How to Get Busy People to Take Action When You Send an Email

Posted on Aug 25, 2013 | 79 comments


We all get a lot of email. And we send off scores of them, too. For important emails we hope for replies or action.

If you do the math on the number of inbound emails you get multiplied by the time it would take to read them all and respond to those that expect a reply you would be astounded. It is simply unmanageable.

Yet some simple techniques can help massively improve your ability to get people to take action on your important emails. And they will appreciate it, too.

1. Keep it short & to the point

Many people ramble in emails. On my most important ones I spend as much time figuring out what to cut out as I do putting into the writing of it. On email – less is always more. When in doubt, leave it out.

2. State your most important ask up front

Many people write email without a “call to action” or reason they’re writing the email. Make sure to state yours and if there is no action required say so upfront as in “this is for information only – no action required.”

Often emails are complex and require you to list lots of background. If so, it’s still ok to list what your expected action is near the top of the email.

For super important emails or key dates people need to do I often put these in red & bold. Example: when I send a “save the date” email I often put the date, location & reply by date near the top in red.

3. If there are multiple parts to the email try to break it up into sections

When emails get a bit longer due to background info I often break it up into sections (as I am doing in this post). It’s easier to follow when you have sections as guidelines. It’s also easier for the reader to scan for what the want. If they get your email and see one big wall of long text often people shrug and move on to the next email (see point 2 again – if you give an action up front and make it bold they will get hooked in and at least know what you expect).

4. Write to one person at a time

This is critical and was the reason I sat down to write this post. I often see people write to many people at once asking for help as in a CEO writing to a board saying, “can anybody help me with an intro to Google” or “can you please review this list of potential next round investors and give me your feedback?”

Even if people are well intentioned they are less likely to respond to a group email. Any sociologist can tell you that.

As Martin Peacock wrote in the comments section, it’s actually “a thing”

Think about it: If you get an email that says, “Hey, Sarah, I wanted to ask for a small bit of help …” or even “Sarah, I’m hosting an event on Feb 17th and I’d like to ask if you could make it” you feel it’s a personal appeal to you. If you don’t reply you’re letting down the sending who is seemingly asking you personally, individually and solely.

The minute you send out an email to a group and say, “I was wondering if anybody could help with …” each person thinks that somebody else is going to help. It’s true that some people will come forward but much less so than if you sent to each member individually.

Trust me – I’ve tried both for years.

The best way to do this is to set up the bulk of your email message as a general message. You then create multiple versions of it. You can then add the persons name to the top and I often add a little personal message to each email at the top and/or change any pertinent emails.

Sure, this takes longer than a group email. So for less important emails I still send to the group. But when it’s really important I craft them individually.

I am soon going to start piloting a software application to help me do this. It’s called ToutApp. I met the founder and saw the demo and loved the functionality / approach.

5. Make your subject line matter

Subject lines matter as much as the text of Tweets do or headlines. We are a generation of email scanners. We scan our email headlines to figure out which ones to open. After a couple of days if we missed your email it’s likely in email purgatory until you remind us we didn’t respond.

So make your headlines matter and get opened more!

I write things like:

  • super short, time sensitive request
  • important intro: company a / company b
  • future of TV roundtable on Feb 17th – almost full. RSVP this week.
  • quick question – can you help?

Or similar. Again, often I don’t care if I have a perfect subject – I just hit send. But when it’s an important email – the subject line is your life line.

6. Time of Day Matters

Don’t send important emails on Friday afternoons unless it requires immediate action. Often I’ll write emails on the weekend and then send first thing Monday morning. I want to be on top of the stack, not at the bottom of the pile. Most people process email first thing in the morning (although productivity experts say not to!).

I’m told ToutApp will let me send the email early but schedule delivery time.

BTW, when I wrote blog posts on Sunday’s I always Tweet again Monday morning for exactly this reason.

7. Rinse & repeat

When I was younger I cared when people didn’t respond to my emails. I didn’t get as many and I responded to all.

Over the years I’ve learned that some people are just high-volume and can’t process 100% of email. The more senior people are the more demands, the busier, etc. The older they are the more out-of-work responsibilities and therefore they’re not likely up until 2am responding to emails.

So simply send your email again. I like to hit reply all and include them so they see that I had sent it before. My goal is not to make them them feel guilty. That’s silly. If they’re important that’s the last thing I’d want to do.

I simply say something like, “I know how busy you are. I hope you don’t mind but wanted to resent & put at the top of your inbox” and then I repeat my call to action.

On the third send (after of course leaving enough time to not seem like a stalker / pest) I might say, “I hate to keep sending and I really hate to be a nag. Was hoping for just 2 minutes of your time by next Wed to …”

  • TK

    Kiran, we have a special response team for people that have any trouble with our Outlook plugin. If you email me directly at tk at toutapp, I can get you hooked in and make sure you’re up and running.

    Lastly, switching to Gmail is not the worst idea either; we support both ;)

  • Ole Bratlie

    So true! I’m more and more moving away from email, and I have to admit that sometimes I can be rather slow on answering. However, if you reach out for me on Skype or Podio you are more likely to get an answer right away.

  • http://www.mealdrop.com Michael Zaro

    +1 for Boomerang. I have no financial interest but have become a huge fan over time.

    Depending on my audience I often use it to not just schedule email for the am, but also to schedule it for non-ridiculous hours so the recipient doesn’t realize I was up til 2am doing email if that would reduce my stability/credibility in their view.

    Most of the time it doesn’t matter, but when it does, it’s a tremendous feature.

    Boomerang (and apparently ToutApp) has also helped me stay “on the ball” on followup now that I have so much volume. It’s easy to fire off an email, but the odds of them 1) seeing it, 2) reading it, 3) having time to respond and 4) having all the information available to them at that moment they write it, are tremendously low. For important items I can’t just _hope_ it works out and I get what I need. Tools like these help me know when to followup and keep me from missing important things. No joke, it has probably saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

    Great post Mark! Making email personal is a favorite of mine too!

  • http://www.modernmsg.com/ Mike

    Thought you might enjoy this – http://xkcd.com/1254/

  • http://www.johnsjobs.me/ John’s Jobs

    Forgot about subject lines, great point. Reminds me that at the end of a subject line can denote that the Subject line itself is the message! :)

  • http://jonathanhstrauss.com/ Jonathan Strauss

    I’ve learned to treat emails like marketing copy. You should have (relevant) attention-getting headlines, clear calls-to-action, and as little else as possible to distract from them.

  • Amy Kniss

    You can also schedule email send times with the Boomarang plugin for Gmail.

  • http://internetaffiliatemarketing.biz/ internetaffiliatemarketing.biz

    I love this article. I was just talking to my friend about launching email marketing campaigns and how great it is that we can monetize outgoing messages. Your article comes right on time for a discussion I am planning with my subscribers next week. I would love to publish your article with your name and url link on my blog. Would that be ok?

  • http://internetaffiliatemarketing.biz/ internetaffiliatemarketing.biz

    I hope someone will write about “The Wrong Subject Lines To Use for Email Marketing”, or “Subject Line Do’s & Dont’s in Email Marketing”. I can write a long article about this topic based on the hideous subject lines that I get from the so-called guru’s auto-responders that I opted into by inquiring about stuff. I absolutely think some of them are ridiculous. Maybe I will publish that article.

  • http://www.hanypham.com/ Hany Pham

    How do people feel about being on the receiving end of an email with a tracker in it like Toutapp or Yesware? I can understand how incredibly useful it can be for the sender, particularly having information such as how long it takes for a person to respond to an email after they open it. Personally I would find it a bit disconcerting and almost akin to spying if the sender knows I have opened the email.

    I suppose it makes the argument “I never got your email” somewhat less convincing…

  • Damian Davila

    Or you could try to call them up.
    Or walk to their desks, if possible.

  • bernardlunn

    I use two other techniques if it is truly important:

    1. Send a snail mail package by Fedex. Its unusual, so it gets opened.

    2. Call. In ye olden days we went to email to escape calls. Its now the reverse. Many times I call – always with “is this a good time to call?” intro – and the person tells me that a break from email is most welcomed.

  • CareerAddict

    Excellent advice! It is a struggle (especially as a job seeker) to get the attention of a busy executive when emailing them. Calling directly often gets you noticed, but it is rare that calling the intended person is the best way of approaching them; it can be too direct and off-putting. Emailing is by far the favorite approach, but there is certainly a “skill” involved when constructing an eye-catching email. I think points #5 and #6 are very important…the time of day and the subject line are vital to get right if you want your email seen. Thanks for the tips!

  • Jacob Gordon

    Really great post! Question: how do you feel about putting the recipient’s name in the subject line? I’m often inclined to do something like: “Hi Mark. Quick question for you.” What do people think of that technique?

  • ncasares

    As part of making the subject line count, I always consider search friendliness. I rely heavily on searching for emails and a clear, descriptive subject line in Gmail search results is a huge help.

  • http://beerdreamer.com/ Jordan Elpern-Waxman

    Great post, but it’s really how to get people to read your email, not how to get them to take action. I’d love to get your thoughts on the latter, Mark.

  • http://canadiansinternet.com/ Canadians Internet Business

    Great points! I’d add that you should be clear in your subject line. I don’t have time for “teaser” subject lines. If they don’t state what the email is regarding, I usually delete it without opening it unless I know it’s something I have to open based on the sender.

  • LucidGal

    About #3… I changed the format of my emails from full articles to snippets that lead to the full article on my blog, and my open rate and click-thru rates each went up by a third. I also started getting more calls and referrals based on email marketing. Just from that one format change.

  • http://www.simontea.com/ GiftBasketsSimontea

    Yes E mail is very important things to be noticed. So make them as short as possible. We are sending them for our gift baskets website, and if they are short, with clear call, to action (time sensitive) they are efective.

  • Jeffrey Steinke

    @78ed390406dce077a3e491f51dbbc781:disqus I’d love to know what kind of response rate improvements you’ve seen? I made some of the same mistakes myself in the past (wrote about it here: http://www.jeffsteinke.com/2013/09/send-emails-individually-to-increase-response-rates/) and while I haven’t been measuring the improvement so far the ‘new’ way (Eric Reiss wouldn’t be happy with me) there is an undeniable noticeable difference.

    Thanks for the article Mark.

  • Robert

    Have to say I didn’t read the whole article because the first tip is just bad. Yes, you shouldn’t “ramble” , but I get so many SHORT e-mails a day that aren’t to the point at all, rather ask questions in some twisted way because it looks like someone read this article, and instead of telling me what they ACTUALLY need done, has convoluted it into a single sentence. IMMEDIATE DELETE , not going to fix your stuff. You don’t need to ramble — but SHORT is not the goal. Say what you need to say for the job required.

  • http://www.EGAFutura.com Juan Manuel Garrido

    Awesome tactical advice!

  • http://www.devdigital.com/ Dev Digital

    Excellent work Mark, really glad to read your post here and very true information shared here which is very important these days.

  • http://www.nateanglin.com/ Anwell Steve

    I think creating a compelling subject line is indeed one of the most important things to ponder when creating an email, that the recipient would easily caught up hitting your message. For an instance creating a subject line like “How To Be More Successful…” becomes a curiosity for the reader to open it because it’s interesting. Who doesn’t want to be successful? But definitely, it always depend on the readers taste. haha

  • baba12

    you can checkout “boomerang” a plugin for gmail that can schedule for you when emails get sent out.

  • baba12

    Im not sure why Mr.Suster had to write this blog post.
    The audience here knows how to communicate in a clear, concise, cogent, coherent and succinct way.
    The things Mr.Suster mentions here are basic common things that apply to any conversation had between two or more people. Nothing that is stated here is new, I generally never comment here, just read but I felt it necessary to comment at this late hour today. I expect Mr.Suster to have nuggets of gold to share not nuggets of common iron. I will get lambasted I bet but that is ok.
    I expect more rom Mr.Suster.
    If there are people who don’t get it or haven’t got it and it forces Mr.Suster to diplomatically write this post possibly, but then it reflects on the quality of the readership which comprises of fellow VC’s, entrepreneurs either hoping to get invested in or have been invested in. All these folks know the “abc’s” of communicating with people like Mr.Suster. Also I wonder how many people ( as a percentage) who have not been introduced to Mr.Suster, followed all these steps and still did not get a response from Mr.Suster. Generally speaking Mr.Suster would respond to a long winded email from someone if they were introduced by someone he knows. Thus I am guessing those who need to communicate with Mr.Suster would be better of spending their time getting to know him and or his connections and then possibly write a succinct email, though that may not be necessary at that stage.

  • http://www.inspiredinsider.com/ Dr. Jeremy Weisz

    Thanks Mark! Loved this post. My favorite part is the subject portion because I when I make an intro I was not sure the best subject. Solved!

    These are all powerful–

    I write things like:

    super short, time sensitive request

    ******important intro: company a / company b

    future of TV roundtable on Feb 17th – almost full. RSVP this week.

    quick question – can you help?

  • Misty P

    This also applies to meeting with executives. I know that they are busy people so these are the things I do when meeting with them.

    1. Bring a written agenda and try to fit the key points on one page
    2. Make the meeting invite for 30 minutes or less. This will likely get you a yes response versus an hour long meeting. I also try to keep the meeting less than 30 minutes if possible. If we don’t get to everything, I schedule another 30 minute meeting.
    3. Keep in mind and state the action that you want your executive to take. If you need his/her approval on certain documents, bring them with you as well as send it to him/her electronically. If you have an urgent need by date, state so.
    4. Always bring a notepad to take notes.
    5. Do your research on tough topics before meeting with your executive.

    6. Expect unexpected questions and be prepared to do more research after the meeting.
    7. Follow up on any of your executives requests and have it prepared before they ask you for it.
    8. Always thank them for their time. Many people forget to do that.

  • http://paulpapadimitriou.com/ Paul Papadimitriou

    Thank you, Marc. This is something that, as a traditional European and native French speaker, I sometimes struggle with: shortness v. politeness.

    I would love that you share with us how you deal with incoming email yourself. How you parse, time-shift, prioritize.