At some point during early childhood, almost everyone is taught to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” While this maxim, sometimes referred to as ‘The Golden Rule’ or ‘The Law of Reciprocity,’ dates as far back as 2000 BC, it applies just as well to the use of technology today as it did verbal and physical behavior then.
In writing and sending emails for a living, I think of this ‘rule’ often. By the sheer power of having an email address and an internet connection, I receive several emails from both B2C and B2B brands each day. (So many that, even as someone who likes reading marketing emails, I’ve had to resort to using unroll.me.) I have a lot of opinions about these emails, but almost all of them stem from being a consumer, not a marketer.
Send frequency really grinds my gears
You would think it would take at least opening an email or reading its subject line to prompt a reaction — whether positive or negative. On the contrary, just seeing a brand or person’s name appear in my inbox is enough to elicit an audible grunt.
In a survey conducted by Workfront, 40% of office workers listed “excessive email” — which was defined as receiving, sorting, and responding to email — as something that distracts from their work. A report from McKinsey & Company found that managing email comprises over 28% of the average workweek, which amounts to over 11 hours.
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four brands that email me too often. What qualifies as too often? It depends on the service and nature of the industry. If I had to answer — gun to my head, although I can’t imagine why someone would care so much about email deliverability preferences — I would say anything more than once a week.
Why? Because of that annoying buzzword, ‘inbox zero.’ Introduced by Merlin Mann in a 2007 Google Tech Talk, it doesn’t mean what you think. The ‘zero’ does not reference the number of unread emails, but “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.” His approach is to sort your messages and stop checking your email.
Due to my compulsive email management style — which has more to do with OCD than productivity — I look at every email I receive to determine how I want to handle it. Per Mann, “delete, delegate, respond, defer, do.” (Fellow email marketers, you can thank me for your high open rates.)
However, I struggle with the latter part of his technique, which requires ignoring your inbox. Given the emphasis on email in the workplace today, Mann’s method isn’t the most realistic. But anyone with an email address can appreciate his desire to reduce clutter. Still, so many companies ‘blast’ (this word makes me shudder) their distribution lists at will, with no consideration of their impact on their recipients’ attempts at ‘inbox zero.’
You can’t spell CTA without ‘Action’
So why should brands care about their effect on others’ inboxes? Because it will affect their performance.
People receive an average of 90 emails in a given day, according to market research firm The Radicati Group. Based on my unroll.me account, I have been subscribed to 397 email lists — and I’m pretty conservative when giving out my email. After conducting a quick poll of my coworkers who use the service, the most subscriptions someone had was a frightening 1,326. Now imagine if that person received a few emails a week per subscription.
Sending more than one email a week — whether from account management, HR, marketing, or sales — results in too many for your audience to process when you consider how many other brands are contacting those same people.
If email fatigue prevents someone from considering the call to action, what’s the point of being subscribed — for the recipient or the company that sent it?
That said, there will always be edge cases. For example, when I was looking for an apartment in Manhattan, I was overcome with joy each time I received an email notification from StreetEasy about a listing. In fact, I would have tolerated several a day if real estate market conditions permitted. These exceptions occur when messages are closely aligned with the recipient’s interests, whether that’s finding an apartment or reading industry news relevant to your job.
Regardless of your job role and whether you email people inside or outside of your company, think of your personal inbox count before deciding to throw a third email on the calendar next week. Your open and unsubscribe rates will prove the power of inbox respect.
If Emily Post sent emails
Being considerate when communicating by email is not limited to the volume of messages sent. Consider the following scenario.
You ran into an acquaintance at a party and told them they should come over for dinner sometime. But in a few days they showed up unannounced, called you by the wrong name, didn’t stop talking, and asked you to cook for them. You’d probably be pretty pissed and wouldn’t invite them back.
Well, that happens to be exactly what occurs to so many people via email. It all comes down to etiquette. Here are some of the cardinal ways people eat with their hands, email-style:
Far too often, well-intended email personalization fails. While personalization has been proven to increase click-through-rates by 1.2% to 7.5%, both inaccurate custom information and over-personalization can harm your metrics and reputation. Depending on your target audience, the level of personal information you include can feel invasive, such as with people in non-tech industries who are less familiar with the new standard of data enrichment. While more tech-informed cohorts expect to see this custom information, overdoing it will make the recipient feel as though you’re data-dumping their information back on them to falsify a ‘personal’ touch.
Not sure you have reliable contact data in your CRM? Then personalization isn’t for you. Calling someone “First Name” or “Placeholder” will ensure an unsubscribe.
Probably one of the most broken ‘rules,’ even among responsible marketers, is copy length. I limit myself to a 150-word max per email, while Mailchimp’s style guide suggests a more liberal 200- to 1,000-word range. The average attention span of people on the internet is now shorter than that of a goldfish — at an unimpressive eight seconds. Emails, therefore, should be written and designed to be skimmed. That’s why email software providers Hubspot and Litmus break engagement into three categories: Glanced (< 2 seconds), Skimmed (2–8 seconds), and Read (>8 seconds). The more succinct and to the point you are, the more likely your reader will be willing to, well, read. Don’t be the the inbox guest who doesn’t shut up. Write your emails at a length you would consider reading yourself.
It’s rare for a company to offer only one product that is applicable to a single target audience. That’s why buyer personas are all the rage — messaging should be customized so it’s relevant to the recipient, regardless of the services provided. But I’m not talking about an Amazon-level recommendation engine. Under the umbrella of basic email etiquette, the content simply needs to provide value to the reader. Before I begin drafting an email, I ask myself, “How does this help my reader?” If I can’t come up with an answer, I won’t send the email. When I do, the emails tend to be about benefits, not features, and contain the word ‘you’ more than the words ‘us’ or ‘we.’ The more relevant the content, the more likely the recipient will engage with it, and consequently, look for your company’s name in their inbox going forward.
Whether you’re contacting long-time clients or a new lead who downloaded a recent report, email etiquette is extremely important.
Your recipients’ experience with your email should be as pleasant as possible, as that will determine whether or not they open future emails from you.
The intimacy of the inbox
Much like your home address or phone number, your email address is personal. While it’s easier to unsubscribe from emails than it is physical mail, your inbox is just as direct a form of communication. For the same reason people are selective about sharing their phone number and home address, people are increasingly careful about giving out their email.
When someone shares their email address, there is an implicit level of trust between the two parties. We should be over-the-moon happy someone chose to provide us with their email, simply because they don’t have to. As a result, that personal information should be treated with respect, just as I would hope sharing my phone number wouldn’t result in phone calls asking if I would like to buy auto insurance, when I don’t own a car.
It’s easy to get caught up in metrics and forget your manners. When questioning what the ‘best practices’ are, or thinking about how to ‘optimize’ your emails, send what you would want to receive. Treating email recipients like people will always get you further than treating them as potential ROI.
While the majority of my perspective comes from writing marketing emails, this approach pertains to anyone sending emails representing a company or brand. When working with the Account Management, Product, People Operations, Sales, and Engineering teams at Managed by Q, I adhere to the same guidelines. This is the case whether I’m working on an internal, operational, customer support, or sales email.
People opt-in to receive emails because the product, service, or information offered interests them. If you’re sending emails legally (which the FTC and I strongly suggest you do), your contacts have already told you they want your emails. Emailing excessively on the assumption they will miss your message is misguided — your subscribers are probably looking for (and forward to) your emails. To keep them engaged, you only have to deliver them relevant, digestible content when you have information that will be valuable to them. To your subscribers, your emails are innocent until proven otherwise.