Want Better Response Rates? Make Emails Valuable


Email is still very personal.

It's something that comes directly into your space, where you correspond with those clients and friends who have a priority line on your attention.

I'm not counting pitches, of course. To date, the good ones have been very few and far between.

Your mail inbox is sacred.

Many protect themselves from spam by asking you to identify yourself via a software tool. This may help you. However, if you forget to make exceptions for newsletters and blogs you want to subscribe to by email, now you're the one spamming.

Others hide the unsubscribe button really well — and are in breach of the CAN-SPAM act. This way they hit the spam folder directly, without collecting a glance.

Help create an email charter

Chris Anderson wrote about the toll emails take on our time:

Because even though it's quicker to read than to write, five other factors outweigh this:

  • Emails often contain challenging, open-ended questions that can't rapidly be responded to
  • It's really easy to copy and paste extra text into emails. (Email creation time is almost the same. Reading time soars.) 
  • It's really easy to add links to other pages, or video (each capable of consuming copious gobbets of time)
  • It's really easy to cc multiple people
  • The act of processing an email consists of more than just reading. There is a) scanning an in-box, b) deciding which ones to open, c) opening them, d) reading them, e) deciding how to respond, f) responding, g) getting back into the flow of your other work.

So the arrival of even a two-sentence email that is simply opened, read and deleted can take a minimum of 30-60 seconds out of your available cognitive time.

Email may be (relatively) cheap. You still need to write it, even if it's just cut and paste. And there is the reputation cost to consider. In some cases, it may not be the perfect way to address an issue.

Many have written guidelines and suggested tips in the last couple of years. As did I. Yet, it keeps coming up, especially when related to the question: should you be pitching me?

Here's an updated version of a very early post:

Before you hit that 'send' or 'reply to' button ask yourself if you have picked the right communication channel for the message.

Does your email pass this test?

  1. Is it brief?
  2. Is it non-emotional?
  3. Is it the preferred communication channel of your intended audience?
  4. Is it part of a well-organized body of communication?
  5. Is it clear when we are asking someone to do something, or merely informing them?

Most people receive between dozens to hundreds of email messages per day and they'll be grateful you have tried the test above. Congratulations, your email passes the test.

How can you make the message more effective?

(1.) Brief means 1 to 3 key points.

Use bullets or numbers to improve the visual legibility. Most people scan emails. If you must include an attachment, explain what the attachment is for in the beginning of the email. Pretend you're a journalist, work on a subtitle.

(2.) Are you really angry? Frustrated?

Hold on to that draft. Pick up the phone or walk up to the person you need to talk to and sort things out live. The difficult messages and the ones you deliver when you're not sure how the recipient will react are best delivered in a more personal way.

(3.) Sending your message through the preferred channel is a tremendous courtesy.

A very powerful sign that you are listening to them that may well predispose your recipient and audience to listen to you. There's a very complicated way of finding out: just ask. In the absence of that, you may safely mirror the other person's communication style.

(4.) How many people have you copied?

In companies this happens a lot. CC, which should be courtesy copy, stands for CYA (= cover your ass). Someone starts a trail by copying in a whole bunch of people on a 'need to know' and also 'cover my tail' basis.

If this is a problem in your organization, a policy should clarify the rules. Email etiquette, especially over listservs, is usually to retain only the part of the message we are directly referring and responding to in our email.

(5.) Craft a punch line with action steps.

Do not assume it is clear to the recipient you are asking them to do something unless, well, you ask.

Some more ideas to consider:

Confirm you have the correct recipient name and intended distribution list before you hit the send button. This is very helpful when dealing with listservs that are set up to reply to all automatically and need an extra attention step to send only to sender.

Avoid the use of all caps. It makes the message very difficult to read and indicates 'yelling' in email code. Also use bold sparingly and only to call out specific pieces of information.

Use a more descriptive and specific title in the subject line. This will alert the recipient(s) to the message priority to them.

Check your spelling and grammar before sending. The computer will know that the word form is a valid word, but it will not know you meant to write from. You are the writer and the editor.

Email is not perfect.

It feels like a conversation, it is more like a letter.

Since it is in writing, it may not convey all the subtle signals you intended to wrap around it. It is on record, permanently; ask the lawyers, they'll be happy to tell you. It is one more way through which you make an impression and build credibility.

Before you hit the send button, do the exercises. You will see your response rates improve and that will bring you satisfaction in addition to making you more effective.