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A few years back, when we were all far more brilliant than we are at present, I wrote an article titled "Human Email" that was meant to gently shake marketing folks from a peculiar trance.

At the time, many marketers were enchanted with the notion that business email communication lived in its own precious universe, where the usual tenets of effective business communication did not apply.

Generally speaking, the article was well received. My email box filled up with virtual applause. Oh, there was the occasional "everything you said was obvious. So why did you bother?"

Then, in the way that the world usually works, everyone went right back to their places with more-or-less bright and shiny faces and resumed sending out anything-but-human email.

So, being a little stubborn, let me try again. I've learned a few things since that original article. Here we go.

The first cut is the least kind

Most people whom I've observed sifting through their email boxes do a little prioritizing exercise that can be called the "first cut."

My observation is that the first cut works in favor of those emails from people (friends, clients and colleagues) you know those with subject lines that are relevant to you.

Let's start with the candidates most likely to survive the first cut and try to find the basic elements of success.

All email is personal: Another way of saying this is, "Email to human beings should be from human beings."

When possible, the "From" line should have the name and email address of your company's most relevant executive. I'm talking VP titles, at a minimum. Why? Because it sends a signal that someone important is seeking to begin a dialogue and that there is some hint of accountability and personal involvement.

(Granted, it would be extra wonderful and all if your executive happens to be named Steve Ballmer or Michael Dell or if that executive is a friend or the personal banker of the email recipient. But we scrappy and resourceful marketers are not put on this earth to do such easy things.)

Once you start down a pathway toward personal communication, you will logically make other choices that (trust me on this) increase the likelihood of campaign success.

For example, there is, by definition, no such thing as a personal HTML email message. Think about that. Executives don't merrily hammer out HTML messages on a typical Tuesday morning. Go with text. Write it as much like a letter as possible, beginning with a standard salutation, preferably personalized. Attempts at minimal HTML that look like letters with real signatures are certainly a step in the right direction.

But, based on our experience over the last three years, we have seen the power of text email messages. In fact, our own extensive data shows that executive-to-executive text email outperforms HTML email by almost 3 to 1. That's right, nearly 3 to 1. (I realize that this HTML vs. text is an old debate. But, for us, it is no longer a debate at all.)

A pithy subject: Subject lines should be no more than about 56 characters long, including spaces. Why? Because you want a complete thought to fit within the subject "box" as it is presented by most email applications.

I used to liken subject lines to traditional direct-mail teasers. The analogy is still a good one, but it's only useful if you know (mostly from experience) what distinguishes a good teaser from a bad one.

Let's say that you're inviting executives from the consumer products (CP) industry to a San Francisco event. Going a step further, let's assume that this event is part of a series of executive breakfasts around the country; so, ideally, you are targeting CP executives who live in or around San Francisco. Mention San Francisco in the subject line. Also mention "Consumer Products Executives" in the subject line.

Now, if this sounds like really obvious stuff... well, OK, it is. Yet, very seldom, if ever, do I receive email that addresses me in such specific and relevant ways. (However, I do receive lots of email that uses my first name in the subject line. Invariably, it is stuff about prescription drugs or the approval of the mortgage application I never submitted or about Heather and Amber and Julie and their dorm room, where there happens to be a webcam.)

Now, what about evocative, intriguing subject lines? A few years ago, I wrote one such line for a respected CEO who was inviting customers to an executive forum in Phoenix. Because this was an in-house list and pretty much all of the invitees would recognize his name in the "From" line, I reckoned that this was a chance for a little bit of intrigue: "A trip to the desert." That email was extraordinarily well received. Registration numbers surged. (Actually, the marketing department was taken aback by the response and, at first, couldn't believe the numbers.)

I don't like gimmicky subject lines that promise something grand then deliver, well, Heather and Amber and Julie and their dorm room webcam. Tricks (much less outright deception) work against what you're trying to do with business marketing: build trust and create some common ground for a productive conversation.

Do your executives have anything to say? Does your company have a point of view?

OK, we've touched on the keys to surviving the "first cut": i.e., email that appears to be from a real person and the use of simple, relevant subject lines.

Now, what about the text of the email?

Over the years, I have learned the hard way that marketers who survive at one level of an organization have zero interest in corralling a senior executive to approve "his" or "her" email message. The approval process is too time-consuming and not very pleasant. This strikes most marketers as an exercise in how to shorten one's career. Sound familiar?

On the other hand, we writers and marketers in the agency sphere are not in a good position to deliver a credible imitation of one of your company's most senior executives. At worst (or best, depending upon your point of view), we try to channel your company's "branding guidelines" bland-speak, churning out sentence after sentence that is somewhat well crafted but utterly meaningless. At best (worst?), we follow our own hearts and ideas about what leadership is and about the issues we think that your customers would want an executive to address. In other words, we commit that cardinal sin of trying to say something. I'm not saying that what we say is right. But, we try to deliver some meat rather than just fluffy buns.

My advice is to figure out a way, by hook or by crook, to say something.

Often, corporate leaders have what could be called "meta-skills" that work pretty much in any situation. They know how to sell an idea or a product, just about any idea or product. They know how to listen or how to appear to listen. They know how to rally the troops and how to inspire greater effort. And they often know how to tell wonderful customer stories, albeit the same ones time and time again.

But, when it comes to effectively putting into written words what a company truly stands for and believes in—and how that company is championing the interests of its clients and all of its stakeholders—meta-skills can only take you so far. You need a specific, passionate knowledge and curiosity about the world; and you also need excellent peripheral vision: the natural ability to recognize and draw upon useful analogies from ordinary life, history, literature, and other industries.

This last capacity is what one client CEO—who is a certified genius—describes as the ability to deliver "a little educational uplift." He went on to add, "Top corporate officers appreciate a sprinkling of sweet education with their cereal."

But, how do you make this counsel operational? You are in no position to remake the souls and intellects of your senior executives. Their egos too often bar the door. Their schedules are ghastly. What can you do? You're just trying to get your email campaign done so that you can go on to the next item in the annual marketing editorial calendar.

I don't know the whole answer. The best corporate leaders are connected (at the hip) to the successes and challenges of their customers. They are fierce and unrelenting customer champions. Ask your CXO what he or she sees and hears when visiting customers. If you begin a peer-to-peer email campaign—regardless of its ultimate call to action—with real stories from the field that capture a common challenge, you are off to a strong, reality-based start.

A further thought: Were I you, I would begin asking an incendiary question within the corridors of your company. Here's how I framed it two years ago when I was visiting the VP of one of the world's largest software companies (a client), "Everyone knows what your company does. But, I think what's more important—and what will prove valuable in the future—is figuring out the answer to this: What does your company know?"

(In this specific situation, the answer was fairly obvious: the company understood industry-specific business processes better than any other software provider.)

So what does your company know?

Obviously, that knowledge, illustrated with examples and augmented with third-party research, becomes the basis for "thought leadership" and interesting executive marketing communications.

Here are some basic items for the body of the email text

  • A little separation is good: Begin a little bit out in left field with an interesting quote or some thought that challenges conventional wisdom. This is what I would call "separation." It builds dynamic tension into the communication. Good speakers also understand the power of this technique. The key, though, when speaking or when writing in the medium of email, is to not stray too far or linger too long.

  • Honor the recipient's time: Quickly move to the unvarnished purpose of the email. "I realize that you're swamped, so here's why I'm sending you this note today: I want you to join me in Chicago for our upcoming Business Forum, October 11th, at the Westin Hotel." We sometimes put this at the very top of the email, just as a way of honoring the recipient's time.

  • The first link: Add your first call to action link at the end of the unvarnished statement of purpose. Put this first call to action—and there will be second in the last paragraph—in parentheses to create some distance from the personal text. Example: (Already intrigued? Visit to review the agenda and register for this exclusive executive event. The event is being restricted to only 500 senior executives.)

  • If they can't scan you, they won't read you: Deliver well-aimed bullets. Have no more than three key points and make sure that they are in bullet form, meaning that they can be easily scanned.

  • The second link: Wrap up with some reference to the introductory thought, a call to action and the second link.


Maher's Mercifully Brief Jeremiad About Communication

What passes for communication these days is an endless repackaging and recycling of the obvious. (And, by "obvious" I don't mean those things that we don't notice enough: those features of ordinary life that sit like the red ball of the summer sun right on the edges of our eyes.)

Is business nowadays filled only with "accommodationistas" and terminally bland appeasers? I don't think so.

But the bulk of marketing communications seems written by someone who is afraid of their own shadow and for someone who is a cipher, a shadow in this world. No stands are taken. No principles defended or defined. You can hear no human voice reading these words.

As marketers—as effective communicators—we should not be pelting prospects, much less customers, with an endless hail of messages that say nothing, for to do so is self-defeating. Our audiences become wary, then calloused, and finally just tune us out.

Oh, I hear the business marketing pragmatists groaning. "Chris, we're not in the business of risking offense. Our role is only to serve our customers, not to potentially put them off. If that means we put the bland back in blandishment, so be it. We don't have time for either truth or beauty."

Good arguments. But, specifically in the arena of executive-to-executive communications, I do not believe that business people trust an "accomodationista." The squishy, the ill-defined, the too-happy-and-hollow inspire no loyalty. They do not make us better. In fact, like cheap candy, they make us feel worse. On the other hand, even if you disagree with an executive's strong, principled stand, you respect the fact that a stand has been taken at all.

I believe that the companies that will define their industries for years to come are those that will adopt a new mandate: to recast themselves as educators and strong, creative customer advocates. They will become efficient producers or distributors of timely, relevant information. Such companies will explore new ground in their communications, take principled stands that are not convenient, and offer even provisional insights through blogs and innovative customer forums.

Their marketing schedules will come to resemble editorial calendars, with customer issues and challenges (not products or services) mapped out and communicated in advance.

It is these companies that will animate their core principles (and reasons for being), and bring the pulse of life to their words.

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Chris Maher is president of Fosforus, an Austin-based, business-to-business marketing, media, and interactive design firm. Reach him at