Despite the tech pundits who say that email has seen its heyday, it continues to play a central role as one of the best online productivity tools for business networking and growth. Users send approximately 294 billion email messages a day, and that excludes nearly 106 billion spam messages. That’s nearly 4 times as many internet page views, Google/Yahoo/Bing searches, and Facebook and Twitter updates combined that are created every single day.
Students and workers who have come of age in the last decade have indeed gravitated to lighter electronic tools—like IM and SMS texting—to communicate quick thoughts. In addition, the rise of photo streaming and easy file-sharing programs make large attachments less necessary. But email remains ideal for sending careful, structured thoughts that contribute to business growth.
Sure, there are some places where email is not the best tool. And we certainly want to avoid clogging inboxes for jokes, family photos, and quick announcements. But if you’re mindful about which communication tool to use when working with others, you should continue to use email to outline assignments, directions and policies.
The format, structure, and unlimited word count of emails makes them perfect for formal communications or explanations. For example, emails are great for:
Giving clear, precise instructions
Putting something on the record or taking notes for distribution
Attaching and sending certain types of sensitive or edited documents
Introducing someone to an idea or meeting
Formally addressing or inviting someone
In addition, because emails can be sent to several people at once, they are often used as default collaboration tools. Several apps, such as Salesforce or Evernote, even encourage emails as database management tools through the option to BCC files in those services.
For all their practicality, emails are also slower and more cumbersome than other communication and time management tools. When an email is sent, there is little way of knowing when or where it will be viewed, making it particularly bad for urgent queries. Email inboxes are commonly overcrowded and important emails get overlooked or buried. Perhaps the biggest problem with using emails is that they tend to get skimmed. Because emails can include so much detail, they are also least likely to be read in depth. In fact, they may often need to be reinforced with in-person meetings.
If you do decide that emails are the best form of communication for your message, below are a few best practices. Coupled with a strong email policy, these will help ensure that corporate email doesn’t become a time suck for your team.
Make the subject line clear: When recipients receive your email message, they should be able to see at a quick glance how the message relates to them and why it’s important. Remember that they may be looking at a preview of your message in their email application or on their phone. Or they may only see subject lines in their inbox. If your subject line is confusing or irrelevant, your email will surely get deleted in a hurry. Therefore, make the subject line specific and, if you are forwarding a message, take the time to type a new, precise subject line.
Include clear action items: Be specific and clear about the actions you want the recipients to take. To get even faster responses, talk about how the action relates to the recipient's objectives, and always give due dates. There are basically four types of actions you could request:
Action: The recipient needs to perform an action. For example, "Provide a proposal for a 5 percent reduction in tavel and entertainment expenses."
Response: The recipient needs to respond to your message with specific information. For example, "Let me know if you can attend the staff meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Friday."
Read-only: The recipient needs to read your message to make sure they understand something. No response is necessary. For example, "Please read the attached sales plan before our next staff meeting on August 12."
FYI: The recipient should file your message for future reference. No response is necessary. In fact, even reading the message is optional. For example, "Enclosed for your records are your completed expense reports."
Surface key information to the top: If you are forwarding an email or copying additional people, it is important that you make it easy for them to understand the email. Therefore, you should make sure that all relevant information appears at the top of the email chain.
Provide the proper data and documents: Make sure you give recipients all of the information they need to complete an action or respond successfully to your request. Your co-workers shouldn't have to come back to you asking for information, whether it is a supporting document or a link to a file on a shared website. Before you send an email with an attachment, make sure to double-check that the attachment is included. Certain email programs will allow you to turn on a check functionality for this purpose.
Send the message only to relevant recipients: Target your message to the appropriate audience. Only people who have to complete an action on the subject line should be included on the "TO" line. Here are two simple questions to help you filter recipients:
Does this email relate to the recipient's objectives?
Is the recipient responsible for the action in the subject line?
Use the CC line wisely: It is tempting to put loads of people on the CC line, but copying too many people can quickly create an unproductive environment. Here are some things to consider when using the CC line:
If you put someone on the CC line, it means you are sending to them just as an "FYI." No action or response should be expected from individuals on the CC line. If you have a virtual executive assistant, it's a good idea to CC orto keep them in the loop.
If a person does not need to see the email, don't include them. If you are not sure that the information is related to a co-worker's objectives, check with that person to see if they want to receive your email on that topic.
Want more email tips? Take a look at our suggestions for keeping emotion out of corporate email.