Two Kinds of E-Mail
Here was an e-mail that got my attention. It was very relevant—to me.
Sitting in my files for three months were four $80 balcony seats to the Mel Brooks musical, “Young Frankenstein.”
The musical was to be the capstone of an evening with my stepbrother and his wife—our once-a-year splurge for something on Broadway guaranteed to be tasteless and hilarious. (Mel Brooks did not disappoint.)
Ticketmaster’s reminder e-mail was thoughtful, and I was glad to have received it. Being an airhead, I might well have found those tickets in the file next summer.
That e-mail made me feel that Ticketmaster and Mel Brooks cared about me. These are folks I like doing business with.
It was short, sweet, to the point and wasted none of my time.
That’s how most e-mails are these days.
Is it possible to make an e-mail look important—give it gravitas?
If so, when and how should you do it?
How Mark Cuban Deals With E-Mail
Here’s a 2005 online interview by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, founder of Baseline.com, with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban:
How many e-mails do you receive a day?
Not including spam e-mails, probably 1,000 or so.
How many of these do you reply to?
All employees and biz related, all customers and about 10% of strangers.
How much time every day do you spend on reading? On responding?
3 to 4 hours per day.
Who gets the quickest response and why?
Someone who wants to spend money with one of my companies. For obvious reasons.
What expectations do you have about instructions contained in e-mail you send to employees, managers and executives of companies you’re doing business with?
That they are received and understood as if I were standing there telling them the same in person. This is how I communicate with employees. It’s how I expect their first line of communications to be with me.
At 3-and-a-half hours a day—plus another half-hour deleting spam—Mark Cuban spends around 1,440 hours a year on e-mail correspondence. That’s the equivalent of 180 eight-hour days.
You can scan an e-mail, which is a lot quicker than a phone call or face time, but Cuban’s workload above is still staggering. When do billionaires have time to think? Maybe the model is Warren Buffett, who does not have a computer on his desk.
The Power of a Letter
What triggered this column was a splendid e-scam letter that I received on Tuesday from Olliver Southgate, Deputy Executive Director of United Nations. (See illustration below.) It almost followed the rules of direct mail.
In my Yahoo! in-box I received the following notice:
SUBJECT: From the Desk of Olliver Southgate, Deputy Executive Director of United Nations
The subject line is the equivalent of teaser copy on an envelope. I was teased into opening this.
I clicked on it and it smelled of officialdom! For an instant I was conned into thinking this guy might be a real U.N. functionary. Seldom is a formal letter like this found in the body of an e-mail, but rather sent as an attachment—something that is perhaps printed out and kept in a file like a contract or agreement.
This was reinforced by the formal signature block that included the guy’s name, title, e-mail, phone and fax numbers. The late master copywriter, Bill Jayme, wrote:
Two basic tenets of selling are that (1) people buy from other people more happily than from faceless corporations, and that (2) in the marketplace as in theater, there is indeed a factor at work called “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
Okay, I’m a sucker. But for a brief instant in time—a nanosecond—this guy made me feel special.
Olliver Southgate’s letter falls apart in a number of ways. For starters, his salutation (“Dear,”) was generic. Had it said “Dear Mr. Hatch” or “Dear Denny Hatch” the personalization would have made me believe that he was talking exclusively to me.
The message was not only in serious need of copy editing, but also was mostly gibberish.
A hand-written signature would have helped.
But Olliver Southgate’s e-mail made me wonder: Whatever happened to carefully crafted correspondence from one writer to one reader? I was reminded of Thomas Jefferson who, in his lifetime, authored more than 20,000 letters and received many more. So proud of his correspondence was Jefferson that he painstakingly made copies of every letter he wrote by using a cumbersome polygraph machine patented by John Henry Hawkins in 1803. Jefferson called it “the finest invention of the present age.” (See illustration below.)
Two hundred years later, after 40 years of carefully creating direct mail letters, I have become an epistolatory slob—slamming out short, snappy e-mail notes rather than long, thoughtful letters. I seldom use a salutation, starting instead with body copy. I almost always spell “thanks” as “thanx.”
I personally reply to every letter that comes into this e-zine on an individual basis, using the down-‘n’-dirty format described above.
But what about serious letters that you expect to be downloaded and passed around?
Some examples: The cover letter that accompanies a contract, agreement or resume, any of which may be attached as a PDF?
“A letter should look and feel like a letter,” said the late direct mail guru Dick Benson.
It seems to me that this holds true for e-letters as well as traditional mail—the kind that is delivered by the Postal Service to every address in America five or six days a week.
Rethinking the E-Mail Letter
After completing the paragraph above, I clicked on my Yahoo! in-box and found an e-letter that began “Dear Denny.” Being personalized, with my name, it got my attention.
I looked at the signature block to see from whom it came and it ended, “Sincerely, Shep.”
Who was Shep? I don’t know anybody named Shep. What was his company? Where was his office? The letter was a pitch for me to give his client (of whom I had never heard either) some publicity.
But I had to read the entire letter to find out who Shep was and how to reach him. This information was buried in the body copy of the eighth and last paragraph.
Shep, if you are reading this, your letter did not look and feel like a letter. It was a bastard form—a cross between a scrawled e-mail note and a formal letter.
At the top of the page, you should have either used your letterhead or the following:
FROM: Shep Jones
Shep Jones Public Relations
City, State Zip
Phone * Fax
TO: Mr. Denny Hatch
310 Office Place Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Dear Denny (or Dear Mr. Hatch):
With this information as a reference point, Shep is no longer a stranger, but rather a real person with a real business who is contacting me from a real address. He is not some guy operating out of suitcase or paying by the hour at his local Internet café in Nigeria or Amsterdam.
And because Shep data-entered my name and address, it was obvious that he had something to say exclusively for me. Exclusivity is one of the seven key copy drivers—the emotional hot buttons that cause people to react. (The other six: fear – greed – guilt – anger – salvation – flattery.)
Further, I tend to lose stuff in my computer, so I tend to download those documents that I need to act on. With the letterhead—or “From/To” copy blocks—the correspondence has gravitas. It looks and feels like a letter and demands action.
When I come across it on my desk or in my file, it looks important and I will pay attention to it.