Email illustration by Ryan Putnam

How to write better business emails

If your business is online (and I certainly hope it is), chances are you send out emails to customers or clients or fans or subscribers from time to time. But, if your customers or clients or fans or subscribers are anything like me, they probably have an email trash bin full of your newsletters and updates and change of service notices — most of which are left unread.

And while part of the reason we’re not paying attention to your emails is that we’re busy and just quickly scan them, the biggest issue is that you’re just not doing it right.

Do you want people to actually read your emails? Of course you do. Here are my five tips to help make that happen.

1. Keep it simple

When writing an email, think about the intention and the goal. What are you trying to accomplish? Just get to the meat and be direct about it. Just keep it simple.

Say a user’s account is suspended. Don’t dance around with platitudes. Tell the user that it’s suspended and why.

Something like this:

“Because of [some weird things going on], your account is about to be suspended. We know this is [annoying, inconvenient, surprising, etc], but you need to [contact us to make sure someone hasn’t hijacked your account, etc.].

You can also include one more paragraph that says something like:

“If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. We’re always here to help.”

And provide a link or CTA (call to action) that informs the readers what they need to do to deal with their freshly suspended account.

2. Use meaningful CTAs

Your CTA should support the rest of the copy, but be directly aligned with the intention and message of the email. Remember: it’s all about being direct. You should never dance around a subject in an email, and don’t be too cute. Calls to action should tell readers exactly what they need to do.

If you’re trying to upsell an app and get someone who isn’t using it to use it in stores or to manage his or her account, simply say “Check out the app” or “Download the app.” If you need them to finish setting up their account, the CTA should reflect that and say, “Set up your account.”

Calls to action should mostly be links in text or occasionally buttons. Don’t hide them in images.

3. Use images correctly

Images in emails can seriously enhance your written content. They’re a great way to compliment your narrative, add a little atmosphere, and showcase your product. Just be careful and follow these three rules.

1. Don’t use stock photos. Everyone can tell. They’re fake and they almost always ring fake, and people know that they’re stock images, and they ignore them. Invest in professional photos that are tailored to your business.

2. Remember that most people read emails on their phones. This means that you need to make sure images are scalable, otherwise readers can’t see the full breadth of the image you’ve embedded.

3. It’s all about the rule of threes. Your images should not take up more than 1/3 of your email. The rest should be readable content. And for the love of God, don’t send an email that’s just one big image. Do you want to get sent to the spam folder? Because that’s how you get sent to the spam folder. It doesn’t matter how beautifully designed it is, most people not going to see that image anyway because a) it didn’t load, or b) they didn’t wait for it to load.

4. Don’t get too personal

A business should have a voice and identity, to be sure. But no matter what the Supreme Court says, a business is not a person, at least when it comes to writing emails.

I’m sure many marketing experts will vehemently disagree with me, but when a shop or a newsletter or app gets too personal, I actually like them less. Friendly is fine, but overly familiar is just off-putting.

My personal pet peeves:

  • Signing your emails off with things like like “Your friends at [insert name here], xoxoxo.”
  • Starting emails with “Dear FIRST NAME LAST NAME,” because you’re not fooling anyone. We’re not friends. I just really like buying earrings from you.
  • Subjects that are obviously clickbait that don’t tell me anything about what’s going to be in the email: “You won’t believe what happens next!”

You’re a business. Your goal is to inform or sell. PayPal isn’t a guy writing you a letter to let you know that your account has been suspended. Your job is to just be real.

5. Be human

Being real, though, doesn’t mean that you’re a robot. You are a human, so write like one.

Write like how you would naturally talk, within reason of course. Don’t use jargon or corporate speak (even if that’s how you really talk). Don’t be too familiar and don’t be too proper; just talk directly and be honest.

Your readers should care about and relate to what your saying.

Having trouble sounding “human?” Try reading out loud. If what you just read makes you cringe, if it’s too awkward or cutesy or jingoistic — change it. Best of all, reading out loud puts you in “a conversational state of mind” and will help you to better empathize with your readers.

Note: This article originally appeared in Meta Q.