Writing Email: Beware If the Mask Slips

Email is, without question, the most valuable communications tool available to online marketers.

It is immediate and one to one, and has a light touch. A “light touch”? By that I mean that email is a tool that communicates in a very immediate, very personal, but also transient way. It’s here now and deleted in a heartbeat. And who cares? That’s what emails are for. Fast and easy whispers over the ether.

If you look at emails between individuals, they are not written in the same formal style as a traditional letter. They are briefer, lighter in content and style. Email is fast, and so is the manner in which it is written and consumed. It’s the junk food of written communication, and we love it.

Here, for example, is the reply to an email I sent to Don, a sometime colleague of mine.

    love to see it. happy new year

That was it, exactly. No salutation. Not even a solitary “d” as a signoff. Not even a closing period. Don is a master of the brief email.

And it’s not just about brevity. Email is unique in its style and tone. It can be witty, angry, and completely ungrammatical. It’s home to any man, woman, or child, whatever his or her level of literacy.

And therein lies the rub for marketers. Email was not created for marketing messages. It did not evolve behind the doors of Madison Avenue. There is no “craft of email writing” because email is evolving right now, this second, under the typing fingers of anyone with an Internet connection.

Bummer if you’re in the email marketing business. Because rather than shape the language and culture of email yourself (if you’re that presumptuous), you have to navigate a fluid culture of communication that is never under your control.

Imagine: Every time you send an email, the recipient is sitting in front of a keyboard, just like the one you use. It’s like being a radio announcer who has to contend with an audience of listeners who all own microphones and can talk back to you and to each other at any time.

Into this culture, marketers try to insert their messages and make us spend our money. The trouble is, their tone and delivery often gives them away.

Here’s the opening to an email I received recently:

    Dear Nick,

    I can’t believe Christmas is almost here. In New York we’re expecting snow… a white Christmas. As I look back on the last year I realize how truly fortunate my family has been, and I have become even more aware of those around us who are less fortunate.

Pretty nice so far. A little formal for an email. A little too “nicely” written and deliberate. But that’s OK. Different folks and all that…

But here’s the next paragraph — and here’s where the mask slips…

    I am particularly grateful to the 15 million FreeLotto players who have won over $25,000,000.00 in the eighteen months since FreeLotto began, and I think about the power of that large community of people.

Oops. This email was, in fact, from the CEO of FreeLotto, one of those online lottery sites. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice man, but this approach just doesn’t cut it in the world of email.

One moment he’s waxing lyrical about the snow at Christmas and the next he’s thanking 15 million lotto players for their business. It just doesn’t fit. If I had received this as a letter by snail mail (and had just consumed at least a full bottle of wine), I might have let this past my natural bullshit detector. But we’re not so charitable when we read our email.

When the bullshit detector sounds its alarm, it means it has noticed a slip of the mask.

And if the mask slips, it’s a mask. And masks have no chance of surviving within the publicly held, quick-and-easy, bare-naked medium of email.

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