How Spam Can Teach You To Write More Effective Emails

Spam is massively annoying, and we’re all suitably grateful that modern email systems manage to shunt most of it out of sight (even on Thursdays). But despite its bucket-of-suck nature, spam can teach you how to make your own email more effective.

Picture by Adam Baker

This idea occurred to me last week when I was at the Bitdefender launch event in Romania (which definitely gave me a lot of food for thought one way and another. Catalin Cosoi, who runs the online threat lab, noted that one of the most effective techniques used by spammers was to include a “Dear ” greeting to the beginning of messages. “If you add the person’s real name, that will work much better in terms of responses,” he said.

The same is also true of genuine email. Simply remembering to address someone by their name increases the odds that they’ll respond or do what you ask, simply because it doesn’t come across as a bossy order. So what principles can we deduce from what spam does well, and what it does badly?

Be personal. As we’ve already discussed, showing that you’re directly addressing someone — that you really intended them to see this message — counts. Yes, this is basic etiquette, but in an era where we constantly try and restrict our thoughts to 140 characters, it’s worth remembering.

Be accurate. One of the giveaway signs of spam is the spelling errors, random spaces and dodgy expression. Modern email clients and browsers generally have spell-check built right in, so make sure you use it. For more specific guidance beyond spelling errors, check out our pair of lists of misheard expressions to avoid, and learn how to use contractions correctly.

Consider your audience. One of the things that makes spam annoying is its utter irrelevance. Spammers blast millions of messages and generally don’t care if penis enlargements end up with female readers, French bank phishing messages hit Australians and cheap pharmaceuticals get flogged to people with full health insurance. The end result? We all think they’re morons and douches. Think about that the next time you decide to CC everyone who might possibly care on an office email.

Clearly define what you want to happen next. A hallmark of any marketing message (spam or otherwise) is the “call to action”: a clear indication of what to do next. In spam, this is often a link to a URL. No wise person would click on it, but the intention is clear. Take the same approach with your own emails: always finish with a clear indication of what you need to happen next. If you can’t come up with one, you need to consider whether you need to send the email at all.

Any other lessons you can draw from spam? Share your insights in the comments.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?

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