E-mail is not always the most efficient medium for business communication, but it’s not going away. So here are some real-world tips for improving communication with your clients, vendors, donors, and colleagues. This is not the “be sure to check your spelling” list of dos and don’ts. If you don’t already do that stuff, you’re not going to do these things either. These are user-based tips for improving response, accuracy and usability.
1. Useful Subject Lines
The subject line of your e-mail is the most important thing you write, and there are several things to consider when writing a good one:
a) Think ahead: Two months from now, when you or the recipient is looking for this e-mail amongst thousands of others to clarify a detail, think about a subject line that will actually identify the contents. Let me tell you something, “FWD: RE: Project” will not be helpful. Re-write the subject line of replies and forwards to reflect what is in that particular message.
b) Think focus: If you are broaching multiple topics, either mention them all in the subject line and visibly divide up the content of the e-mail by topic (using bold headers) OR better yet. Send seperate e-mails for different topics. Crazy? Again, think ahead two months. Will you remember that you sent the change to the price estimate at the bottom of the e-mail about color choices? I think not.
c) Think branding: mention your company name, the project name or some other unique identifier that will immediately identify the project. I make web sites – so a lot of my clients send me e-mail about “my web site”, because they usually only have one. I work on many. So it would be more helpful to write a subject line like “Widgets-R-Us web site change”.
d) Think action: Inboxes are often used as to do lists. So what is it you want the recipient to do? Mention it in the subject line. That way, your task is constantly staring them in the face and they will do it just to be able to move your task into a “done” folder.
e) Think Duplicate: Repeat all information in the subject line in the body of the e-mail. Don’t leave important info only in the subject line. Some readers seperate the two and make it hard to connect them visually. Don’t make the reader work any harder than necessary.
2. Actionable Bodies
a. Think Outline. People don’t really read e-mail. They should, but they don’t. So knowing that, you need to make your e-mail easy to scan.Many e-mail readers allow for at least the use of bold formatting. Take advantage of it and structure your e-mail in outline form. Separate topics by headers (or send them as separate e-mail). More complicated formatting like bullet lists and html may not show up. Keep it simple.
b. Thick Sticky. Place links at the bottom of the e-mail. This may seem the opposite of helpful, but if you bothered to write information in the e-mail, you want them to at least scan it. If they see a link at the top of the e-mail, they will click on it, meaning to go back and read your e-mail later, but they won’t. So, if it’s important, like “This is a rough draft”, then make it clear and bold and well before they actually see the link.
c. Thick Call to Action. Communicate the needed (or desired) response first, then fill in with the reasons why. Readers scan, usually the first paragraph and good luck if you wrote more than that. Don’t bury the response at the bottom of a long missive. Write it first. If they then care to know why, they will read more to find out.
3. Attachments and Includes
A long time ago I made a commitment to never finish typing the word “attached” in an e-mail without first attaching the file. It has saved me many a useless e-mail referencing a non-existant file. Attach first. Write e-mail later. If you still manage to forget the attachment, try going to your send box, forward the e-mail you already wrote (so you don’t have to retype it, and send from there.)
Also, it works best to attach files rather than include them in the body of the e-mail. Readers that disable images may hide the image entirely, and some popular e-mail readers make it difficult to copy and paste an image out of the e-mail itself. If you really want to include it, then also attach it.
4. Informative Endings
If you don’t already have a signature for your business e-mail, start there. Include all your pertinent contact information. Then add it to all your e-mails. Even the quick answers to a long thread. Seems redundant? Maybe, but again, if someone is referring back to an e-mail in order to respond to you, they should be able to find contact info on each e-mail. I can’t tell you how many time people have sent me e-mails to “call them” and don’t include any contact info whatsoever. OK – maybe I should have them as a contact in my contact list. But effective business e-mail, and good customer service, includes easy to act upon contact information.
5. E-mail Address Last
Another trick I learned early on was to wait until the e-mail was proofed and ready to send before entering the recipient’s e-mail address. This prevents the accidental e-mail sent before it was ready. Instead my e-mail program saves it if I get interrupted and refuses to send until I have the address in the to line.
As far as copies go, if you do copy an e-mail to someone else, make sure they are going to understand two things: a) they are not the primary recipient, and b) why they are being copied.
6. Sent Mail
While not all e-mail programs do this automatically, I recommend keeping sent copies of e-mail. Or blind copy an e-mail address designed to archive mail. Perhaps not all e-mails require this treatment, but not only does sent mail often serve as a back up to mistakenly deleted originals, but can be incredibly useful in tracing when information was sent, responded to, etc.
Kim Dailey is a webmaster with Papyrus Document & Design, LLC a company with experience creating web sites and stores for commercial, non-profit, and public sector clients throughout the United States.