10 Reasons Why the Email You Just Sent Will Never be Read

The 1-Minute Take-Away:

* We live in the noisiest time in history
* In digital and email, everyone is competing for your attention and nobody has the time to read what you are sending
* Not getting replies to email messages you send? Here are 10 potential reasons why

PROBLEM #1: The email you sent me was TOO LONG.

IMPORTANT TAKE-AWAY POINT: In the Kingdom of Overload, BREVITY RULES.

As humans working in a digital environment, many of us receive hundreds of messages per day. Perhaps even thousands if you include email, IM, text messages and co-workers who “drop by” to talk. At this volume of noise, it is physically impossible to read every email message in depth, particularly long ones. So what ends up happening is that most of us “snack” on our Inboxes.

We scan subject lines. We open only select messages and decide in the first four sentences if we want to continue reading, delete, reply or act. What happens when we open an email longer than a paragraph or two is this – we tend to read the first four sentences and based on those lines alone, we try to make a determination of what to do next.

The answer is easy if what you sent is only four sentences. Your message will be read and, if it warrants a reply, you’ll get one – right then. But if longer than 4 sentences we tend to scan the rest of it. What normally ends up happening to a long email is that we leave it in the Inbox for “Later”.

The problem is that “Later” never happens. So days go by. You (mistakenly) interpret my non-response to mean that I’m not interested in what you have to say (not true). You may call me and ask me if I received your email. This is far too common.

If you sent it, I received it. The problem is that what you sent me was too long. How long is too long?

If it takes me longer than 2-minutes to read and reply to your email, it really should have been a phone call instead.

SOLUTION:
- Treat email like it’s SMS text messaging on the phone*
- If you want a faster reply from someone, give yourself a maximum cap of one paragraph or 3 to 6 sentences and be happy with a short reply or pick up the phone.

*Keep in mind that this article is about how to get your email read, not how to get people to like you or appreciate your thoughtfulness. I’ll cover those topics in another article. ;)

#2. PROBLEM: The email you sent me was in HTML FORMAT.

Yes, I do understand that this is the 21st century and that we can now safely send colored text, images in our email signatures and gorgeously formatted fonts using HTML email.

PAY ATTENTION TO THIS, FOLKS:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

It’s critical to understand that we now live in what is largely a mobile world. The majority of users now read their email via a mobile device like a Blackberry, iPhone or Android phone. If you send someone an HTML formatted email and they are a Blackberry user, the message doesn’t render properly and is nearly impossible to read because the font is so tiny.

An HTML email message received on a Blackberry is NOT going to be read or replied to; and since you likely have no idea which mobile device the person you’re writing to uses, the safest thing you can do that will give your message the highest chance of being read AND replied to, is to send it in Plain Text.

#3. PROBLEM: The email you sent me did not have an accurate and descriptive subject line.

SOLUTION:
- Keep the Body of the message short and the Subject line descriptive
- If you’re replying to a message I sent you, and you’re now changing the topic of what we are discussing, please do me the courtesy of giving it a new and descriptive Subject line
- Sometimes you can send your entire short message in the Subject line and put (EOM) or [EOM] at the end of the Subject line to indicate End Of Message, that there is nothing more in the Body, so no need to open it up.

#4. PROBLEM: Your task list is not necessarily my task list.

The email that took you 45 seconds to compose and send, asked for and created 30 to 60 minutes of work for me and you forgot to include your credit card number so I could charge you for my time.

Seriously. If I’m scanning my Inbox, snacking on messages here and there like most people do these days, particularly if I am on a mobile device, if you sent me an action request with an attached document, you’re not looking for a reply – you’ve just created a Task for me. That’s obviously okay if I work for you and I’m on the clock, but it’s not okay if I don’t and I’m not.

What took you 45 seconds to send asked for 30 to 60 minutes of my time. I value my time. I choose how to invest my time and my attention.

Free advice – free document review requests – are like close to the bottom of my priority list, just above the “Hey Adam, I’d like to pick your brain” emails, which are also code for “I value your expertise, experience, knowledge and contacts enough to reach out to you, but not enough to pay you money for them.”

And so again, what you sent is either deleted (the ever-elusive “Non-Response”); or is left in the Inbox for “Later”.

SOLUTION:
- RESPECT MY TIME AND THAT OF OTHERS YOU SEND EMAIL TO.
- My Attention is Currency. If you write to me and ask for it, you should either:
A) Have already built up some Social Currency with me prior to your request
B) Offer to PAY ME for my time in doing what you’re asking me to do if it takes longer than 2 minutes. (I bill at $175/hr just to give you some sense as to what I feel my own time is worth)
C) Never, EVER use the phrase: “Pick your brain”. Ever. It’s really insulting to the recipient, it implies that you don’t value their expertise and yet here you are contacting them to obtain it, so you’re likely to never get a reply at all; or get a look of confusion or disbelief.

#5. PROBLEM: The email you sent me had multiple topics and jumped around too much.

Yeah, you followed the rules and kept it short, you didn’t use HTML, didn’t send me a business plan to review for free or for the promise of a beer; but you sent me a single email message that addressed and/or asked about three different issues.

SOLUTION:

Again, treat email like SMS text messaging. If you have 3 topics you want to discuss with me, I would much prefer to receive 3 very short messages, each with its own descriptive subject line. This way you see, when I look at our discussion in Gmail, I can see it as a thread, I can look at the history. It’s not just a jumble of junk and I’m able to clearly follow it and identify any action items from it.

#6. PROBLEM: You never asked for a reply.

These days it’s all people can do to stay afloat with email, to keep their head above water. So many times people will scan it, read some of it and then delete it or archive it without replying to it. We call this a “Non-Response”.

SOLUTION:

* If you want a response or if your email requires a decision or a response, ASK FOR ONE.
* Start the Subject line with: ACTION-NEEDED: so when I see your message on my mobile device, I’ll know that this is not something I can just get away with reading and deleting – that you’re waiting on me for something that cannot move forward without my decision or input.
* Consider ending your message with a Question (?). Doing so implies that I may need to answer that question, even if briefly.
* If you’re asking me to take action, you damn well better make it EASY for me to take action. Give it to me in bullet points so I can scan it, as I’ve done with this post; or tell me that all you need is a YES or NO response; or another thing I’ve done that works well is to even pre-prepare responses and just tell the person to put an X in the [X] box next to their reply.

I’m very busy. I get hundreds of emails per day. If you want a reply from me, don’t leave it up to me to decide whether to give you a reply or not because if you do, you’ll likely not get one. It’s much faster for me to scan and delete. Ask for one if it’s needed.

In the same instance, if your message does NOT require a reply, PLEASE SAY SO!

I love it when someone starts (or ends) an email with: “FYI-Only, No Reply Needed” because it tells me I can scan it, absorb the information and delete it or archive it for later reference.

The major problem with email and why it is such a Time Suck, other than the sheer volume of it is this:

Email is NOT 1-to-1. It’s not a fair and equitable exchange of time and attention like a phone call is where we both spend the same number of minutes talking. I can spend 30 seconds and send you something that may take up 3 HOURS of your time and attention to determine and craft an appropriate response. Multiply that by 400 messages per day and you’re screwed!

Again, RESPECT THE OTHER PERSON’S TIME AND ATTENTION before you click SEND.

#7. PROBLEM: The email you sent was difficult for me to SCAN.

We’re starting to hear this a lot on the web lately: People no longer READ. They SCAN.

As a bibliophile, I’m sad to hear this, but it’s true and it’s true for email messages as well.

SOLUTION:
- Assume that only the Subject line and the first sentence of your message is going to be read. Make them both count.
- Chunk your text into easy to scan pieces, not long paragraphs with run-on sentences. Bullet-point summaries are great! The faster I can read your message, the faster I can reply to it!

#8. PROBLEM: The email you sent me was mislabeled as SPAM by my email service provider, my corporate mail filters or my email client/program/application and I never actually received it.

This is actually happening quite often these days, so it’s worth mentioning.

SOLUTION:
- Ask those you send email to on a regular basis to “White-List” the domain associated with your email address. Example: My email address is adam at adamboettiger.com, so I’d ask folks to add adamboettiger.com to their Safe-Senders list in Outlook. In each client it’s different. In some, like Gmail, simply adding the person to your address book or contacts list will suffice.
- Never, ever send bulk email messages from your own email address. Always use a reputable email service provider like MailChimp.com or AWeber.com. When you send even a newsletter out through your own address and mail servers, just doing that can generate complaints that can land your company’s domain on the blacklists of internet service providers.
- If you sent something urgent that required a response, consider following up with a phone call.

#8. PROBLEM: Your email signature was TOO LONG and it contained TOO MANY calls to action.

Make up your mind. Do you want me to follow you on Twitter? Or do you want me to call you? Or do you want me to be your friend on LinkedIn? Or do you want me to call you on Skype? Or do you want me to go read your blog? I’m guilty of doing this myself, so every few weeks I review my own email signature.

IMPORTANT: Keep It Simple.

If you give me too many options, I will do NONE of them. If you want me to take action from your email signature, consider making your signature SHORTER and include ONE GOAL, just ONE ACTION.

With me? I like Twitter, so many times my email signature may simply be my contact information and a call to action to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adamboettiger.

#9. PROBLEM: I get way too much email, so your message is competing for my limited time and attention.

For those of us who work in the online sector, we have limited control over how much email is sent to us, the volume of messages that we receive daily. There are things that we can do to minimize the flow, but by and large, it comes with the territory and is part of doing business online.

SOLUTION:
- Pick up the phone and call me. My voicemail # is 503.946.6450. Sure that’s not my cell phone number, it’s my public number that you can use to leave a voicemail message. When you do so, you immediately remove yourself from the other 400 messages in my Inbox and you stand out.

Now, keep in mind, everyone is different. There are some people who abhor the phone. They prefer digital and avoid voicemail as much as possible, giving strong preference to SMS text messages and email. It is really for those people that I write this article, that they in turn can share it with their followers so that we all can understand how to tame this email beast by sending better email messages.

#10. PROBLEM: The email you sent STILL never got a reply.

That’s okay. Leave it alone or send a short follow-up note.

It’s called a “Non-Response”. People use it to avoid confrontation at times. They don’t like to say “NO”, so they don’t. They just delete your message if they’re not interested. And that’s okay. Don’t feel bad. Maybe they didn’t have time. Maybe they were focused on other things. Maybe they’re too busy. Maybe their dog died. Who knows?

SOLUTION:
- Use this free service (http://www.followupthen.com/)
- When you send your SHORT, wonderfully descriptive email, in the BCC: area, put: 3days@followupthen.com and in 3 days, you’ll magically be sent that same message back to yourself, reminding yourself to follow up by phone with the person or nudge them again.
If you use email daily for business, this service is MISSION CRITICAL. It is currently free, but I would pay for it and I use it daily for followup reminders from 3 days to a month to six months. It keeps things from falling through the cracks.


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About Adam Boettiger

Practicing digital minimalist living in Portland, Oregon. I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with email. I write as often as I can, enjoy reading and also love to scuba and skydive. Content on this site is opinion only and subject to this site's Terms & Conditions. Twitter: @minimalism and @adamboettiger

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  • http://twitter.com/Guerrilla_edit Guerrilla editor

    Adam, like this a lot! 
    Only thing I would say is I find it off-putting when an email comes through with ‘ACTION NEEDED’ in capital letters – feels a bit bossy and also, when I’m reading emails on an iPhone, the ‘Action needed’ bit of the subject line obscures the main meat of the subject line

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    @Guerrilla editor: I agree. What is “URGENT” to someone else doesn’t mean it is “URGENT” to you. And read my article on HTML email here regarding iPhone and HTML email: http://digitalminimalism.com/2011/five-tips-for-preventing-eye-strain-while-using-mobile-devices/

  • Christo

    Excellent. Even if there are two numbers 8.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/ryanheathers Ryan Heathers

    For general work correspondence, the HTML email advice works well. But for marketing emails, HTML is very important in order to see tracking stats, etc. Other than that, excellent article.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    So here’s my response to that: Ryan, I’ve been conducting HTML email marketing campaigns since on could do so. I’ve been in the digital marketing sector since 1994. The metrics you speak of are flawed. Open rates only matter A) If they are able to be counted and B) If the message reaches the recipient’s inbox. What really matters is the bottom line: How many you sent to and how many salse or orders it generated. Tracking is only important to the technical degree that it is accurate, and it’s not. So go with your gut and go with the bottom line. Don’t rely on technology. It’s never a question of if it will fail but WHEN. Bottom line: Take email analytics with a grain of salt.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    Good catch.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    Agreed. Mobile email is an entirely different animal. Most folks don’t know how to optimize for it. Look. Here’s the bottom line where email is concerned:

    If the recipient looks at it and “perceives” that what you wrote will take them longer than 2 minutes to read or act on, they will move on to the next message, saving yours for “Later”.

    “Later” never happens unless you schedule it.

    /end of story.

    Lesson? Make it short. Make it sweet. Engage.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    I also disagree that HTML email works well. The majority of user now access HTML email via mobile devices. Go look at your email in a mobile device like the iPhone and you’ll find that you’re making me scroll left and right just to read your HTML marketing message. I’m NOT going to do that.

    If what you send it not getting read, you’re burning $100 bills. And that’s not smart.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/ryanheathers Ryan Heathers

    Interesting points. :) I fully agree that open rates are not precise, but they at least can provide directional advice on what’s working or not. Without that insight, if my creative bombed I have zero clue if the issue was the subject line vs. the body content. Testing what works becomes slower and/or more difficult. At least with HTML emails I have more of a hint.

    Also, I would argue that single-image HTML emails get better delivery. That’s what the affiliate email marketers prefer, in my experience, and those people live or die on their delivery rates. The more computer-readable words in the email, the more likely it’s getting picked up by a spam filter. 

    Finally, I would also argue that HTML emails convert better because images usually tell a better story than text. So provided you’re using single-image emails to get delivery, those emails will usually convert better than plain text.

    I’m curious where you’ve find stats that most people access email on
    their mobile. I know mobile usage is growing by leaps and bounds, but I
    didn’t think we’d hit that shift point yet. If we have, I might modify my position a bit. :)

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    @ryanheathers:disqus I think we are talking about two different animals here. This article is about using email as a means of communication, not as a method of advertising. So while rendering, open rates, etc. are very relevant to email marketing, they are less so to using email as a 1-to-1 communications tool. Regarding the stats that most people access their email using mobile devices, I don’t feel the need to quantify that with studies or analytics because again, this is not about one to many but one to one communication. All one need do is take a look around and see that information workers use smart phones and they use them to check email. I never said that mobile was “replacing” laptop or desktop checking of email, only that in addition to those, most users are now using mobile. The article is about the effective use of one to one email and HTML formatting is, IMHO not an effective use of one to one email. If you truly care that what you are sending will be able to be read on a mobile device, you will be sending it in text. If you don’t care, then you probably should be using the phone or a different medium for one to one communication.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    Tell that to those who are doing it. Part of why email becomes ineffective is not the technology itself but those who are doing the sending. Every year we get a new crop of users who don’t know how to effectively use the medium. Don’t take brevity personally. It’s simply the other person’s way of managing their own fire hose… ;)

  • Harpy

    Some pretty arrogant observations in that article.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    How so?

  • http://twitter.com/etrustmarketing Barrie Featherstone

    Great article and even more relevant today. Let me make the announcement. Email Marketing R.I.P. 1996 – 2012. SMS combined with a mobile presence is now! Simply no comparison, how can you argue with a 97% open rate?

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    Thanks Barrie!

  • Abdullahi Ma

    very helpful thanks allot 

  • Charlotte

    Good article – but our organization emails many people we work with and the joke is that “they never read beyond the first line.” However, we send instructions they need to follow, and the instructions can’t be fit in a line. Our audience is comprised of all age groups and education levels.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    That’s a good point. Different age groups absorb and retain information differently. Maybe you should consider not using email for certain age groups or critical instructions?

  • thedudefromspace

    Like your article because it’s to the point. However, I would disagree with your assessment of HTML email. The formatting issue may have been more relevant two years ago, but these days it doesn’t matter much when I read emails on my Android. Of course it depends how the email is crafted. If I get a fixed-width CSS-laden behemoth I *do* have issues, but a pure-text HTML email actually renders more nicely than an old school text email because it reflows better. Yes, there is flowed-text email, but I feel nobody except me knows about those… ;-)

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    eMarketer.com

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    “Of course it depends how the email is crafted.” – This is the key point. There are too many points of failure. Not saying I’m an email purist, but simply that any time you introduce humans into the mix, be they someone trying to properly code an html marketing email or an end user trying to use their default email client on their computer, you introduce a probability for error in formatting. Whether you’re speaking of email marketing or one to one correspondence, your goal is to get a message opened and READ. Given the attention span and overload of folks these days, just getting it READ is already a problem. When you add the variable of improperly formatted HTML into the mix you reduce the probability even more that what you send will be READ. If you’re a brand paying for marketing, you’re burning money. If you’re simply communicating, why would you want to decrease the probability that what you are sending will be read when attention and overload are such huge issues already? You may as well just not take the time to send it and pick up the phone… ;)

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    “Also, I would argue that single-image HTML emails get better delivery” – Email deliverability or whether what you send actually reaches the end user without being flagged a false-positive as spam and makes it into the Inbox is a much longer discussion that has far more variables than just a single image. The Email Service Provider used and their relationships with other ESPs play a much huger role I’d argue.