How much of your time do you spend sending and receiving email? You probably know you spend at least several hours a day, and your personal estimates may even underestimate your actual time expenditure.
We all know email is important; after all, it’s the fastest, most practical, and most universal communication medium available to us today. But how much value are you really getting in all those emails you spend time on? How did that update email change your expectations? Did deleting those spam emails do anything other than waste your time? Did you have to spend half an hour rummaging through a poorly-worded email only to find nothing relevant to your position?
These are situations most of us find ourselves in daily. So how much “value” does the average email truly have? And is there any way for us to improve that value?
Why Email Value Is Important
In 2017, the Raticati Group estimated that there are 289 billion emails sent every day. On a global scale, email is an incredibly efficient communication medium, and without it, you can bet productivity would falter, miscommunications would be more rampant, and countless collaborations would be disrupted. But on a micro scale, you can intuitively guess that at least several billion of those 289 billion emails are entirely worthless.
So why does email value matter in the first place? And what do we mean by “value” anyway?
We can think of value in a few different ways. In many cases, there is value for the writer of the email; for example, an emailer could be reaching out for a guest blogging opportunity, or might have an important question that needs to be answered by a teammate. There is also usually at least some value for the recipient; a reader may learn a piece of new information, or receive materials necessary to complete some task.
Value is important because all emails take time to write and to read, and unless those emails return some value to the people spending time on them, that time will be wasted. Generally, we can think of “value” as an email’s ability to influence change. That change may be literal (such as an email announcing new rules), emotional (such as an email that relieves worry or clears uncertainty), or practical (such as giving workers new information).
Learning about the value of an email will improve your life in a few different ways:
- You’ll know how to spot low-quality emails. Despite laws in place to deal with it, spam is still prevalent—and non-spam emails may waste your time even more. Understanding email value helps you spot this proactively so you can avoid spending time on it.
- You’ll write better emails. When you know what makes an email valuable, you can improve your email writing practices and produce more valuable work for others to read.
- You’ll improve your organizational efficiency. If you can commit institutional changes that increase email value throughout your organization, you’ll become more productive and waste less time.
The Ideal Email
With that in mind, let’s start looking at what email value is, and how that value can be maximized.
To start, it’s best to define what we can perceive as an “ideal” email; one that returns more in value than it costs in terms of time or effort. These are rare, and may be unachievable in any “perfect” form, but this can serve as a template to better understand what we should be looking for in a message.
Email is all about information transmission, so an ideal email is one that transmits valuable information in a valuable way.
For starters, an email could present “new” information, which isn’t currently known to the receiving party. These emails are automatically valuable, provided the receiving party is going to change something as a result of this new information. Let’s take a look at a few examples where an email like this is valuable:
- New tasks. An email that includes information on a new task is automatically valuable. Delegation is a must-have skill for leadership, and emails are often the best way to delegate tasks, since the transmission is instant and focused, and all information is formally documented. This may also be effective for managers looking to guide their underlings in the progression of a larger project.
- Project updates. Email is often frequently used as a way to update relevant parties on the progress of a given project. This may be an account manager reporting to external clients, a team member reporting to a supervisor, or an auditor reporting to an organizational leader. In any case, these emails often carry important details that keep members of an organization abreast of the latest information (even if the latest information is that “nothing has changed”).
- Changes in goals or expectations. If something changes with a project or a goal, email is one of the best ways to announce and/or confirm that change. Email can be used to update multiple team members at once, and is instantaneous. For example, if the deadline for a project is moved up, or if you’re pivoting a strategy to a new primary goal, it’s vital that everyone on the team becomes aware of those changes.
There are situations where all these “new information” emails’ value can be compromised, but I’ll dig deeper into that in the next section.
Yet undocumented information
For emails revealing new information, the most important quality of email is its speed—usually emails can be sent or received in under a second. But there’s another important property of email: its permanence.
Even though emails are digital, rather than tangible products, they exist in a semi-permanent state. Once stored, they can be retrieved and examined hypothetically forever. That makes them a perfect medium for documenting information that has yet been undocumented. For example, if you recently had a conference call that went unrecorded, you could use email to update the group of participants with the key takeaways and action items related to the discussion.
In this case, the value of an email isn’t immediate to the writer or recipient; the writer already knows this information, and the recipient may not even read the email right away. However, the email’s value is persistent; it’s going to come in handy when a recipient needs to recheck information in the future. It’s also useful for bringing any non-participants up to speed, in which case it shares a purpose with “new information” emails.
Valuable emails usually provide information—but they don’t have to. Sometimes email is used because of a lack of information, with one party seeking that information from another. For example, let’s say you’re working on a marketing campaign but you aren’t sure what budget to set for your latest set of ads. You can’t proceed any further until you’ve gotten that information, so an email is probably the best way to get it.
All of these “valuable” motivations in sending an email mean that the purpose of an email is valid. But purpose doesn’t necessarily mean the email is worth the time you’re spending on it (as a reader, as a writer, or both). For an email to truly reach ideal value, it needs to be efficient, which includes:
- Writing the email efficiently, spending as little time as possible to convey the information you need to convey.
- Writing the email concisely, using few words that are easy to understand so your recipients spend less time reading them.
- Constructing the email in a sensible way, so recipients know what’s expected of them, and have a platform for taking those next actions.
My guess is you only get a handful of real “ideal” emails a day—ones that served a valid purpose and were created as efficiently as possible. There are dozens of variables that typically detract from an email’s value, and understanding them will illuminate just how much value the average email has—and how you can take action to improve that average value.
So what are these “value detractors,” and exactly how do they damage an email’s value? And more importantly, why are they so frustratingly common?
An email’s purpose could deviate from a meaningful transmission of information. For that information to warrant an email, it should be new and relevant to the person’s position, or at least referenceable for future needs. Unfortunately, many emails simply don’t carry this purpose.
Let’s look at a few specific examples:
- Marketing spam. Some estimates project there are 200 billion spam emails sent per day (though the definition of spam here is a little fuzzy). That’s more than two-thirds of all emails sent. Marketing spam ranges from outright ploys to steal credit card information to innocent and well-intentioned notifications that a sale is underway.
In any case, a tiny fraction of these emails may be relevant to you; they may introduce you to a new blog post or a new eBook that you actually want to check out. But the vast majority of them are going to waste your time. You’ll spend at least a few seconds reading the subject line and deleting them (if your spam filter doesn’t catch them), and if you venture to unsubscribe, you’ll spend even more time.
This doesn’t seem like a big time investment, but it can add up quickly over the course of dozens of emails day-in and day-out.
Most mainstream platforms offer ways to turn off these notifications, but most of us leave them on “just in case” something goes wrong, or there’s something we need to see. Sometimes, these truly are effective; they may inform you about major changes to a project and save you the time it would take to log into a platform to view that information. Other times, you get bogged down by an external conversation, which you’re forced to read, message by message.
- Redundant emails. Some people choose to send emails even when they know (or should know) a person already has the information they’re about to provide. This extends beyond the functionality of a documentation email, and ends up wasting both the writer and the recipient’s time.
For example, a “just letting you know we’re still on for 3 today” is short, but probably unnecessary. Again, this wastes a few seconds to a minute, but with hundreds of emails flying back and forth a day, that time grows to become significant.
Do you notice a pattern here? With the exception of redundant emails sent by real people, these examples are rooted in automation. Automation is a frequent culprit of email time waste, and for obvious reasons—there’s no human at the helm to gauge the value of each email sent, and there’s no upper limit to how many emails can be sent. That means high volume and low value (in most cases).
Another frequent value detractor stems from the email’s target. For an email to fulfill its purpose, it needs to get to the right hands. A good email sent to a person who has no need to read it ends up wasting just as much time as poorly written email sent to an intended recipient.
So how, exactly, could an email end up going to an incorrect or unnecessary target? Is this a case of mixed up email addresses? Not usually. Instead, it’s usually the result of things like:
- Needless CC and BCCs. Carbon copy (CC) and blind carbon copy (BCC) are two of the most useful basic functions of email—when they’re used correctly. CC’d users get a copy of the email even though they aren’t an intended recipient, and BBC’d users get a copy of the email without the rest of the recipients knowing about it. Mismanagement of CC and BCC lines leads to a number of potential problems. For example, if you cram all your CC’d recipients on to the “sent” line, users could be confused about who the primary recipient is supposed to be.
More commonly, people take advantage of the CC field by pumping it full of people who might have at least some interest in what’s going on. It only takes a couple of keystrokes to add a recipient, so they don’t see the harm in being safe—that way, the recipient has a copy of the email “just in case” they need it. These “just in case” emails end up clogging user inboxes, and because each email can support multiple CC’d recipients, the time waste here adds up fast.
The resulting confusion over who’s responsible for what, and why the email was sent to them in the first place, could cost minutes of time for each recipient, usually negating or at least undermining the value of the email in the first place.
- Unnecessary meeting invites. In a similar vein, it’s easy to add attendees to meeting invites, so meeting organizers often go the “better safe than sorry” route and include more people than they really need. This can be a problem for many reasons; users confused about why they’re being invited need to spend time investigating the invite, and will probably end up at a meeting they have no reason to attend.
Wasting time at unnecessary meetings isn’t a direct reflection of the email’s value, but it is a consequence of a poorly planned email, and should be considered.
- Fishing and inappropriate requests. You may also receive emails that should have been sent to someone else, usually in another department. This is a gray area, as providing the knowledge of who to contact can be a valuable exchange of information. For example, “who’s the right person to help me with a troubleshooting issue?”
This gets to be a problem when a messenger contacts the wrong person by mistake, while in a rush, or despite knowing there’s a better person to contact.
Targeting can also become a problem when individual users on a group thread begin having a tangential exchange. Everyone CC’d or BCC’d will receive copies of this thread, even though it may not be pertinent to the entire group.
Emails also lose value when they present some degree of ambiguity. If you want to transmit information, you need to do so with specificity, or you’ll run into multiple independent problems:
- Increased time spent reading the email, since it may take a reader multiple read-throughs and minutes of contemplation to understand what the writer actually meant.
- Increased back-and-forth, as the recipient is usually forced to reach out and ask for elaboration, which in turn creates a new set of emails.
- Confusion and lost productivity, as an ambiguous response can be easily misinterpreted, resulting in hours of work that may not need to be done.
Accordingly, ambiguous emails are inherently not valuable, and will likely cost your business time and money. There are several types of ambiguity that can be present in emails:
- Purpose ambiguity. These emails may be written coherently, but it’s not clear why the person is sending it. It may include a message like, “We received a new shipment of printer paper today.” Is this a mere update? Is it meant to imply that this wasn’t supposed to happen? Are you supposed to do something with the printer paper? There’s no clear purpose here.
- Semantic ambiguity. These emails may have a discernable purpose, but the way they are written leads to points of confusion. This could be due to improper grammar, sentence structure, typos, etc.
- Lack of clear takeaways/action items. Sometimes, an email may accurately and unambiguously describe a current situation, but fail in summarizing what needs to happen next. For example, it may set a course for a new strategy, such as “improving customer interactions,” without any points on how to actually accomplish that, or things that need to happen before it can be accomplished.
- Lack of clear point people. Maybe the email has a list of items that need to happen—but with no clear point person responsible for each of those items. This isn’t a problem for a one-on-one email exchange, but if you have 12 people CC’d on an email chain, and 10 action items, it’s going to be confusing who’s responsible for what (unless you acknowledge it). In most cases, this ambiguity will lead to nobody claiming the responsibilities.
- Overly simple responses. Sometimes, the ambiguity is an issue with length (which warrants an entire section of its own). In these cases, a writer may introduce a subject with a single word or phrase, and expect something significant in return—like “dinner?” or “Done!”, oftentimes in the subject line. Occasionally, the purpose and meaning is clear with these responses, but it’s usually better for a slight expansion.
The length of an email can also detract from its value, in two key ways:
- The length of an email predicts how long it took to write. There are some cases where writers spend hours crafting just a few lines of text, and cases where novelesque emails can be spilled out in a matter of moments, but for the most part, long emails take more time to write—especially for slow typists.
Why is this important? Remember, the value of an email is about more than what it can accomplish; it’s about how much time it took to accomplish it, in the same way that you must consider how much you paid for food compared to its actual quality. A long email that does what a short email could do wastes the writer’s time.
- Email length affects the reader. It’s not just the reader, either. Longer emails take more time to read, and if they’re also disorganized, it could suck extra minutes of time from every recipient in the chain.
Are shorter emails inherently more valuable? Not necessarily. Length is sometimes necessary to include all the details a person needs to take action. You wouldn’t want a short email that leaves out key details and remains ambiguous, and you wouldn’t want a long email that drones on about a topic that demands brevity.
The key way to gauge this quality is by evaluating which words and phrases in an email could be omitted without compromising the intention of the email. For example, if you’re delegating a task to someone, and you find a handful of sentences that commit redundant commands, such as “just be careful” and “use caution when you do this,” you can easily remove one of those sets.
You can also eliminate unnecessary information, and replace elaborate explanations with more concise versions. This may take some extra time, but you’ll at least clear up some ambiguities and make the email shorter for the reader.
Length is also an issue in relation to email conversations. In general, the fewer back-and-forth messages it takes to accomplish something, the better, even if individual messages are longer. This is because each new message has a chance to interrupt a worker from what he/she was doing, and adds complexity when navigating the conversation to find relevant information. This ties back to ambiguity, because ambiguity generally necessitates more messages.
One of the most important qualities of a valuable email is coherence, as a decline in coherence can override or interfere with every other quality. For example, an email with focused purpose, perfect length, and appropriate targeting won’t matter if it isn’t coherent.
Coherence is all about making your email capable of being understood easily by another party, and it unfolds in three main dimensions:
- Organization. Organization is one of the easiest qualities to learn, and there are only a few basic rules you’ll need to follow. Valuable emails have a strong, defining subject line, an opening introduction that concisely explains the purpose of the email, a brief series of body paragraphs and/or lists that are organized by subject, and a closing section that recaps the main takeaways and action items.
The longer an email is, the more organization it’s going to need. If your email is hard to follow, readers won’t be able to interpret it naturally, start to finish. Instead, they’ll have to revisit other sections of the email to piece together the full picture, costing time.
- Semantics. The wording you use throughout your email also lends itself to the email’s value. If your sentences are worded poorly, if you use incomplete sentences, or if your work is riddled with typos and errors, people won’t be able to understand what you’ve written.
You don’t need to be a master of prose here, but it pays to have sentences that are cleanly written, with appropriate word choices, that aren’t too long or too short. Any deviation here could lead to a potential misunderstanding, or excessive time to interpret your meaning.
- Scannability. Organization and semantics are must-haves if you want to avoid value loss, but you should consider scannability an added bonus of value. Scannable emails are ones that can be interpreted at a high level without reading the full content of the email.
You can use bullet points, bolded words, italics, and standout sentences to guide readers’ eyes to the most relevant, important parts of your email; this is especially useful when drafting a message that’s going to be referenced multiple times in the future. Non-scannable emails take far longer to read, diminishing their value potential.
Though not all emails are primarily intended to serve as a mode of documentation, all emails will be documented, to some extent, and therefore should be as referenceable as possible. Valuable emails include at least some phrasing that makes the email searchable and easy to find, such as “Meeting with [Client X] 9-25-18,” or anything with names of projects, clients, or personnel.
They also try to emphasize their most important points at the beginning or end of the message. This is related to scannability, and its absence can instantly decrease the value of an email.
Remember, email value isn’t dependent on a reader’s initial response to receiving it. Most emails remain in inboxes, or in designated folders, for days to weeks. The most valuable emails aren’t simply designed for one read-through.
Though different than the other features I’ve covered, it’s also worth noting that sometimes forgoing an email altogether is the least valuable decision you can make. Not sending an email, when objectively you should, deprives other parties of information, and therefore often leads to ignorance, confusion, and miscommunication.
Even though your sent email may not be ideally valuable, it may be worth sending regardless; otherwise, you’ll contend with the regret of neglecting to send the message, and you may end up wasting even more time and productivity.
The Average Email
After all this information about what constitutes email value, you probably started to wonder when I’d get back to the question at hand: how much value does the average email really have?
Unfortunately, there’s no objective metric for this. Nobody in the world has the tech necessary to crawl through 289 billion daily emails, and even if they did, there’s no objective way to reliably measure an email’s inherent value. However, after being neck-deep in email analysis for the past several years, I can tell you: the average email’s value is painfully low.
Why is this the case?
There are many factors, but these are three of the most influential:
1. The average worker is not trained how to efficiently send emails. In high school or college, did you take a class on how to write an effective email? When you started your job, did your supervisor or trainer spend any time teaching out about proper email etiquette, and what the value of email truly is?
I’m guessing the answer is “no.” You may have gotten points of helpful feedback along the way, and you’ve certainly learned to refine your email process over the years, but most workers aren’t formally trained to send emails in any capacity. We don’t think of emailing as a skill, and therefore don’t spend any time training or learning about it.
2. Email rules are neither addressed nor enforced. It’s pretty easy to build an employee handbook, and you likely have yours lying around your desk somewhere. Other than instructing you not to use work email for personal purposes or personal email on work devices, does your handbook state anything about how emails should be written and received?
Is your company policy stated anywhere? Moreover, when someone violates the tenets of email value I’ve listed extensively above, does anyone step up and recognize the problem? Very few businesses actively establish rules for emailing, and even fewer take proactive corrective action.
3. Employees and employers don’t realize email time waste. Finally, most people simply don’t realize how much time they spend on email. An average email takes a few minutes to write and a few minutes to read, and you go through hundreds in a day, so the countless seconds and minutes you waste unnecessarily don’t seem like much.
But over time, you’ll end up wasting hours—both in the writing/receiving process and in your actual work when you miscommunicate or misunderstand something in your email.
What Can You Do?
Okay, so the average email has little to no value. Anyone who’s ever rolled their eyes at a computer screen can probably tell you that. So what can you actually do about it?
Honestly, quite a lot.
1. Monitor email use
Your first and most powerful strategy is to get serious about monitoring email. By that, I don’t mean prying into everyone’s accounts and reading all their messages. Instead, you can use EmailAnalytics to take an overall snapshot of how you, your employees, and your coworkers are using email, so you can pinpoint potential weaknesses.
EmailAnalytics lets you measure things like:
- Total emails sent and received
- Total emails in different categories
- Top senders and recipients
- Email traffic breakdown by day/hour
- Conversation/email thread metrics (including initiated vs. non-initiated, size, and time spent)
- Attachment metrics
- Time spent reading
- Time spent writing
- User and recipient response times
Using these data, you can easily pinpoint some of your best company emailers, some of your worst, and find out what makes them different.
2. Control automated emails
Next, you need to get control over the automated emails you’re receiving and how you’re receiving them. Some people are proactive and immediately unsubscribe from lists they know they aren’t going to use, while others take the time, every time, to manually delete individual emails that trickle in.
Set aside some time to unsubscribe from any email list you don’t actively use or read emails from. If that’s too much work, you can create a rule that automatically filters emails from certain senders into designated folders so you can review them later—or at least get them out of your way.
Once you’ve unsubscribed from your top marketing offenders, it’s time to audit and reset how you use email notifications on your most commonly used apps and platforms. If you can, restrict your incoming emails to only those that are most urgent; everything else can probably wait until you log in.
Again, you may wish to receive these email notifications, so rather than disabling them altogether, create a rule that sorts them to a specific folder in your email account.
3. Set clear communication expectations
Next, break the norm and set some firm rules about how the people in your organization use email. If you’re a decision maker, this responsibility is entirely on you. Otherwise, it may not be within your power to set rules company-wide—but you can still make recommendations.
Put together a formal list of qualities you’d like to see in every email sent (and I recommend using the points in this guide as your template), and how and when you expect employees to email (vs. when to text, call, or schedule a meeting). Consider holding a meeting, or hosting a full workshop to go over these qualities, and run practice exercises in which your participants draft emails to respond to various situations. This will give you the opportunity for live feedback and improvement, rather than relying on reactive measures.
If even half your employees change their emailing habits, the average value of the emails within your organization will likely improve. You’ll also earn the value of the conformity effect; when all your coworkers are sending emails in similar formats, with similar phrasing, you’ll naturally adjust to the group norms.
4. Refine and improve
The real secret to improvement here is ongoing maintenance. With EmailAnalytics in place, you can objectively measure how your employees are adopting these new strategies, and how their email habits are changing over time. You’ll likely see a reduction in the time your employees spend writing and reading emails, and the emails you personally receive will start looking more concise and readable.
If and when you notice deviations from these standards, it’s important to recognize them; let the employee in question know that their email is missing something, such as a formal structure or a clear purpose, and give them tips on how they might correct it in the future.
An extra minute or two to provide feedback to a coworker could end up saving your entire team hours of work in the future.
There’s no question that the average value of an email is questionable at best, but that doesn’t mean email is doomed to be worthless.
With the right tools, including EmailAnalytics email inbox statistics, and a commitment to setting a high standard for communication in your organization, you can improve the average value of emails sent throughout your office, cut time waste, and eventually operate with greater precision and efficiency.
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