How To Raise Your Email Above Inbox Noise
Emails from our families, friends and coworkers, however, are “signals.” We go out of our way to read them. But those emails aren’t the only ones — on occasion, we’ll happily read messages from businesses or complete strangers. Why? Because these emails are interesting, engaging and, most importantly, full of personality.
We’ve become very selective of what we consume in order to keep from drowning in our overfilled inboxes. Emails from Dad or a lifelong friend take priority, because they’re people we know and trust. Emails from outside our circle? Not so much. Our brains have an upper limit; we don’t have the capability to focus on an unlimited number of things, and our mental ability to care about the things that do interest us wanes over time.
But ultimately, we crave interaction, whether it comes from a trip to an unfamiliar part of the world, from conversations with friends or from the deluge of stories delivered by the 24-hour news cycle. We need to be engaged by ideas and people. It’s built into our psychology.
So, what can we do to make our email more engaging? How can we make sure that people are eager to read it? What gives an email personality? Before we can answer those questions, we have to overcome a couple of problems.
What we’re actually doing is moving laterally, and switching quickly from task to task. Because of this, we end up in a state of “continuous partial attention,” a term coined by Linda Stone to describe the broadening of our focus from one task to many. Whether or not this sort of divided focus is a bad thing depends on the context; it serves us well at our desks, but take that phone conversation behind the driver’s wheel, and the effect is detrimental.
Our failure to maintain a high level of interest in a subject can be traced to what’s known in psychology as “secondary traumatic stress disorder,” colloquially known as “compassion fatigue” (see the chapter by Charles R. Figley in the “Sources” section below). You’ll find compassion fatigue in just about any caregiving profession — therapists may eventually need therapists of their own, and doctors’ bedside manner might cool over the years. You’ll also find it in customer service, where burnout is common. The growing cynicism over the state of news media is another clear example, as people become wearier of the “always on, always a scoop” environment. To combat that fatigue, news outlets double down on their tactic, and the problem turns into a cycle. So, compassion fatigue is our second problem.
To capture someone’s attention, we have to overcome these issues. For email, it lies in convincing people to take that first look, and then getting them to care enough to hang on for the long term. As people become more exacting of what they allow in, we creators need to become just as discriminating about what we put out.
The Subject Line
Back in November, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Joshua Green on the short, familiar subject lines used in the Obama 2012 campaign emails. “Would love to meet you,” “Do this for Michelle” and “Hey” are three examples of subjects the campaign used.
Some of them read more like subject lines you’d find in spam than anything from the President’s camp. They’re not much better than what I’m seeing in my own junk folder today: “Let’s hang out!”; “Check this out”; “Hey!” In fact, I recall receiving the “Hey” email from the Obama campaign and immediately marking it as spam. Seriously? The Obama campaign sending an email that opens with “Hey”? Get real. That’s absolutely spam.
As it turns out, I was in the minority.
An archetypal example of an email driven by great content is Dave Pell’s NextDraft. Pell crafts each issue of NextDraft daily, with content curated from the day’s most important or interesting news, along with a smattering of related stories. What Pell does with NextDraft is undeniably successful: Today, the newsletter goes to more than 25,000 readers, and every month more than 2,000 new ones sign up. The open- and click-rate numbers for NextDraft remain so consistently high that they put the rest of his industry — media and publishing — to shame; the average open rate for NextDraft hovers around 57%, compared to an industry average that checks in at around 17%. Click rates are similarly impressive at around 30%, versus a industry average of just 4%. By all measures, Pell’s doing it right.
Pell also likes the relative permanence of email “in this era of Facebook and Twitter streams, where the news seems to flow by in the blink of an eye,” and he says there’s a benefit to the fact that “a newsletter is right where you left it.”
Knowing your readers is easier when you have a narrowly defined audience, like Pell does, but it’s not always clear from day one who your audience actually is; the readers of the Obama for America emails had all, at some point, opted in to receive the emails, whether through a petition, a donation or any of the million other ways there were to land on the campaign’s list. But over time, not everyone stuck around.
There’s a certain level of attrition in any audience. When I received my first Obama for America email, I immediately marked it as spam. Those “Hey” subject lines matched a pattern that I considered spammy, especially coming from a source that I didn’t believe would use such casual language. That doomed the endeavor from the start; working at MailChimp, I’m already preoccupied with junk email, so the notion that I’d mark the email as such isn’t really unusual (unless “Democrat 30-something user-experience designers working for an email service provider” is a segment of the population they’re specifically targeting — in which case, the subject line shows a lapse in judgment). So, admittedly, I’m probably not a good representation of who the Obama folks were trying to snag with those subject lines.
But the majority of their readers didn’t go anywhere. In this case, the remaining audience was very likely composed of Democratic and independent supporters of the President. That audience is part of what’s known in psychology as an in-group: a cluster of people who share a collective identity (see Henri Tajfel’s article listed below). Taking this into account, the notion that “Hey” worked makes a lot more sense when you also consider what your average email recipient expects. Obama’s “Hey” and a spammer’s “Hey” both work because we see “Hey” from our friends all the time; as an audience of social animals, people are already receptive to these short titles.
There’s a quote that reads, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” The remaining readers were already predisposed to open any email coming from the Obama camp. They made up a more narrowly defined audience that was emotionally invested in these campaigns, and they were exactly the right group to target.
Here again, NextDraft is the perfect example. Dave Pell’s readers rely on him to curate, summarize and deliver each day’s important or compelling news stories. That’s a big responsibility for Pell, especially considering that some of those readers might be using NextDraft as one of their few news sources.
In a world where everyone has too much to worry about, many people can’t keep up with current events by seeking out stories from specific news websites, and instead rely on aggregators — be they friends, blogs or half-hour comedy news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Given this, we can see how Pell himself acts as a news source. He isn’t simply forwarding content from various sources; he’s selecting meaningful stories, offering commentary and helping the reader to digest each item — much like an anchor you’d see on a nightly news round-up.
Pell has developed a trustworthy voice with a sense of gravitas, but he can also be funny and lighthearted, and his tone changes to suit the news he’s summarizing. Pell’s personality, combined with his interesting and reliable emails, builds trust. His emails resemble something we’d receive from a friend. Pell says there’s “a certain level of intimacy to the exchange… People let me into their inboxes, and if they have something to say, they can just hit reply.” This openness to discussion makes his readers trust him even more, and his conversational style of writing makes him more accessible as a creator.
Knowing the audience might be the most important piece of data to have before that first campaign goes out, although we may not know who exactly that audience is. In the beginning, casting a wide net is OK. Eventually, defining the audience more narrowly will be essential; that broad view that we start with makes it harder to find what works moving forward. Specialization is key. We can begin to focus on a more narrowly defined audience simply by asking ourselves who we’re writing for, by finding our in-group. Is that group comprised of industry peers? People with similar cultural interests? Friends? We can adapt our content and style based on this better understanding of the audience. We can come to a place where we’re sending them email they actually want to read over and over because, in the end, it’s something we’d read ourselves.
Once we’ve defined our audience, then crafting subject lines that work is about fitting the right peg in the right hole. It’s not an easy task, but we can home in on what piques our readers’ interests and develop a good hook by using our own preferences as a baseline. What would I like to see? What would get me to open this email? From there, we can iterate. Just talking to family, friends and coworkers to get an idea of what subject lines hit the right note for other people is a great place to start. Once the audience is a little larger, something more formal, like A/B testing, is a logical next step. With feedback from others, we then have a chance to develop our voice and tone and write in a way that keeps people interested and that fosters the relationship between creator and consumer.
Even given great content, the importance of creating a two-way relationship with readers can’t be overstated. Building a connection and making an email something that our subscribers have a stake in is necessary for success. Trust is at the root of that connection. If we’re able to provide readers with something of value that doesn’t just add to the background noise of life, then they’ll find the time and commit to hearing what we have to say. This bond is the ultimate goal for creators. A little personality goes a long way when it comes to making email interesting and worthwhile. People don’t want neutral email; they want intriguing and familiar. If the Obama campaign can get away with a “Hell, no” in its subject line, we can all find a way to pour a little bit of our own personality into what we write. Humans are social animals by nature, so why not make emails more sociable?
One-to-many mass email is, by definition, a largely impersonal venture, so email often ends up boring and lacking in character. But with care and attention, we can buck that trend and create emails that mean something to people. By getting to know your audience and writing to them in a personable and conversational way, your email can rise above inbox noise. It can be about human connection.