Simple and Honest Business Email

Back in the day, when we were far more intelligent than we are now, I wrote a piece titled “Human Email,” which was intended to gently shake marketers from their peculiar trance.

Many marketers at the time were seduced by the idea that email business communication existed in its universe and did not follow the rules of effective business communication.

In general, the article received a positive response. Virtual applause flooded my email box. There was also the “everything that you said was obvious” comment. Why did you bother?

After a few minutes, the email was sent out with a more or less human tone.

Let me try it again because I’m a bit stubborn. Since that first article, I’ve learned some things. Let’s get started.

The first cutting is the worst

Most people I’ve seen sorting through their emails do a simple exercise called “the first cut.”

I have observed that emails with subject lines relevant to you that you receive from friends, clients, or colleagues are the ones that get cut first.

Please start with the candidates most likely to make it through the first round and determine the critical elements of success.

Email should only be sent to humans.

If possible, include the email address and name of the most critical executive in your company. At a minimum, I’m talking VP-level titles. Why? It sends the message that someone is important and is trying to start a dialog. There is also a hint of personal involvement and accountability.

It would be even more wonderful if the executive were named Steve Ballmer or Michael Dell or if the executive was a close friend or personal banker of the email recipient. We aren’t here to make things easy.

You will make logical choices (trust me) that increase the chances of a successful campaign once you move in this direction.

By definition, there’s no such thing, for example, as a “personal HTML email message.” Imagine that. On a Tuesday morning, executives don’t just slap out HTML messages. Text is the way to go. It should be written as much as possible, like an actual letter, starting with a standard, personalized salutation. It is a good idea to try and create minimal HTML with authentic signatures that look like a letter.

We have experienced the power of text emails over the past three years. Our extensive data shows that executive-to-executive text email outperforms HTML email by almost 3 to 1. You heard me correctly, nearly 3 to 1. I realize this HTML vs. Text debate is old. For us, this is no longer even a debate.

Short subject lines: The subject line should not exceed 56 characters, including spaces. Why? You want to include a complete idea in the “subject” box, as presented by most email programs.

I used to compare subject lines with traditional direct-mail teasers. It’s still a great analogy, but only if you understand what makes a teaser excellent or bad.

Imagine that you are inviting executives in the consumer products industry (CP) to a San Francisco-based event. Let’s say that the event is part of a series of breakfasts for executives around the country. In this case, your target audience would be CP executives in or near San Francisco. Mention San Francisco as the subject. Mention “Consumer Products Executives,” too, in the subject line.

If this seems like a lot of obvious stuff, then it is. Rarely, if at all, do I ever receive an email in which the sender addresses me so specifically and directly. However, many emails use my first name as the subject. It’s always about prescription drugs, the approval of a mortgage application that I never submitted, or Heather, Amber, and Julie and their dorm rooms, which happen to have a webcam.

What about intriguing, evocative subject lines? I once wrote a subject line like this for a CEO inviting his customers to a forum of executives in Phoenix. This was an internal list, and I knew that almost everyone would recognize the name of the CEO in the “From:” line. So, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to add a bit of intrigue. “A trip in the desert.” This email was exceptionally well received. Registration numbers surged. The marketing department was initially surprised by the number of registrations.

I wouldn’t say I like gimmicky headlines that promise grand things but deliver Heather, Amber, and Julie in their dorm-room webcam. Tricks, or even outright deception, work against the goal of business marketing. You want to build trust and establish some common ground for a productive discussion.

What do your company’s executives think? Do you have a company point of view or opinion

We’ve already touched on how to survive the “first-cut”: that is, an email that looks like a natural person sent it and uses a simple, relevant subject line.

What about the email text?

Over the years, I’ve learned that marketers who can survive at a certain level in an organization are not interested in getting a senior executive to approve “his” or ” her” email. It is a tedious and unpleasant process. Most marketers see this as a way to reduce their careers. Does this sound familiar?

We writers and marketers at agencies are not well-positioned to do a convincing imitation of your company’s senior executive. We try our best (or worst, depending on your perspective) to use bland-speak that is akin to your company’s branding guidelines, and we produce sentence after sentence of utterly meaningless but well-crafted language. At best (worst? We follow our hearts and opinions about leadership and the issues that we believe your customers want to be addressed by an executive. We commit the cardinal sin by trying to make a statement. Not that I think what we say is correct. We try to provide more than fluffy buns.

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