Like newspaper editors writing headlines, effective communicators weigh their words carefully when crafting email subject lines.
But that’s just the first step of getting a recipient to read and act on your email message.
“Once you’ve captured someone’s attention, you need to hold it and deliver your content effectively,” says Michael DesRochers, founder and managing partner of PoliteMail.
Here are some ways to get people to devour your messages:
1. Be brief.
Keep emails to 111 words or fewer, says Kristin Graham, principal for culture and communications at Amazon. PoliteMail’s 2019 Benchmark data also reveals a readership peak at 250 words and a steep falloff in readership as emails get longer than 500 words.
“When you think about how many emails people get a day, this ‘sweet spot’ of  words is an ideal way to quickly grab someone’s attention,” Graham says.
“If you can’t get across the main gist of your email in approximately 111 words, you may need a meeting or face-to-face, versus an email.”
One of her recent messages, teasing two blog posts, ran only 88 words—including headlines.
2. Tear down those ‘walls of text.’
“Nobody wants to read a giant wall of text,” says Tyler Maritote, employee communication and engagement consultant with Assurance. “Keep it concise. Break up large chunks of text any way you can.”
DesRochers suggests short paragraphs of one to three sentences to create more “white space.” Graham recommends adding bullets or a boldface action item, and link to further information, Graham adds.
3. Use images.
Studies have shown that the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster, and images help with long-term memory, Graham says.
“Make the email as visually appealing and intriguing as possible,” adds Tracey Grove, who is the owner of Pure Symmetry, a coaching and communications consulting company, and a former Microsoft communicator. “People are usually attracted to a visual that piques their curiosity.”
She cites an email she sent regarding Microsoft engineers who kept company devices and technology running during Super Bowl XLIX. The email included a short teaser and a photo of two of them checking equipment on the sidelines, linking to a story.
“If I sent the full article in email, very few would actually read it,” Grove says. “Instead, I used a teaser to draw people in who were intrigued by the premise of the article.”
This approach consistently results in readership and engagement rates of over 80%, versus 20% for standard long emails, she says.
4. Tell people what you want them to do.
Get your action items and links near the top of the preview pane, DesRochers says. You only have about 300 preview pixels on mobile devices, and just under 600 on most desktops. You can offer more detail further down, but let recipients know right off what you want them to do, instead of burying it under the rest of the content.
You can also set expectations by categorizing your emails with one of the following:
- For your information
- Need to know
- Action required
If there’s a deadline, mention it in the preliminary 300 pixels to light a fire under the laggards.
The most effective emails at Amazon have a clear headline such as “Action Needed: Approve report by Aug. 26,” and what Graham calls a “BLOT, or bottom line on top.” A BLOT might state, “This message is for all global people managers who need to approve headcount reports by August 26.”
5. Have fun.
Like it or not, you’re competing with Facebook, Instagram and news media outlets for employees’ attention—and they all have access right there in their pocket, Maritote says.
When it’s appropriate, throw in a little joke. It doesn’t have to be Second City material; just make them smile. As one holiday season approached, Assurance sent an email reminding associates they could get a discount on Apple purchases because of a corporate membership program.
Maritote recalls the email from the head of HR saying, “To take advantage of this, walk into any Apple store and tell them I sent you. Just kidding, they don’t know who I am. But let them know you work for Assurance, and we’re part of the corporate membership program.”
A number of staffers responded lightheartedly, “Oh, I bet they know you!”
6. Break up long content into multiple emails.
People can process a high volume of messages if the content is concise, DesRochers says. By contrast, recipients are apt to take one look at a long email and set it aside.
People can process a high volume of messages if the content is concise, DesRochers says. Recipients are more apt to take one look at a long email and set it aside.
HR and news email tends to be content-heavy, and this can cause a feeling of email overload among recipients, DesRochers says.
Break that content down into digestible chunks, and send them as separate messages (perhaps a day apart). You will likely discover that more people are reading more of your messages.
7. Lighten up on the links.
Data shows that the more links you add into an email, the lower click-through rate you will get, DesRochers says. The highest clickthrough rate occurs on emails that have just one link, yet this is the most infrequently sent type of message. The next highest rate is for messages with two to six links.
“If you give people one thing to do and you make it clear,” DesRochers says, “then they’re more likely to do it.”
8. Target your audience.
If people aren’t reading your emails, could it be that you are blasting to an audience far beyond those affected by the information?
Being relevant to 70% of the audience means you’re conditioning the other 30% to tune it out, Maritote says.
“If we have 150 who need to sign up for something who haven’t, and we can identify who those 150 people are,” he adds, “we will identify them, and we will target them.”
This article is in partnership with PoliteMail.