We all know that has email revolutionized communication, both for business and in our personal lives. And while applications like Skype and MSN Chat, Twitter and Facebook are providing new channels with which to connect with people around the world, for most of us email is still the primary means of communication. So why, I must ask, are so many people SO BAD AT IT?!
I have about 15 personal and professional email accounts all up, so I get my fair share of email. But it never ceases to amaze me how poorly some people write their correspondence. Now I'm not talking about the quick one-line emails that you send to friends, family or close colleagues at work. What concerns me are the emails from people I don't know that start with “Hi There!!!!” (yep, exclamation marks included), and use subject lines like “HELP!!” or my personal favorite “Hello” - if they even bother with a subject at all. Although these things seem like minor niggles compared with say, the impact of the global financial crisis on your business, they are actually much more important than they first appear. The language and presentation of your emails gives the reader a very strong impression of your professionalism and general abilities. To me, a sloppy email suggests a sloppy person – and not someone with whom I really want to build any sort of business relationship. Worst of all, first impressions last - even email ones.
Even if you’re not the world’s greatest writer, you should still learn how to write effective emails. It’s absolutely essential if you want people to take you seriously. The most successful affiliate marketers spend a great deal of time engaging in communication and building relationships with affiliate managers, merchants, online marketers and other affiliates. They did not build these relationships and their success with “Hi There!!!!” emails.
Here are four really simple tips that will go a long way to increase the overall professionalism of your emails. They may seem rather obvious, but I can't tell you how many emails I get that fail to achieve them.
1. The subject line is for what it says it's for!
If I can't tell what your email is about from the subject line, then why am I going to waste my time looking at it when even you don’t appear to take it seriously? The more specific and concise your subject, the better: “Phone call” is okay, but “JV Skype call meeting time and agenda” is best. If you're covering multiple points in an email, your subject should state the overriding theme of the message. Don’t forget too that a good subject line also makes it easier for people to search and locate your email in the future.
2. Use a signature
Virtually every email program I know of allows you to create an email signature – a small block of text that appears at the bottom of all your email messages and replies. Why is this important? It immediately gives the reader the impression that you are a professional – and people like dealing with professionals. What's more, a comprehensive signature includes lots of useful information that the reader can use to either contact you or find out more about you (this is really important if you are approaching someone you've never met or talked to before). Your signature should include your full name, company name, position (if applicable), website, and email address. Depending on your preference, you can also include phone number(s) and fax. I've also seen signatures with Twitter or Linkedin links. These are OK if they suit your style of business, but it’s best not to make your signature too long - 5 or 6 lines at most. Some people use graphics and HTML in their signatures, but this is not something I recommend because many email clients still block HTML, which means it’ll just look a mess.
3. Know who you're talking to
I admit, this can be easier said than done. Some businesses just use generic info@... email addresses, which makes addressing your message to someone difficult. However, I have found that taking the extra time to poke around and find a person's email address always pays off – provided I write them a professional and worthwhile email. I once had a big debate with my business communications professor about using first or last names and the upshot is: I think it’s an individual call. Personally, I’ve always started messages with “Hi First-name”. I might use title and last name if they have a distinguished title – for example a doctor or elected official. In this case I’ll write the email more like a traditional formal letter, with “Dear Mr/Doctor/Rt Hon/etc. Last-name”. That said, some people will disagree (including my comms teacher). It depends on who you are emailing, what you are emailing about and where you are emailing to – cultural norms can vary between countries.
Under certain circumstances I have guessed people's email addresses, as most companies use the same email format across all addresses. However I must advise extreme caution when using this technique – most people who don't have their email address easily accessible have done so for a reason. If you genuinely have something important or of interest to this person, then it can be worth a try, but whatever you do, do not just send them a generic email that you've sent to a dozen other people. If you take the time to find someone's email, then take the time to write them an individual message.
If you can't find someone's direct address, I advise sending a message to the generic website address with the first line of the email reading “Attention: Name of person you want to talk to”. If you don't know the name of the person you need to talk to, then there’s the old fall-back: “To whom it may concern”. It might be a bit old fashioned, but it tends to go down better than “Hi There”.
4. Write like it's your only chance – usually it is
The problem with the ease and immediacy of email is that it's all too easy to whip up a quick email and send it off without thinking too hard about what you’ve written. This is very dangerous. Taking a little bit extra time to read over what you've just written can save you from some embarrassing mistakes. Recently I was sending out emails to some important contacts – the message to each was pretty much the same, and after writing about 6 individually, I started to copy and paste the message and change the name. I was in a hurry and didn't read over it again and as a result, I sent a message to an important contact addressed to the wrong name. Fortunately the contact was very understanding when I apologized, but you can't count on being that lucky. Sometimes that can be all it takes to lose a potential lead/client/partnership.
Also attempt to write clearly, concisely and in a professional but friendly tone. Don't be demanding or arrogant – this can be really easy to do accidentally. What might seem business-like and matter-of-fact to you may come across as irritating and belligerent to the reader. If it's an especially important email, it may be worth forwarding it to a friend or colleague first just to be sure. You just can't count on the reader being in the same state of mind as you are when you write it. Most important of all, use your manners! If you're asking someone for something, then say “thank you” in advance. If you're telling them about a problem, be polite – understand that it probably wasn't the person or company's intention to cause your difficulty. A bit of empathy goes a long way to making people go that little bit further to help you out. Even if you have to be firm, you can still be respectful.
I hope you've found these tips useful. I'd be really interested in what you think of my ideas about email. Do you agree or disagree? Have you got any email horror stories? (They're always fun!) Let me know in the comments.