Internal Email Usability – Stop the Madness

We’ve all read numerous great posts about effective email marketing. Keep it short, Use obvious calls-to-action.

What about writing effective internal emails, though?

I know, I know. It’s not as important as our external emails and so, it takes a backseat. Understood. I have to tell you, though, we all need to have a refresher course in effective internal email writing.
My top 5 internal email pet peeves:

  1. The email goes on and on and on and on and on and on. And on.
  2. Entire paragraphs are bolded or emphasized.
  3. The font colors, sizes, and styles are ever-changing.
  4. The thread is 20 emails long.
  5. Clip art is used when it doesn’t need to be (and, I’m sorry, it very rarely needs to be).

Ok, before I get yelled at, I fully acknowledge that I’m certainly not perfect. Far from it. The above pet peeve I’m usually guilty of is #1.

Will you join me in making an effort to write more effective internal emails?

Here are some tips.

  • Before you write a dissertation, ask yourself:
    • Do the recipients of this email *need* to know everything I’m writing here?
    • Is there somewhere else this information resides that I can link to instead of reiterating it in an email? (Intranet anyone?)
    • How can I structure this long email better to be more readable – bulleted lists, correct emphasis, breaking up paragraphs.
  • If you bold more than 3 or 4 words in a paragraph, the emphasis loses all effectiveness. Only emphasize necessary words.
  • Multiple colors, fonts, sizes, and styles are rarely effective.
  • If the email thread is more than 5 emails long, delete the unnecessary threads. If they’re all necessary, maybe email isn’t the right place for the discussion. (Again, Intranet anyone?)
  • People might disagree with me here, but, like the fonts and colors, clipart is very rarely necessary or effective in internal emails. All it does is add to the file size.

Hopefully if your university or unit has an Intranet you’re internal email is getting better. We just launched our Intranet at the beginning of this year and I think it’s already working to help the email madness.

Am I overreacting? Possibly. Maybe it’s my old journalist roots coming out. I’m not sure. I just think writing ineffective internal emails can lead to lost productivity and frustration.

… and don’t get me started on replying-to-all …

7 Responses to “Internal Email Usability – Stop the Madness”

  1. Karlyn says:

    Actually Shelby, I’m going to disagree with you – I think that internal emails are just as important (frankly,if not moreso) than our external emails because one of the biggest problems in higher ed is actually getting anything done! My biggest problem lately has been seeing all these emails coming from schools about budget cuts – they’re 3-4 pages long and senior administrators are actually expecting everyone to read every word and all get the same key takeaways out of them! It’s just unrealistic. But then I raise my hand at a staff meeting and say “no one read this” and I get looked at like I have three heads. :::sigh:::

  2. Great stuff, Shelby!

    But I’m going to add more fuel to the fire:

    Before you lock a conversation behind an Intranet in the first place, consider whether or not it could benefit from a more public conversation.

    Some conversations that seem like more internal discussions should be public.

    I think Intranets themselves should allow for this level of granularity so that we can share some of our internal work with external colleagues and decide based on context what gets locked down.

    While some topics may seem like airing our dirty laundry in public, a little public dysfunction is good if other organizations have experienced these growing pains and can help diagnose and resolve them.

    On the flip side, when you do well, it’s important to be able to showcase Internal efforts on more broadly. If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound? The same goes with good Intranet content. I’m sure there is great stuff happening on Penn State departmental Intranets; I just wish we could see it in action across departments or share it across other academic institutions.


  3. I’ll get in on this too:

    You should make sure the emails are relevant and segmented properly as well. We have a huge problem where so many bulk emails go out on campus (plaintext, no real editorial oversight besides the office wanting to send it), and they tend to be so irrelevant to anything people do, that everyone just filters them to a folder (occasionally the trash), and NEVER looks at them.

    As a communication tool, it has become actually quite useless. It’s simple legacy keeping it alive: “We were one of the first people to start using this tool X years ago.”

  4. @Karlyn – Thanks for disagreeing with me about the importance of internal emails. Seriously. We have to take the internal email madness more seriously.

    You bring up a great point with the budget emails. I think administration is the worst offender. In an effort to get important messages out, they cram 1 email full of every single tidbit possible. Unfortunately, then, less people read it and their goal of disseminating important information effectively has failed.

    @Nikki – I agree with you to a point. In a perfect world, I think you’re absolutely right. The problem is that in the real world of higher ed, users may be reluctant to use the Intranet if they realized it was open to the public. Right or wrong, I think that’s the case right now.

    That isn’t to say that’s the way it always will be. Just like anything else, higher ed is quite far behind. As we educate our internal folks on the benefits of the Intranet, and, beyond that, the benefits of sharing information, I think we’ll be there. Right now, I just don’t see that as realistic.

  5. Another pet peeve: I was once a member of a very large campus office’s listserv. And we would regularly get fundraising announcements from this listserv in all caps. Subject, message, the works. All caps.

    I wish I were kidding. But no, we were “yelled at” regularly to donate our time, money, and attention.

    If this starts to happen in your office, please nip it in the bud. If you don’t, it may become the proverbial way it’s always been done.

  6. @Michael – “As a communication tool, it has become actually quite useless.” I couldn’t agree more. The unfortunate thing is it doesn’t have to be useless. We’re the ones that made it that way.

    The problem with relevancy is that the the university or units have to keep their email groups current in order for that to work to a large scale. Someone can write a relevant email to a large group and have all intentions of sending it to only that group. If the proper email list doesn’t exist or they have to guess as to which one to use, it defeats the purpose. Then you have people receiving multiple copies and others not receiving it at all — which goes back to your point I quoted earlier in this comment.

    Maybe those emails are better suited for the Intranet anyway.

    @Anne – The dreaded listserv! They should do away with them all together. Again, that’s what an Intranet is for! To Nikki’s point earlier, think of some of those listserv’s and the information that would benefit others within the university or even the public.

    BTW, I can’t believe I forgot all caps. I can’t believe people still use them and don’t realize how offensive it is to receive an email in all caps.

  7. Kyle James says:

    Here’s my rule for you… that has gotten me out of lots of confusion and saved a lot of time of editing emails.

    If I’m sending out an internal email keep it short and no room for misinterpretation. If I can’t say everything I need in two sentences then shorten it or just don’t send it and pick up the phone or walk over and talk to people.

    I’m to busy doing real work to write a five page essay for interneral consumption that will get misinterpreted five ways and someone will find a spelling error and all of a sudden all the shit is on me… just not worth it.