Using E-Mail as if People Really Mattered
by Mitchell Friedman, APR

Not too long ago, I started receiving e-mail from an organization that books professional speakers. As I was not interested, I asked to be removed from their mailing list. In response, I received the message 'Are you sure?' which touted the many benefits of continuing to receive such e-mail. The message also indicated that I had been on the mailing list since 1993 (which was a surprise, since I had not received e-mail from them previously), and that they would regret not communicating with me. I replied, 'Yes, I am sure, please remove me.' Then I heard: 'Well, if we are taking you off our list, then you should take us off your list and no longer send us any materials.' (Not that I ever did!)

Sadly, companies like this speakers' bureau that have discovered e-mail simply adopted it wholesale to meet their needs, without much consideration for the interests of people receiving it. The online world is different because we choose what we want to see, when, and in what format. Thus, organizations must drop their egocentric ways and begin using e-mail as if people really mattered, rather than simply filling an organizational mandate for reaching out to prospects, members, clients, and other key audiences in the quickest, most cost effective manner. In other words:

Determine the best means to communicate with your audiences. That may be e-mail, but it could be regular mail, fax, or other means. Do not simply eliminate other options to save money or time for staff. If you convert to electronic communications, explain the reason(s) for doing so, and transition to e-mail or other formats over time.

Offer alternative means for people to receive information from you. For one public relations organization I chaired, I printed out and mailed every month a paper newsletter to nine members (out of 90) who wanted to receive it by the U.S. mail. They were offered the option of receiving it by regular mail or e-mail, and opted for the former. The remaining members preferred to receive the newsletter by e-mail, and that is what they got.

Provide e-mail recipients an easy way to stop receiving communication from you. That means an unsubscribe line (or simply language letting recipients know they should tell you they do not want the communication) in every e-mail you send to a targeted group, even if the recipient is a client or member who has paid you money to receive your information. Perhaps they consider your communication redundant, the format inappropriate for e-mail, or simply useless, or they simply do not want to hear from you as much as you want to communicate to them.

Adding an unsubscribe message also gives users a way to avoid telling the sender directly that their e-mail is unwanted. I have sensed that some people fear offending list managers when they ask to be removed, in the absence of any language making it easy to cease the communication. An unsubscribe message offers recipients an out - and minimizes bruised feelings at both ends of the communication.

Identify the types of information members of key audiences want to receive from you by e-mail. Perhaps it is new product announcements, articles, legislative updates, or meeting notices. On the other hand, perhaps there is content they DO NOT want to receive, like announcements on meetings they would not attend under normal circumstances or multiple reminders to attend these same meetings.

Strive to minimize redundant communication, if not totally eliminate it. I am referring to a tendency some organizations have to send information by e-mail, then fax, and, occasionally, by regular mail as well. If I have responded to one of the mailings and continue to receive others via different means, I am left to wonder whether my response was received and noted, not to mention the effort involved in having to deal with the redundant communication itself. It is easy enough to query recipients about their preferred means of receiving information that the inability (or reluctance) of many organizations to do so is downright perplexing.

Use e-mail formatting and other techniques to make it easier on recipients. Many of these techniques have been covered in detail elsewhere online and offline (if you would like references, please let me know), but I feel two points in particular are worth highlighting here given how significant their impact appears to be on the effectiveness of e-mail for business communication.

First, there is blind carbon copy (bcc). By putting a list of recipients in the bcc field within your e-mail software (whether it is Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo, Hotmail, or any others), you hide the individual e-mail addresses from everyone else. So recipients see your message, minus a long string of addresses visible if you simply put everyone in the TO or cc field. In short, using bcc safeguards the privacy of your correspondents and is a positive step towards keeping your messages short.

Second, there is a tendency to pass information along by e-mail indiscriminately without considering whether or not it is likely to be of value to the recipient. Think real hard before you forward information or send a message to a group of people. What are the chances that they have received it by other means? And do they really need to see it by e-mail - if at all? Asking and answering these two questions will likely cut down the volume of e-mail flowing back and forth, thereby helping that e-mail considered truly important stand out.

Mitchell Friedman, APR is a public relations consultant, trainer, teacher, and columnist. For more information, see .

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Copyright 2002 by Mitchell Friedman, APR. All rights reserved.

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