4 features every executive email should have

Communications experts say loading up executive emails with too much decoration doesn’t do anything but prove the message came from someone other than the credited exec.

This is the second article in a three-part content series on engaging employees via email. This series, in partnership with PoliteMail, offers tips and multiple ways to improve your internal email communication.

Anyone who has worked at a big company has probably received an email in which the “from” line has the CEO’s name, but the actual contents were very obviously written by a team of communicators.

There are some giveaways, says Brad Langford, Cisco Systems’ manager of business operations for the service platforms group. Among them are fancy headers and big pictures of the executive from whom the message supposedly came.

When Langford was sending out executive emails with all those bells and whistles, “people weren’t really reading it,” he says. His statistics from the email measurement client PoliteMail bore that out. The emails were going into “to be read” piles, and then possibly never revisited.

“There was too much to look at, too much frosting on the cake, so to speak,” Langford says.

So what really gets people’s attention when it comes to executive emails? Langford and other internal communications pros offered some advice.

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1. Don’t dress it up.

The message should be from the executive, not sent on his behalf. Communicators may set up an identically named executive alias with a slightly different email address as a shared mailbox. That way, the communications team can compose, send, and measure the executive communication, and the exec can monitor that inbox for replies.

“When it’s more of an action-oriented message, we’ve found that just typing it like a regular, short email [works],” Langford says. PoliteMail showed a much higher click-through rate for links on those types of messages.

Langford says his team polled employees and found that many of them thought executives had no idea what was in fancied-up emails.

“It feels so rehearsed,” he says.

Once the team stripped them down, employees felt better about the correspondence.

The use of short, to-the-point sentences, bullet points, and highlighted links for action items will make a difference between the email’s being read or its being ignored.

Speechwriter and executive communications consultant Ian Griffin agrees that a CEO message shouldn’t look all that different from a personal email.

“The CEO’s name on the message ‘from’ line should be sufficient to cause people to open it,” he says. “A simple, scanned signature inserted at the end of an email does wonders for personalization. I would not go beyond that in terms of formatting.”

2. Do change it up.

Not all emails are created equal, says Mollie Cole communications director at gaming machine manufacturer WMS. The vice president of a human resources department communicating a new hire or a big promotion should probably be more formal in tone, she says.

“We believe this signals to readers the email carries important information, and is a keeper,” she says. “On the other hand, a congratulatory email from the CEO recognizing a winning team is more authentic when the tone is personal and the format less formal.”

3. Try not to waste employees’ time.

The best executive email is written using an authentic “voice”—so if executives compose and send the message themselves, with a review and some minor editing, that works best. Employees aren’t going to open an email with a subject line that’s nothing but jargon, Griffin says.

“‘A note on our earnings’ beats ‘A review of the recent Q2FY14 Financials report to Wall St.,'” he says. “‘Good job, team!’ is better than, ‘Positive feedback to customer assurance front line staff members.'”

Langford says he tries to include words that let employees know that an action is required or desired of them: phrases such as, “action required,” or, “please read this.” Sometimes he puts those in all caps, he says. It makes the email more immediate, he says.

“If [employees are] going to spend their time reading something, I want them to do something with it,” Langford says.

Cole says adding something to a subject line to perk up employee interest isn’t a bad thing. “FY ’13 results” might not get too much attention but adding “annual bonus-bound” to that will certainly draw in readers.

Cole also suggests sending employees to the company intranet to flesh out news items that require lengthy explanation, rather than putting it all in the body of an email.

4. Don’t overdo it.

Griffin suggests sending executive emails only for significant events. Don’t put the CEO’s name out in front of employees too often, he says.

“Over-communicating will dull the impact,” he says.

Executive emails work best when they tell a brief story about how a worker’s effort fits into the company’s larger goals. These messages help build a culture of engagement. “In speaking with our customers who measure results,” says Michael DesRochers of PoliteMail Software, “when you need a group of employees to understand something or do something, a quick note from the boss with a link to the desired action will generate the highest email click-through rates.”

Measure clicks.

Langford says he doesn’t worry too much about how many people open executive emails—they may close them immediately. What he really cares about is whether people click on the links within. He says he uses PoliteMail data to determine what the next executive email will look like.

Langford says he and his team funnel what they learn from the data they collect to try new approaches, and then they measure the resulting click-throughs to gauge success.

PoliteMail Software provides internal email metrics and analytics tools for Microsoft Outlook and Exchange to help corporations measure and improve their employee and partner communications.


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