If you're running a small business, especially one that relies on the Internet for at least some of its marketing, mastering the art of email is as essential as cranking up the coffee machine and hanging an Open For Business sign on the door.
Your email can speak volumes. But if you're not careful, it will do it in a squeaky voice or an incomprehensible accent. There are four key components to every email: your address, subject line, message text, and signature. Screw any of them up and you could look foolish and unprofessional to the world at large. Here's how to avoid that fate.
1. Your Email Address, Your Self
To the 2.4 billion strangers who occupy the Internet, your email address is your identity. Yet you'd be surprised how many small business owners mess this up. For example:
| If your email address is…|
|It tells the world|
|CrankyBob1912@aol.com||You were born in 1912. You are using a dial-up Internet account and probably still own a rotary phone.|
|Reddy4Askshun@hotmail.com||You are in business, but it's the kind that gets you kicked off Craigslist.|
|Bob.Jones@comcast.net||You work at home and never change out of your pajamas.|
|Bob@YourCompanyDomain.com||You are CEO. Also, possibly, janitor. But at the very least you've got your own company.|
There's nothing wrong with having the same email address for 20 years, or using Web mail or an ISP account for informal correspondence. But if you're running a small business and want to be taken seriously, you need to have an inbox at your own domain. You could be employee number one – and there may not be a number two. But at the very least a personalized domain specific to your business tells the world you can afford to spend $10 to register a domain plus another $5 to $10 a month to host it. And that's a start.
“It's true, certain email addresses make you look different,” says Taylor Aldredge, Ambassador of Buzz at Grasshopper, a virtual phone system. (We'll reserve judgment on what job titles like “Ambassador of Buzz” say about you.) “AOL, Hotmail, or anything .net, for some reason, makes you look like you have no idea what email is. If if you're running a business, an address like that raises red flags because it's not related to your business name.”
2. Subject to Approval
The second most important aspect of your email is the subject line. Why? Because it may be the only part of your message anyone ever reads. So make it a good one.
| If your subject line reads…|
|It tells the world|
|WAASSSSSSUUUUPPPP????||You are a lizard in a beer commercial.|
|Exciting news!!!!!||You're easily excited but a little vague, and probably need to tone down the meds.|
|[no subject]||You forgot to fill in the subject line. You may also occasionally forget to wear pants.|
|Regarding that business opportunity we discussed||You're a professional with business to discuss. That or you're a con artist. Either way, people are likely to read on.|
There's no secret formula for writing the perfect subject line, but there are some landmines to avoid. Email marketing service MailChimp analyzed over 200 million emails to determine which lines will get your message read, and which ones will get trashed.
MailChimp's conclusions: Subject lines should be simple, grammatical, and short – ideally 50 characters or less. If you've got a local angle to exploit, use it. The more timely and relevant you can make the subject to your recipient, the more likely he or she will actually read it. And avoid using marketing-speak or words like “Help,” “Percent off,” or “Reminder.” Even if they don't trip your recipient's spam filter, they may still be perceived as spammy by your reader.
3. The Message is the Medium
Your recipient has seen your email address, read the subject line, and actually opened the message. If you've gotten this far, you're doing great. Only about one out of five commercial emails is even opened, according to market research firm Silverpop.
Now don't blow it.
| If the contents of your message …|
|It tells the world|
|ARE WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN ALL CAPS||You are deaf. Also, your CapsLock key is stuck.|
|…are written in lower case with minimal punctuation as if the entire message were just one endless steam-of-consciousness sentence occasionally interrupted by ellipses…||You are stoned. Also, your CapsLock key is missing.|
|Read lik a ranson note rife with typhos mispelings & sudden font changes||You are a) a spammer, b) a scammer, c) developmentally challenged, or d) all of the above.|
|Are concise, relevant, and grammatically flawless||You've done this before.|
This is the important part – what you actually want to say. Remember, email is not a text message, but it's not a Russian novel either. And it's likely your recipient will be reading it on a small screen. Four out of ten commercial emails were read on mobile devices last year, according to digital marketing agency Knotice. So keep it short and to the point. Some experts advise keeping the message to five sentences or less, at least for initial contact.
Otherwise, common sense rules apply. Use a spell checker. Proof your work. Be light but not too informal; be professional but not stiff.
"Writing quality in emails impacts a company’s perceived credibility and competence,” says Brad Hoover, CEO of Grammarly, a maker of grammar checking software. “For a small business, properly written emails can make the difference in closing deals or new hires."
And now, a word about adding file attachments: Don't. At some point you may want to attach a resume, business plan, request for proposal, or sample of your work to an email message. That's fine. But make sure your recipient both wants to receive it and is expecting it.
Given how easily viruses spread and how quickly your computer can compromised by an infected file attachment, sending one unsolicited is an invitation to delete. And if you're planning to attach a huge photo or video? There is a special circle in Hell reserved for you.
4. Watch Your Signature to Noise Ratio
Wait, you're not out of the woods yet. The last vital piece of your email identity is the signature — sig for short — that appears at the end of each message.
| If your email sig contains…|
|It tells the world|
|Rainbows and unicorns||You've seen too many Harry Potter movies.|
|An inspirational or funny quote, like “No matter where you go, there you are”||You're a riot at parties. And you've watched Buckaroo Banzai too many times.|
|Your name, business name, street address, office and mobile numbers, fax number, personal and professional email, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and every accolade you have received in the last 20 years||You're a douchebucket.|
|Name, title, email address, phone number||You're a busy person – and so are your clients.|
Think of your email signature as the business card you leave behind after a meeting. It should contain the essential information and little else. Relevant graphics, like a company logo, should be used sparingly.
“Rainbows and unicorns or quotes from Gandhi may be meaningful and special but they leave a bad impression,” notes Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, & Charisma. “The signature should include name, title, and company name. Be careful of being too cutsie with your sig line; and check the spelling before you create one.”
If you must have rainbows and unicorns, that's fine – but only if you're in the rainbow-and-unicorn business. Otherwise, leave the magic to Harry and Hermione.
Award-winning journalist Dan Tynan reads maybe one out of every 200 emails he receives. Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites.