Sooner or later everyone has to ask for a favor or pitch a complete stranger via e-mail. I’m sure no one does this with the intention of doing it badly, but lately I’ve been on the receiving end of some less than stellar examples of e-mail pitches. So I'm taking this opportunity to jot down some tips to keep in mind when writing a pitch e-mail, or any e-mail really.
First, a quick note on the jargon. I’m using the word pitch to cover a lot of possibilities: the sales pitch, the media pitch (where you try to interest a reporter or editor in a story), even the idea pitch. Then there is the favor pitch, for lack of a better term, where you ask someone to do you a favor, pass along some information, provide information to you, etc. There are oodles of tips for media pitches online and they’re worth reading, but many of those tips should apply to ANY e-mail you send.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Just say no to attachments! Some people may not mind them, but it's best to play it safe. Don’t send an attachment to someone who doesn’t know you. Attachments take time to download, take time to open in another program, and are used to transmit viruses. Today I received a sales pitch e-mail, but all it had was an attached PDF file and contact information. Now I’m nosy, so I did open it. The PDF was just a list of the company's services. These could have easily been incorporated into the body of the e-mail.
- State the desired action. A good pitch should include a specific call to action. Are you sending information that you hope this person forward to an e-mail list, publish in their newsletter, or just as an FYI? Include a polite, but specific request. I receive press releases in both my work and personal e-mail accounts that do not include context or introductory information and I'm not sure why I'm receiving them in the first place. These get deleted because I don't have time to figure it out. But if someone sends me relevant information and asks me to pass it along I'll always do so.
- Get the right information to the right person. Sending unsolicited information to someone who doesn’t want it is spamming them. No one likes spam, so don’t send it. Not everyone will be interested in everything you send, that’s ok, but don’t send things that are completely irrelevant.
- Be wary of HTML and graphics. This may just be a personal pet peeve, but I feel strongly that HTML e-mails that use multiple typefaces, type sizes, bold, italics, and colors just end up distracting from your message. Any one of these techniques can be used rarely and tastefully to help enhance your message, but remember that less is definitely more in this area.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the warnings about how different e-mail software displays these things differently, and some people and organizations have settings turned to not display HTML or images. A nicely designed, well-formatted HTML e-mail is fine, but these are rare. If you must use these techniques, be sure to include a link so recipients can view it online.
- Keep it simple! If completing your call to action is too complicated or confusing, then your message will be ignored. For example, I recently received an audio card. Usually I won’t open these things, but this one had a good headline on some information I wanted to know and since there was no text, I had no choice but to listen. I clicked and was taken to a Web site. I had to search for the appropriate link and click again, which I did. I was then taken to a page with no clear direction of where to find the audio message, so I grew frustrated and gave up. If you must send your message by audio, I’d recommend keeping the steps needed to access it down to one or two, tops and including the text transcript or summary where people can easily access it instead of the audio if they prefer.
- Be professional. There is a time and a place to be cute, but that time rarely happens while you're on the clock. Please carefully reconsider those graphics e-mail backgrounds that can’t be turned off, the hilarious quote you just love, and decorating your signature in a lavender-colored script. Not everyone is going to find it as cute as you do, and it may detract from the message you want to send.
- Avoid meaningless words or acronyms. If the first sentence of your e-mail is filled with alphabet soup, or words that are used so often they've become meaningless (quality, value, best fastest, etc.) you're going to lose readers. The MarketingProf's article I read today, Want Better Copy? Take a Tip from Zig Ziglar, reminded me of this point. If you've read to the end of a vendor's description of software or a new product and still wondered what the heck the product actually does, you've experienced this phenomenon. Rather than relying on overused words that have lost any meaning (and trigger our BS detectors), use specific example of why, for example, library resources are better or more trustworthy than those on the Web. Also beware of creating an e-mail that looks like alphabet soup. If you use acronyms be sure to identify what they mean quickly, and too many acronyms, even defined ones, become too confusing. (added 4/10/07)