The Life of an E-Mail

Every time a government official, celebrity, or murderer on “CSI” gets busted, it’s because of some trail he left behind in his e-mail. It’s inevitable. Yet no one seems to learn from the last person’s mistake. Does the longevity and potentially haunting capability of a marketing e-mail have the same life span?

A few years ago when I was at Ogilvy, I was quadruple-tasking (which is normal for me) and tried to forward an e-mail to someone on my team. I wanted this person to review the results I had just received and offer his thoughts before we sent a response to our GM. The issue came into play when I made an innocent typo. Instead of sending a message that said, “Look at these results and tell me what you think. Don’t share your thoughts with the GM directly until I can review and edit,” the message I sent said, “Look at me and tell me what you think. Don’t share your thoughts with the GM directly until I can review and edit.” About three seconds after hitting send, I received a call from this team member who was barely able to speak, he was laughing so hard. When he finally spoke, he simply said, “HR, please.”

The “look at me” e-mail became notorious within my team. Even today, over a year after moving on to Zinio, old team members still bring up the e-mail and joke about it. This e-mail stayed with us all, because it evoked emotion. It made a statement. My guess is that five years from now, the team will still be able to remember that e-mail and laugh.

A marketing e-mail’s lifespan may be much shorter than those scenarios identified above. Recent statistics show that the average person spends three seconds looking at her inbox to decide what to open and only four seconds reading your e-mail. Yet the impact your brand can make in that time can increase an e-mail’s lifespan significantly. Whether your e-mail is read or not, it makes a statement just showing up in the inbox. Here are some of the things your e-mail could be saying:

  • If your e-mail shows up in the spam filter, it says, “Whoever sent this e-mail has security and trust issues. BEWARE.”
  • If your e-mail’s sender name shows as an e-mail address rather than a friendly name, it says, “This is a random e-mail. Open it later.”
  • If your e-mail’s message doesn’t contain a subject line that surmises the benefits, it says, “Open only when you have time to decipher what’s inside.”
  • If your e-mail’s core statement doesn’t show, even if images are blocked, it says, “Delete this. It’s not important.”
  • If your e-mail contains generic personal data, such as “Dear Super User,” it says, “There’s a sales pitch coming if you keep reading.”
  • If your e-mail’s design doesn’t match the landing page or Web site, it says, “Your time was wasted. You don’t know where you ended up.”
  • If your e-mail is designed well, with a good sender name, subject line, and offer, it says, “JACKPOT! You might not need this now, but you’ll read this and this brand will stay top of mind when you make your next purchase decision.”

Your e-mail can be as powerful as the e-mail messages you read about in the news. All you need to do is follow best practices and remember that your reader is taking cues from you.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 one-day events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing. Register 30 days in advance and get a $40 discount!

Related reading