s no doubting its effectiveness. Emails are work. People don’t want to have to open an email to find out what it’s all about. They’re busy, darn it! So even on a regular email, the subject line has to refer to the content explicitly.

What if I'm selling something?
For promotional emails, your subject line should also gently suggest a benefit – as well as a descriptor of the content. A tough ask in six words or fewer. So, with space at such a premium, the benefit often has to wait until the heading you meet once the email is opened. However, by including a heading, the whole dynamic of the email is altered.

Starting your email copy with a heading is you effectively laying your cards on the table. Your email is now overtly commercial, so normal sales rules apply. What’s more, because of the amount of spam and I-thought-I-unsubscribed-from-this type emails we receive, we rule our inbox with an iron fist. No mercy. Get to the point or get out.

Six email top tips
Here are a few guidelines to help you make your mark in the inbox and stay out of the spam folder:

1.    Picture who you’re writing to. What do they look like? How do they think? Imagine you were talking to them – what would you say?

2.    Be precise about why you’re writing. What is the end target of all this?

3.    Selling points. Why would they do what you want them to do? List the reasons and get to them quickly.

4.    Address the obstacles. What will stop them doing what you want? Devise and discuss counter-arguments for each one.

5.    Tone. Your email should sound like it’s coming from you. But work you. Not weekend you. Think of the company you’re representing and the values it stands for.

6.    Culture. We’ve gone all informal in the UK and starting an email with ‘Dear’ is borderline anachronistic. While in other countries they still like their emails to wear a metaphorical tie. Be aware of where you’re operating.

So there you go. Follow these guidelines and your email might just avoid the dreaded delete finger. Ignore them and it’s the bin for your message. And no-one wants to end up in there.  

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