How Facebook’s algorithm can help you rethink your emails

Photo: Facebook via Wikimedia Commons

Facebook determines which of your posts get through to your friends. Your emails, on the other hand, all go through. But what if they didn’t? You’d have to write email to make it clearer, more compelling, more engaging. And that’s what you ought to be doing anyway.

While Facebook’s algorithm is mysterious and ever-changing, we know this: It shows your post to a few of your intended recipients. If enough of them interact (by liking it, reacting to it, sharing it, or commenting on it), it reveals the post to more people. On the other hand, if you’re too overtly promotional, few friends will react, and your post will remain mostly hidden. It’s an algorithm that favors readers over those who post.

Your email, in contrast, gets to everybody you send it to. Or does it?

If it’s spam, it gets filtered out.

If it’s promotional and your recipient uses Gmail, it ends up in the Promotions tab, where they’re much less likely to see it.

Even if it gets through, there’s a good chance the recipient won’t open it.

Even if they open it, they may skim it and pay no attention.

Collectively, your recipients have their own algorithm for emails, an algorithm that functions a lot like Facebook’s. It favors content that readers value, and penalizes content that abuses readers.

Write your email as if Facebook were filtering it

Remember the Iron Imperative?

Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

Facebook’s algorithm is just the god-machine enforcing the Iron Imperative. Similarly, people’s own habits enforce the Iron Imperative on your emails. So you should write emails — to your boss, to coworkers, to customers — as if Facebook’s algorithm were filtering them as well. That means writing for maximum engagement:

  • Use a subject line that’s wickedly pointed and accurate. “Why we need to change our product development process” — that works. “Sales are down 2%, except for one product” — that works, too. Even “Everything at our store is on sale this week.” But if your subject line is deceptive or boring, either fix it, or don’t send the email.
  • Sum it up simply in the first two sentences. You’ve got two short sentences to get people interested. If you fail, they don’t read, they don’t act, and they don’t respond. Facebook would filter a post like that — and your readers are doing the same.
  • Keep it to 250 words. Boomerang says response rates drop as emails get longer than 125 words. I’ll give you 250 maximum. If you have more than that to say, author a document and either attach it to your email or post it somewhere and link to it. Readers give up on long emails, just as Facebook filters long posts.
  • Use subheads and bullets to add structure. Skimmable emails engage people and encourage them to read more. Blocks of paragraphs put people off. And don’t worry if your email system lacks much in the way of formatting — you can create heads just by writing something like “DATA HIGHLIGHTS” with a blank line before and after, and bullets by starting a line with a hyphen.
  • Add graphics. Facebook loves pictures. So do email readers. Paste ’em in to make your email more evocative and engaging.
  • Link. Facebook loves links, and you should, too. They help you keep email short by referring to more detailed information, rather than including it. Just highlight a few words and hit Control-K (Command-K on a Mac).
  • Get to the damn point. The purpose of business communication is to create change in the reader. So what do you want us to do? Tell us what action you desire. If you don’t have a desired action in mind, why did you send the email?
  • Don’t BCC. Everyone who reads a Facebook post can comment on it — and all the viewers can see the comment. The same should be true of your emails.
  • Trim (or eliminate) recipient lists. Copying irrelevant people to cover your ass wastes their time — and reduces the level of interaction. Facebook would hate that, and you should, too. If most of the people you’re sending the email to wouldn’t be interested, just don’t send it. (For many emails, the ideal number of recipients is zero.)

Be the kind of emailer that Facebook would love

Popular people on Facebook create posts that engage people. Like Robert Reich, for example.

Be somebody like that at work. Emails should be useful, provocative, informative, and interesting — and they should generate change.

Email like that and you’ll be popular . . . and successful, sooner or later.

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  1. Great Post! I love: “Get to the point”. I leave the reader to often guessing what he should do. But what about politness?

    What do you think is better if i want somebody to click on a link?

    “Here you find a link of…”
    “Please click on the link of…”

    “PS: Here is a link to…”

    Thanky in advance