Does Your e-Mail look like Junk Mail to your Reader?

(republished with permission from Your Virtual Insurance, May 2, 2002,
published by

A large portion of the email I receive is junk. But I have to be sure before deleting.
I can usually figure this from the preview screen (Eudora), but sometimes I have to open it to be certain.

What surprises me is how much legitimate mail *looks* like junk. Over the last while, I
tried to figure why. The obvious things are misuse of the …

  • From field: Often crony names, rather than a straightforward email address, preceded
    by the full name of the sender.

  • Subject field: Often cute and clever, rather than a clear statement as to content.
    Sometimes blank.

  • Greeting: Often opens with an odd heading, sometimes in all caps, as is true of a lot
    of junk mail. Legitimate email opens with a name, as in, “Bob,” Hi Bob,” or even
    just, “Hi.”

  • First Line: Lousy grammar and spelling errors right from the start;
    spammers write some of the worst stuff you will ever see.

  • First Line Revisited: No sense of the purpose of the message for several lines.
    Get to the point. Fast!

Sure, some of this is from people new to the Web. But a lot of it is from people supposedly
in business. How long they can continue with such poor standards is another matter.

HTML: Hot Stuff?

Some must think so, for I’m getting a lot of it. The other day I got a real dandy: black text
on a black background. Totally unreadable. And not all mail readers can deal with HTML, which means your message
may never be read.

While things may change, a good deal of the spam I receive is in HTML. While probably not fair,
my first reaction to any message in HTML is that it’s junk. If it proves not to be, then it’s someone who is
not being professional.

While sending streaming media along with HTML may be the wave of the future, it is not
appropriate today in business. Send only standard text in a non-proportional font such as Courier.

In addition to the above, here are some common blunders I observed, that contribute to an
overall sense of something I don’t want to read. If you want to annoy people, then go for it. Most know
where the Delete key lives, and use it frequently.

Send 80 Character Lines

Many people, including myself, have their email reading window set at 65 characters as the
maximum line length. So when you do not hit Enter at or prior to the 65th character, your message on my
screen looks like:

>I wanted to let you know about a neat site I ran into the other day. Wow
>it’s terrific. Knowing how much you are into panda bears,
>you’ve just got,
>to see this site.

This is difficult to read. “But hey, if folks don’t like 80 characters per line,
tough stuff!” Fine. Everybody has a right to their opinion. Good luck with this one. Many people are
almost as impatient when checking email as when surfing. If you don’t make it easy for those who receive
your message to read it, it may be trashed.

“But why would anybody narrow a screen to 65 characters?” Because a 65 character
line is about twice as easy to read as one 80 characters long. Most newsletters use this line length, some
even less.

Quote Back Everything!

Never quote an entire paragraph; your response can be difficult to find, particularly if
the original message wrapped. Also be hesitant to quote the entire message below your reply. If I can’t
remember easily, I have to go hunting for what I said, which takes time. This is particularly true when the
reply is to a message sent out three or four days back.

The best approach is to quote just enough to be sure your reader will remember what was said
earlier as a transition to your reply. Quote no more than a couple of lines, unless more is absolutely
necessary. Also be sure to add blank lines to highlight the difference between quoted text and your reply.
Here’s how I might quote the example of wrapped text above. And I’ll remove the wrapping for better readability.

> Knowing how much you are into panda bears, you’ve just
> got to see this site.

Thanks for the heads up, Joe.

Yes, it does take a bit more time, but to the extent you care about your image, it’s a must.
To the extent you care about communicating effectively, it’s a must. Sending clean, easy to read email is
mandatory. Your customers will downgrade you if you send anything less.

Everybody Loves Email

Uh huh. It is much wiser to assume the person you are writing to is very, very busy. A
second good assumption is that they receive several hundred emails a day.

“But hey, that’s not so.” Maybe it’s not. But make the assumptions anyway.
They lead to better email habits.