The Ten Business Rules of Email

It may be that as an overworked and often exhausted consultant and author, my patience sometimes wears a bit thin. Or it may be that small to godzilla-sized companies pay people like me big bucks for effective branding and marketing strategies. Whatever the reason, I almost always go nuclear when I see somebody screw up outstandingly simple but vitally important branding activities, like talking to a customer or just sending an email. In those moments, I often forget that I’m supposed to be paid for this stuff and fire away with some obnoxious lecture on getting it right.

Email? As branding?

Yes, email. At the heart of every brand strategy is the discipline that every communication is a branding activity. In spite of this, very few large companies approach as brand-carriers the tons of emails sluiced daily out of their servers.

And don’t get me started on the brand-killing garbage that small businesses and start-ups fling to the world every time they hit the send button.

For it’s especially incumbent on those small businesses and bootstrapping start-ups to enlist each and every email to the company’s overall branding strategy. Because resources are limited for these folks, the daily march of emails constitutes a hefty share of the company’s game face. Procter & Gamble, on the other hand, has city-sized advertising budgets which produce enough noise to drown out brand-unfriendly emails of just about any quantity.

Email branding, however, is a different game from other branding activities, including customer service, its nearest relative. Which is probably why so many good companies get it wrong. It’s like plunking a great baseball player smack dab into a cricket game.

It may be a different game, but the rules aren’t exactly rocket science.

Rule One: Who you are shouldn’t be a secret.
Branding isn’t about keeping your company a secret. Every email your company launches into Internet land should state clearly the sender and the company in a well-designed signature line with complete contact information. If your company sells a product or a line of products, that should be featured in the signature line, as well. And the “from” line should scream your identity: who you are and what company you work for. Nobody doing business should have an email that says “aol.com” or “yahoo.com.” Unless, of course, your company is AOL or Yahoo!.

Rule Two: Tell us what’s up.
Speaking of signature lines, why don’t you tell everyone what’s going on this week at your business? Your signature line (or below) is a sterling opportunity to let people know what’s new, what’s cool, or what’s going down with your company or its products. Why do so many businesses with active blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook friends, or newsletters not take the time to append a bit of daily or weekly news to the end of each and every email? Which fish in the barrel don’t they want to shoot?

Rule Three: Don’t forget your positioning.
Every company should have a policy about how its positioning translates into what gets said in every email – even internal ones. I call them “advocacy scripts,” but every communication is an opportunity to express what a company is about – and some communications, such as emails and other customer contacts, impress that positioning more than others. Paste this one in your brain: every email is a “message.” And it’s either on message (good) or not (not good). Every time you hit “send,” you commit your company to that message for better or for worse.

Above all, if you see all your emails as “messaging,” then don’t treat emails as if they were text messages or tweets. If you’re tossing out email sentences like “u r expected at mting 2nite,” your “branding” message, either internal or external, is: “We don’t care,” “We can’t spell,” and worse: “We can’t even spare time to type out a few simple words for you, so don’t count on us when something really matters.” If you don’t know how to type, learn. It’s not exactly PhD-level work.

Rule Four: No hitchikers.
And speaking of positioning, no outside ads, for heaven’s sake. I am simply dizzy with befuddlement each and every time I receive a business email that includes ads for other products, usually hitching a ride at the rear. You’re paying a pretty steep price for a “free” email service if the service attaches other people’s ads to your email. Your emails should be advertising you, not Viagra, free Web hosting, or some other totally unrelated dreck.

Rule Five: It’s called a “subject” line. Use it.
Take the time to write a subject line that clearly and cogently communicates the content of the email. No “Re:,” or “FYI,” or “Hi, there” subject lines. You never write a subject line like, “Information you requested,” but rather, “The login information you requested.” It only takes a couple seconds to get the subject line right and doing so tells the recipient that your company takes them seriously. In addition, an email is more than just a communication; it’s a record. Recipients may skip important emails or, worse, not be able to find the email they need at a later date because it’s lost in a bewildering sea of “Re: this or that:” and “FYI” subject lines.

And if your email has some heft and weight to it, don’t just launch the boat. Give your reader a one or two sentence summary right at the beginning. I don’t care if you have to resort to some inelegance such as, “This email is about a, b, c.” Just do it.

And speaking of making it easy to search for your emails in the typical dogpile of received emails, the best practice for “From” lines is to highlight the company name first and your name second. The “From” in your email should look like this: “Shoestring Publishing, Richard Hooker ([email protected]).” If the email is from “Sales,” the “From” line should look like this: “Shoestring Publishing, Sales ([email protected]). In this way, the user can easily find all emails sent from any person in your company.

Rule Six: You’re not writing a serial novel.
And since I brought up those lazy emails that start with the obnoxious and irritating “Re:” (the kind you get when you hit the reply button), there’s absolutely no need to send a freight train of appended emails with every email. You know, the kind of serial novel email you get when you and your recipient keep benignly and blithely hitting the “Reply” button each time you correspond? What’s up with sending every single email in the chain over and over again? So delete appended emails (unless you’re directly referring to them); otherwise, “lazy,” “messy,” and “careless” will be a major part of your branding.

Rule Seven: Reply instantly.
It’s amazing how many businesses, small to large, get this one wrong. And it’s so bloody easy to get right! Replying quickly shows that you value your relationship with the recipient. If you can’t send a reply, send an acknowledgement that you received the email and tell them when to expect a fuller reply. Never: “I’ll get back to you,” but, “I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning.” If you’re out of the office or not otherwise ball-and-chained to your email, set up an auto-responder. And, as a side note, if someone sends you attachments, open them (if you dare) and acknowledge that you received them in working order. Two weeks later is two weeks too late to tell someone there’s a problem with attachments.

Rule Eight: “Angry,” “p-o’ed,” “irritated,” and “defensive” are not winning brand positions.
Not emailing while angry – or peeved or agitated or just plain ornery – is such a nose-on-your-face, instinctually good-sense rule that it’s practically ensured never to be honored. Angry emails not only guarantee to make any disagreement, misunderstanding, or conflict worse, they are unforgettable messages about your company. Would you buy a full-page, 4-color newspaper ad with a 72-point headline, “WE’RE PISSED OFF AT YOU!!!!!”? If not, why send an email that trumpeting the same message? If you’re provoked, walk away. Down a pound of Scotch. Scream at a subordinate. But cool off.

Rule Nine: “Send” isn’t shorthand for “second thoughts.”
Again, some ideas are so good that no-one thinks of them. And the simple discipline of saving and revisiting emails before you send them is one of those ideas. It may add some time, but composing an email, saving it, letting a bit of time pass, and then reading it later to make sure it communicates brand values simply mimics the carefulness that goes into all other brand communications. The more serious the subject or recipient, the more urgent the need to get your itchy trigger finger off the send button. But that doesn’t exempt you from replying as quickly as possible — just send a message that a fuller message will be coming some time in the future.

Rule Ten: Don’t use email.
Nothing beats real human contact. If the issue is complex, fraught, emotional, contentious, or just plain important, put down the keyboard and pick up the phone. Email almost always pours lighter fluid on a problem, since all kinds of nutty and nasty meanings can be read into even the most well-intentioned statements. And every one of those nutty and nasty meanings is a perception of your company and its products. If you’re serious about your company’s brand, reach out and touch someone.

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