Keep E-Mails Concise, Focused

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Putting the term usable next to e-mail messaging would seem natural.

What's easier to use than an electronic message that comes to you automatically, appears in the inbox you designate and asks only that you click a link or two?

But e-mail is not the simple process most people think it is. Having performed usability testing on several message types, the one resounding discovery is that common assumptions regarding what will help a customer actually hinder a message's overall effectiveness in three out of four cases. To link or not to link comes down to a few obvious principles. Yet most of the e-mail sent - according to IDC, Framingham, MA, that will be 35 billion per day by 2005 - ignores these principles and ends up being more frustrating than helpful.

Get to the point. How do you create a good electronic message user experience? First, get to the point. With the glut of messages flying across the Internet every day, yours needs to get the users' attention fast. Tell them what you want to tell, tell them only one thing and then tell them what to do. Don't elaborate unnecessarily. Don't use 12 words when three will do. Be concise, be accurate and avoid the overuse of descriptive words.

Every e-mail message should have one goal. Do not confuse the issue - and the customers - by mixing your signals. Ask yourself why the customers subscribed in the first place.

What was the delivery promise you made to them? What are they expecting from this message? Deliver on that promise, and only on that promise, or you risk losing them.

Simplicity and functionality. One specific area of caution regards the use of HTML-formatted messages. Once you have the ability to use images, tables, background colors and font definitions, the temptation is to use them all. Don't. Simplicity and functionality are still key. Overwhelming readers with flashing logos and bright background colors is as bad or worse than sending them those mixed messages. The most useful capability of HTML is also its most basic component - embedded linking. Everything else is window dressing and should be used sparingly and for a reason, not just because you can.

You need to reinforce your brand to help customers identify with your electronic messages. It is not recommended that you strip out so many design elements and superfluous words that you are left with a generic piece of e-mail indiscernible from every other message in an inbox. Use your logos and slogans, but do not overwhelm. Use your color palette, but use it sparingly and with purpose. Use language to establish tone and voice, but be mindful of brevity.

Stack the deck in your favor, but do it for your customers' benefit. You know what you need from that message: action. You know what they want from it: information. Never give a link that is not related to information. Make a link actionable by placing it near the top of the e-mail, but combine it with information that makes it meaningful. A link by itself, such as a home link leading to your company's Web page, is neither meaningful nor actionable.

Stay focused. As you compose and construct any electronic message, remain focused on the single goal you defined for your message before you started.

Is what you are adding to the message helping to focus on that goal, or is it getting in the way? Are you being motivated to fill up space and, therefore, adding unnecessary words that detract from your message? If what you want to say is, "Our money market rates are up 0.5 percent!" and you make that a link, there is not much more that needs to be said. The more you say, the more you risk diluting your goal. If you are promoting a winter sale with coats at half off, provide pictures to illustrate a taste of the selection available with as little accompanying text as possible. The pictures will speak for themselves.

An added word of caution about erring too far on the side of brevity: Never think of your e-mail products as disposable commodities. Think of them as important messages. Once you have started to condense your compositions, every word takes on even more significance. Make your messages short and sweet, but don't cut so much from them that they come off as stunted or abrasive.

Again, these rules would seem self-evident, but many messages ignore simplicity and functionality in favor of attractiveness and informational excess. To help your customers use your messages, be obvious, overt and concise.

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