Tuesday, April 20, 2010

10 Principles of E-Mail

V.A. Shiva

Q. Our organization uses E-Mail extensively, and I am becoming increasingly concerned that we are not using E-Mail responsibly. What is your advice on when to use E-Mail and when not to use E-Mail?
A. E- Mail is fast becoming the primary means for both business and personal communications; however, as with any powerful capability, there also comes an equal amount of professional responsibility. Relative to your question, I will offer you Dr. E-Mail's 10 Principles of E-Mail as the basis to build your corporate E-Mail best practices. There are hundreds of "E-Mail best practices" statements; however, by understanding 10 key principles, you can develop and customize the particular policies best suited to your organization.

1. E-Mail is not "private." You may think that any E-Mail you send is only intended for the recipient; however, E-Mail can be easily forwarded, or the recipient of your E-Mail can reply while copying or blind copying a host of others. On a different level, following 9-11 and the Homeland Security initiatives, all of our E-Mail is accessible by the government at any time and any place regardless of the level of security and encryption. From a corporate perspective, the company owns any and all E-Mail transactions made on the company's server. Also, those sending E-Mail must be aware of hackers and thieves. Be particularly careful to avoid sending passwords, credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information via E-Mail.

2. E-Mail reflects you and your organization. When you write an E-Mail, you are mirroring your thoughts and feelings in the electronic medium. It is important to understand the difference between writing an informal and a formal E-Mail. Sometimes it is okay to be funny and joking; that is the nature of the E-Mail medium. However, in business communications, err on the side of formality by spell checking, grammar checking and following proper etiquette of writing with proper headers and footers on all E-Mail communications. For organizations, every E-Mail sent to a prospect or customer reflects your organization's brand. Set standards, protocols and templates to ensure that the millions of E-Mails that are sent do not erode your brand, but rather enhance it through each communication. Within each communication, be concise with clear objectives and the result you hope to achieve.

3. E-Mail has permanence. Each E-Mail you send is more than likely saved or archived on your computer system or on the recipient's system; therefore, do not assume that an E-Mail message no longer exists, even if you delete what you received or sent. Your thoughts and interactions with others, via E-Mail, are archived and saved, potentially for posterity. In financial services organizations, all data must be saved for a minimum of seven years. Think about what you are writing and what legacy you are leaving through such communications. E-Mail communications can be presented in a court of law.

4. E-Mail can be confusing. While E-Mail is great for communicating fast and easily, it can be confusing because the sender and receiver of such communications only see words ­ not gestures and emotions. Therefore, precision is central to E-Mail communications. Do not use capitalization unless it is necessary. Avoid sarcasm, as this can be very dangerous. For example, "What are you talking about?" can be construed in many ways: a joke, an attack or a sarcastic remark. Use a clear subject line, signature line, header, body and footer in all E-Mail communications.

5. E-Mail is not free. One of the erroneous assumptions is that E-Mail is free. E-Mail is not by any means free. There are many direct and indirect costs associated within this medium. As mentioned in previous articles, it costs money for an organization to handle an inbound customer E-Mail. However, beyond this there are other costs. Spam or junk e- mail costs money to read, process, store and delete. E-Mail containing viruses has many side effects including loss in productivity and potential destruction of valuable information. Large attachments require additional space. Chain letters, forwarding of jokes and participation in flaming debates via E-Mail add to these costs. Recognize that every E-Mail interaction has a cost including your time, computer hardware and software costs and IT personnel time to maintain the systems. Be frugal with E-Mail; if you're not paying for it, someone is.

6. E-Mail is personal. E-Mail, whether formal or informal, is a very personal medium similar to personal conversation. If you send an E-Mail to someone and he/she does not respond, you will feel anxious and disappointed. Use auto-acknowledgement and out-of-office replies appropriately to let people know you received their E-Mail communication. If you are using auto-responders, avoid E-Mail loops by using varying "from" addresses. Use clear signature names at the footers so everyone knows exactly who is writing to them and how to contact the sender. In outbound broadcast e- mail marketing, the more you segment, target and personalize your mailing lists and your content, higher clickthrough, open rates and sales will be realized.

7. E-Mail is not equal. Not everyone has access to the same technology for viewing E-Mail. This means that some people can view HTML and text-based E-Mail, while others on old browsers and on many wireless devices can only see text E-Mail. Thus, be concise when writing E-Mail. This will become more and more important for wireless interactions because many have to pay by character received or sent. If you are participating in E-Mail marketing campaigns, ensure that your outbound message can be read by the different browsers.

8. E-Mail has limits. Do not use E-Mail to avoid having a conversation. Do not send angry potentially inflammatory E-Mail when a heart-to-heart conversation either in person or over the phone is needed. E-Mail is not good for debates, accusations or personal attacks. E-Mail is really designed for convenience, not for urgency.

9. E-Mail contains thoughts. E-Mail contains the thoughts of those who write the e- mail. As I have detailed in a previous column, E-Mail contains attitude, issues, requests and knowledge on the writer. By employing business intelligence, these thought forms, embedded in E-Mail, can be extracted to serve many uses from security to customer care to analytics.

10. E-Mail is asynchronous. The great element of E-Mail is that you read it when you want to read it. Those who check E-Mail every five minutes are using E-Mail in an undisciplined fashion. Reading and responding to every E-Mail immediately sets false expectations for those who send you E-Mail. It may be valuable to set a time within your E-Mail systems or through policy on when people should use E-Mail, thus establishing some clear disciplines on using E-Mail effectively.

V.A. Shiva, also known as Dr. E-Mail, is the chairman and CEO of EchoMail, Inc. Shiva created one of the world's first E-Mail systems for which he was recognized with the prestigious Westinghouse Science Award. Shiva founded EchoMail in 1994 to provide advanced business intelligence technologies for E-Mail management.

Shiva may be reached at dremail@dremail.com