Fixing Email: When Content Strategy Spills Into the Inbox

No one likes email. If you say you like email, you are lying. If you say you’re NOT lying, that you really LOVE email and you love EVERYTHING that comes with it, you are obviously a robot. Or a cyborg. One of those.

Because no one likes email – especially email that comes from a business or organization.

BUT FINE, you say. Email is the easiest way to get a message in front of thousands of people at the same time. It’s fast, it’s inexpensive and it’s passive. WE HAVE TO DO EMAIL.

I get that. So let’s all make a pact, then, eh?

As content people, we’re responsible for shaping these emails, or at least helping others shape their emails. We know customers probably hate them. We still do it because of those traits we mentioned above: fast, inexpensive, passive. More than that, we know it’s often effective.

It’s up to us, then, to make it better.

How This Tangent Started: The Examples

Example One: For the past several months, my wife, Kerrie, has been a member of OpenSky, a curated shopping site that leans heavily toward cooking products. Their model is to limit new users to a handful of celebrity curators, ostensibly to create some level of exclusivity.

We have purchased several products from OpenSky. It’s not a hard concept: they offer dramatic sales on higher-end products for a set amount of time, a kind of Groupon for kitchen equipment and clothing. Simple. Easy.

Two days ago, she received an email:

OpenSky Email

Nothing awful, but that line: “Now that we think you’ve gotten the hang of how OpenSky works…” This insulted Kerrie. It felt condescending. A mis-worded email gave her the wrong impression.

Example Two: I get bombarded with emails from social networks. But the email I got yesterday, from a friend trying to connect with me on a site called, made me want to scream.

OpenSky Email

Garbled weasel words and blocks of text in desperate need of unsucking, sure. But it was the tone that struck me; they are asking for network permission, and they are using words that I would never use with my network. They are people, not wires, and I have no interest in leveraging my friend network to help myself get ahead.

That’s not what friends do.

Hey, Remember? Words Matter

Email is the only online message-based technology ubiquitous enough to handle most confirmation/instruction/notification pushes. We’re not at the point where Facebook messages or texting or Twitter DM can provide the same wide, automated blanket of text, links and instructions that email provides. So, as much as we’d all like to fight back, we have to understand that email is here to stay.

Customers don’t like email because it’s annoying and, for the most part, written for a mass audience. Let’s be honest, though: it’s not so intrusive that people will just quit. It’s easier to delete than it is to unsubscribe. Once you’re in, you’re in.

Let’s get this out of the way. The title of this post? It’s purposely arrogant. We won’t be fixing email. We can’t fix email. It’s too big. The barrier to entry is zero. We will just need to try to make it better. Here’s how we start.

Control it.

Before we can make our emails better, we need to determine what to say and how to say it. Email messages are connected at the hip to a company’s brand standards, and should follow them as closely as possible. Demonstrating – and determining – voice and tone is 100% about figuring out what your tone IS and why it helps your users.

What we’re saying: these are things that happen at the discovery stage of a project, and they need to be done understanding that we’re not just presenting websites – we’re also presenting email messages (and microcopy, and twitter updates, etc.).

  • Pin down users and goals – Who will get these emails? How will they help? Why should a user care? (We use a combination of user interviews and audience/outcome determination to figure out who our email recipients will be.)
  • Create a tone hierarchy – I fell in love with this concept during Margot Bloomstein’s talk at Confab. We bring stakeholders into the room and say, “Who do you want to be?” They are forced to settle on a tone.
  • Determine messages – You know who the users are. You know what they want. And you know who your client wants to be. Push them together and determine your message.

This last point is key – this helps determine which concepts deserve email messages and which ones are better left unsaid. Will we be focus on creating new leads by emailing product opportunities? Or are we a service-based company that should send emails only for account settings and updates?

With this info in tow, we’re able to control what messages go out. Step one toward de-cluttering the outbox.

Justify it.

Everything should match a brand style. No, no no – we’re not talking about mission statements and brand values and unique positioning statements. We’re talking about the history, tone and purpose of the company. We’ve determined what we need to control the message, but now we need to make sure it jives with the company’s goals.

For example: the history of Company A is one of long standing tradition, a folksy, family-run company that’s weathered hard times. The owners have a sense of humor. Past ad campaigns have focused on talking cows – funny, but not offensive.

Their email? It certainly shouldn’t be stuffy. It shouldn’t be corporate, filled with legalese and big words. But, it also shouldn’t be irreverent.

So saying this…

Thank you for signing up for Company A. You must click the following link to complete your registration. Doing so will legally bind you to our terms of service, which you must read and sign off on before final registration is complete. Failure to do so will result in non-approval of your new account. Thank you for your patronage.

…obviously does not work. However, softening it up a bit…

Welcome to Company A! Your registration is almost complete.

Please click the following link to complete your registration and accept our terms of service. We’re happy to have you on board!

…works a lot better. The Terms of Service no longer sound like a prison sentence, and the tone sounds genuinely happy to have you on as a member – respecting both the time it takes to go through with this additional step and your intelligence as a logical, fully functioning human being.

Spread it.

You can’t expect one person to write every email. That’s crazy talk. But you CAN give them a style guide.

Email style should be included in any content style guide, complete with examples and, more importantly, reasons. Borrowing from Erin Kissane and Mandy Brown’s presentation on a pragmatic approach to editorial style (link via Georgy Cohen), let’s adapt what should be included in a style guide as it relates to email:

  • Guidance on voice, style and tone. Formal or not formal? Respectful or edgy? Refer to the tone hierarchy, and GIVE EXAMPLES.
  • Mechanics and length. Do we refer to the company by its formal name, or are our users familiar enough? Do we have a word limit? What should we write in the subject line?
  • A healthy variance. Different messages need different treatment. Give examples of a confirmation email, a direct follow-up, an instructive step in the process, and all other email concoctions.

As Mandy and Erin are paraphrased in Georgy’s recap, “strive for consistency, not uniformity; create principles, not rules.” We’re helping. We’re not dictating.

Finally, make sure every major email template – we’re talking automated responses, customer confirmation, new friend messages – goes THROUGH one person. An editor. Someone who knows the users.

Test it.

For god’s sake, you guys. Did you know that there are companies that just send this stuff out? No testing, no safety net?

Don’t do that. Ask your significant other to read it – even out of context. Ask your mother. Send it to users and ask for their opinions.

Don’t do this blindly. Seriously. That’s the very definition of doing it wrong.

Set it and forget it.

Do not do this.

And Now, One Last Thing:

There hasn’t been a lot of focus on developing email content on its own, the assumption being that email simply falls under the “Web Content” umbrella. But because email is everywhere, and because companies rely on it as much as instructional copy and microcopy, it deserves added attention.

The basics are simple, and they match the same themes as full web strategy:

  1. Research and respect your users needs.
  2. Use simple words and refrain from jargon-ing up the damned thing.
  3. Give your reader the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Get it in writing. The style guide rules.
  5. Empower someone to oversee and protect the style.
  6. Profit!

There’s nothing here that hasn’t been mentioned already by Ginny Redish and Colleen Jones and all of the other heavy hitters of tone, influence and clout. But that’s for us. We as content strategist KNOW this stuff. It’s up to us to get everyone else on board.

Those examples I gave? They aren’t so bad that we should shut down the site. OpenSky may need to confirm their tone and user perceptions. Is it patronizing reassurance, or is Kerrie an outlier? needs to un-jargon their request message – and, at the same time, soften their style to treat contacts for what they are: friends, not commodities.

Ultimately, we don’t give email enough credit. I have never once been in a meeting where the client wanted to focus on email. Because email is email – it is what it is: a constant force that we have no control over. We use it when we want to contact everyone, we ignore it otherwise.

Email is a tactic, yes, and it should follow the overarching strategy laid out in our plans and templates and tone documents. But email is also a very specific beast, and not enough attention is being paid to it.

Let’s help focus that attention.