How to Keep Your Email Out of the Junk Yard

spam-964521_640Since January 1st, I have received more than 3,400 emails that have been classified as “junk.” That means every day, my email account automatically detects and quarantines somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 undesirable messages. And that doesn’t count the SPAM that slips by the filter or is caught by my ISP before it ever gets to my account.

The first iterations of what we call email looked very different. Back in the mid 1960’s an MIT program called MAILBOX allowed electronic messages to be placed on a single computer for the next user to find and read. As technology progressed, point to point connections (like the U.S. Department of Defense’s ARPANET) allowed two machines to communicate back and forth. It took the advent of computer networks before our modern concept of email to arrive.

Today, email is the default method of communication for organizations around the world. Just last month, 430 billion emails were sent world-wide. According to SenderBase, an email monitoring service, 86% of was junk. That’s 369 billion emails – an average of 13 billion per day – that we didn’t ask for and that hold no value for us as the recipient.

Of course, not all junk email can be classified as SPAM. There are plenty of legitimate emails from people we know that we mentally classify as junk. My inbox sees a constant flow of messages from people vying for my attention. Some of them have valuable things to say, others are a waste of time. The sheer volume of email is difficult to manage. I’m constantly working to prioritize what comes my way, sifting through the flood of information to find those bits that best deserve my attention.

As a sender of email, I’m fully aware that my audience fights this same battle. Whether I’m communicating to customers or coworkers, my message enters the same boxing ring as the others. I can’t take for granted that the emails I send will even be opened. Ultimately my goal is for them to be read and responded to as opposed to deleted and forgotten. To win this war of the Inbox, I need a strategy.

  • I need to send selectively. Email is scarily easy to use. That means we use it a lot. The volume is the first hurdle to overcome. So I try to be selective when using email as a communication medium. Here are a few cases when I feel email is the wrong answer:
    • When your entire message would fit in the subject line.
    • When your topic involves confidential or sensitive information.
    • When a phone call will do.
  • I need to pick the right audience. It’s tempting to include the world in your email message, but unless what you have to communicate has broad appeal, it pays to limit the number of names in the To: or Cc: section. If the message is directed toward me, my name should be on the To: line. If it’s important that I be informed, maybe I belong on the Cc: line. Other than that, I don’t need to be involved.
    • Don’t select Reply All unless everyone needs to see you response.
    • Don’t include someone as a Cc: as a form of name dropping or intimidation.
    • Don’t use the Bcc: field. Just don’t.
  • I need to use a good subject line. Once you’ve decided an email is appropriate, and identified the correct audience, the next battle you have to win is for attention. Your subject line is like the title of a magazine article or a newspaper headline. It should give me a sense of what the content involves and pique my interest so that I choose to read more.
    • Save funny or mysterious subject lines for non-work topics.
    • Communicate the purpose of the email clearly.
    • Make it easy to scan; stick to no more than 10 words.
  • I need to make the content worthy of the reader’s time. The last thing I want is for a reader to feel like I have wasted their time. What I send needs to be relevant, helpful, and/or necessary. If people view my communication as amateurish or unnecessary, then I lose credibility. I don’t want to do that.
    • Keep it short – shorter emails are read sooner and the information is retained longer.
    • Use the spelling and grammar check options. Please.
    • Periodically check for feedback to make sure your emails are having the desired impact.
  • I need to include a clear call to action. I often read emails and find myself wondering “What is it they want me to do?” Your email should communicate how the reader is supposed to react to the information. If you want the reader to take some particular action, tell them what it is.
    • List specific calls to action in the first paragraph.
    • Provide a time frame for response and/or next steps.
    • Allow adequate time for response – your readers already have jobs to do.

When texting came on the scene, many took it as a sign that email was on the way out. Something tells me we’ll be managing our inboxes for a while longer. Make sure your emails get read – design them to be appropriate, informative, and welcomed. SPAM belongs in a can.