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Three Reasons Why I Deleted Your Mass Email

No, those cornea-melting colors and ALL CAPS sentences don’t “break up” the text.

Three Reasons Why I Deleted Your Mass Email
[Photo: via Wikimedia Commons]

I get it: You need a job, a charitable contribution, or funding for your brilliant startup idea. But your mass email asking me for help, feedback, introductions, or money is incredibly annoying and will earn you none of the above.

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Listen, I appreciate that writing individual, personalized emails is hard work, and in a lot of business situations it just isn’t possible. So, if you must send me a mass email, write it as though you’re a living, breathing, thinking human being. So many of the messages I get seem to be generated by the same robot, one that cares only about open rates and click-throughs, but not humanity. No one wants to receive nonsense word salad.

As somebody whose job involves capturing people’s attention by email (I cofounded a firm that, among other things, recruits leaders for the nonprofit sector), I’ve learned a thing or two about how to write a mass email that isn’t totally infuriating. Here’s what you’ll want to avoid.

1. The Subject Line Didn’t Say What Action To Take

  • NEW Thompson Ad: “Fighter”
  • Special Election RUINED [bad news]

These are two actual subject lines I received from two congressional candidates in special elections. Guess what the first one was about. Correct: It was about a new TV ad that Candidate Thompson was running, and it contained a request for some extra money so the ad could run more often.

Now guess what the second one was about. You can’t, because it actually wasn’t about anything, really. It was an appeal with a whole lot of “if” clauses about what would happen in the special election if I didn’t immediately hand over some cash. To make matters worse, I received three fundraising appeals from this same candidate with the word “RUINED” in all caps—in just a single week. Plus, I received two other fundraising appeals with the same all-caps “RUINED” from a second candidate, and a third from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Methinks someone is using the same consultant to write the same crappy emails, based on the fact that once upon a time, the word “ruined” resulted in decent open– or click-through rates. By the time I’d seen two of these subject lines, the senders had ruined whatever magic that term had once possessed.

The first message made it clear that an ad had launched; it signaled a specific event within the campaign, so I didn’t have much trouble guessing that I’d be asked to take a specific action accordingly. The second message, by contrast, was merely shrill and alarmist. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish professionally—win an election or pitch an investor—you need to be clear about why now’s the right time: What’s the occasion? What’s the key thing that should interest me right now about the goal you’re pursuing?

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Related: Six Ways To Write Emails That Don’t Make People Silently Resent You


Here’s one more example:

  • BREAKING: Senate to vote TODAY on Title X family planning
  • We’re missing Michelle

These are two subject lines, both from the team that writes mass emails for Cecile Richards, CEO of Planned Parenthood. See why the first one is useful and the second one isn’t? As a result of the first message, I called my senator. As a result of the second, I deleted the email without opening it. View it as my tiny signal to the email team: If you want my attention, you’ve got to let me know what action to take—clearly you already know how to.

2. It Was Way Too Long And Had Eye-Popping Formatting

Always keep it simple and useful. That means no more than three paragraphs of relevant content, clearly presented. Too often, mass emails run way longer than they should, requiring significant scrolling in order to get through them. And the multiple blinding fonts, colors, and formatting choices senders tend to introduce may help “break up” the text but definitely don’t make it easier to read.

We’ve learned this one the hard way. For years in our recruitment work, we sent entire position descriptions to our network of interested contacts. Last year, we began testing a much simpler message than what we’d been sending: a short, one-to-three–paragraph summary of the position description. In fact, we cut our test period short because simple message outperformed the lengthier one by a healthy margin right away. (I console myself with the knowledge that, at a minimum, our fonts and color scheme were more pleasing to the eye than most of what lands in my in my inbox.)

3. You Tried Too Hard To Sound Exciting

After a recent analysis of email performance, we learned something interesting: just a touch of creativity is best. When announcing a new position that a client is looking to fill, the only two approaches that performed better than a super-straightforward “Role at Organization” were “Slightly Described Role at Organization” and “Role at Slightly Described Organization.” Dangle too much detail in a bid to sound appealing, and you’ll probably lose out. Go figure—slightly enticing yet plain English for the win.

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Think of it this way: You only need to give somebody enough information to know what you’re contacting them for and why it might interest them. But you shouldn’t try and deliver the pitch and make the sale in one fell swoop—mass emails aren’t always great for that. If you must send somebody a mass email, your top goal should just to be deliver a clear piece of information and explain why you think they should care about it.

Because as the person on the receiving end, I want to believe that you’re amazing at your job, that your nonprofit is doing great work, or that your startup is going to nail it. I’d love to hear more about what you’re working on—so please write an email that doesn’t cause me to reflexively delete it.

About the author

Michelle Kedem is co-founder and partner at On-Ramps, an executive search and human capital consulting firm that serves innovative, mission-driven organizations committed to social change, both nationally and internationally.

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