write good emails - manage emails successfully

One of the big things over the next couple years will be getting the computer on enough desktops that we’ll actually communicate using what’s called electronic mail – Bill Gates

It turns out that Bill Gates was more on target with this statement than he would have probably ever imagined.

Today, we send so much email that we’re almost constantly looking for new ways to organize our inboxes and keep them under control. Email has grown into such a large area of our lives and our workdays that I wanted to look at some of the advice we can apply to stay on top of email and make it more useful to us.

Keep clutter out of your inbox

1. Use a domain email address

If you’re emailing someone you want to impress (perhaps to ask advice or suggest a meeting), Ramsey the Blog Tyrant suggests using a domain email address, for instance [email protected], as opposed to a free address from a service like Gmail.

This can help to give the impression of professionalism and to immediately provide some context to your email—for instance, if I sent an email from [email protected], the recipient could immediately assume that the content will have something to do with Buffer.

2. Keep a throwaway email address handy

When you’re subscribing to newsletters or product updates, Eric Holter at Newfangled recommends using a free email address that’s separated from where you do your day-to-day emailing. This protects your personal or professional address from being signed up to newsletters you might not want, and keeps those more important inboxes clutter-free.

This can also help you keep spam out of your “real” inbox. The graph below is from a 2013 study of spam email rates—with that much spam getting through, we definitely want to keep it from clogging up our inboxes and wasting our time.

write good emails - manage emails successfully

Make your outreach emails so good they can’t ignore you

Many people’s email addresses are publicly available if you look hard enough, and so we use email to reach out to people we want help from, or want to work with, even before we’ve met them. Email has become a common way to get in touch with people we don’t know.

In order to get the response that we want (or any response at all), we need to keep in mind some important rules for writing emails.

3. Try and give people a way out – it’ll make people want to say yes more

If you’re asking someone for a favor, possibly your best bet is to give them a way out. Making it clear that you’re aware of how busy your recipient is and ensuring that they have the option to choose whether or not to help you will go a long way to getting the response you want.

In fact, this is one of the best persuasion techniques available to us, and is backed up by psychology. The specific wording doesn’t matter, so long as you reaffirm the person’s right to make their own choice. It’s been studied extensively and works on everything from asking for charitable donations to asking people to participate in surveys:

All in all, over 22,000 people have been tested by researchers. Across all the studies it was found to double the chances that someone would say ‘yes’ to the request.

One of the best examples of this I found recently was when Gregory Ciotti emailed us and asked if we would be interested in publishing an infographic:

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 10.12.20 AM

There was absolutely no pressure and it definitely made us more likely to publish it (which we did!).

4. Focus on including one line of context

This is particularly important if the recipient isn’t expecting this email. The Daily Muse has a couple of great example for how this tip can be helpful:

This is as relevant for first-time emails (“This is where we met”) as it is for emails to someone you work with regularly (“This email is about the next phase of that project we’re working on together”).

Depending on how well you know someone, you might also want to give them some information to remember who you are. Rand Fishkin suggests having a “clear and obvious identity that shows authenticity” in your email signature. This could include your name, title and company, and a link in case they need more information to remember how they know you.

5. If you want something, make it clear – How we got responses from Derek Sivers, Rand Fishkin and co.

A post at Brazen Careerist explains that being upfront about why you are sending an email will establish trust, which is “the foundation for all positive relationships.”

Here’s an example of how I’ve found this can work really well when we wrote a piece about the best blogging tips from experts (the way we’ve found this to work really well is to make the clear call to action bold):

write good emails - manage emails successfully

6. Genuinely make the other person feel important and worth their time

Finding out personal details about the person you’re emailing isn’t hard, and yet it’s something that’s so often overlooked. This could be something you have in common found on the about page of their website, or simply a comment on some work they’ve done recently—a book or blog post they wrote that you enjoyed. This can help to give your email a more personal, conversational tone, and make you seem more likable in the process.

I’ll admit, this is easier if you already know someone a little bit. Here’s an example of how I’ve used this before with an entrepreneur called Nate Kontny who I’d interacted with a couple of times before about his blog posts and his product, Draft:

write good emails - manage emails successfully

7. Focus on the timing of your emails – here is how to get it right

We’ve explored the importance of finding the best time to Tweet and post on Social Media in general before here on the Buffer blog. When it comes to email, the number studies for the best time to hit send couldn’t be any more comprehensive either.

Whilst most of them focus on marketing emails and not necessarily on 1-on-1 emails, there is still a lot of truth to take from it. For example Mailchimp suggests to send emails always after 12pm with the best times in the day being between 2-5pm to send emails:

write good emails - manage emails successfully

8. Add unique character to transactional emails – CD Baby’s story of creating a viral hit with 1 welcome email

This story by Derek Sivers about his most successful customer emails is brilliant. It shows how putting in a little extra effort and adding some personality to what you write can make a big difference.

When he built his company CD baby he was at some point not at all happy with how their welcome email looked like and changed it completely to something very unique. This is the original email:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the best gold-lined box that money can buy.
We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year.”

We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

The success of this email was absolutely incredible Derek reports, he says that “Each one is somebody who got the email and loved it enough to post it on his website and tell all his friends. That one goofy email created thousands of new customers.”

Adding some unique character to your emails can make a massive difference.

Process your inbox and get things done

On the other end of email, if you’re the receiving party, you might want some tips to keep your inbox from getting out of control. Here are some ideas that could help you stay on top of things.

9. Use your inbox as a to-do list

Lots of people don’t like using their inbox as a to-do list. Some people I know are really efficient at moving tasks into their task manager of choice so they can archive the emails immediately. If that doesn’t work for you, there are a couple of ways you can manage your inbox as a to-do list.

  • Use the “mark as unread” option for anything that needs your attention. This means all the unread emails in your inbox are your to-do items.
  • Or, archive anything that doesn’t need your attention. This means everything in your inbox is a to-do item.

Entrepreneur Nat Turner uses the archive option, so that his inbox doesn’t have thousands of emails in it, which he’d find overwhelming. But either of these methods could work.

This is how Nat explains his process for managing his inbox:

Anything that doesn’t require any attention, Archive the thread. I do this having full confidence in being able to find things later via Search… My email inbox becomes a relatively short list of items that require near-term action such as a thoughtful reply, follow-up, some other event (such as sending out a calendar invite post-scheduling, or calling someone back).

10. Enable “send and archive”

Many email clients offer an option to automatically archive email threads that you’ve replied to. This saves you the extra step of archiving if you’ve already processed and replied to an email:

write good emails - manage emails successfully


11. Remember what you’ve put off

Bill Gates said in an interview a few years ago that he only got 40 or 50 emails day. I’m sure many of you are getting more than that on a daily basis! One great point he made though, which could apply to anyone who gets a lot of email, was this:

Make sure if you put something off you get back to it later.

So if you read an email and aren’t ready to respond, make sure you set up a system so that you don’t forget to return to it later. This could be a task on your to-do list, a reminder or a snooze like the iOS app Mailbox includes.

2 Best tips to stay organized and give every email a home

There are lots of different opinions about how best to utilize (or ignore) labels, filters and folders in email. Here are a couple of different ways they could be useful to you.

12. Use labels and filters together

If you’re using Gmail, you can set up filters to automatically label (and archive, if you want) particular emails. This could be receipts or order confirmations that you don’t want clogging up your inbox. It could even be a part of how you work, as it is at Stripe and here at Buffer.

13. Use your starred folder

If you add stars to your emails, most email clients will put them into a separate “starred” folder. This means if there are messages you want to return to later or follow up, you can quickly and easily set them aside by starring and archiving them—this gets them out of your inbox, and into one central folder you can return to on a regular basis.

Useful tools to help you out

There are lots of great email clients available for every platform, but there are also some lesser-known tools that can help you get a better handle on your inbox.

14. Boomerang

If you’ve used (or heard of) Mailbox’s famous snooze feature, you’ll understand Boomerang right away. It’s made to be used with Gmail’s web interface, and it gives the opportunity to remove an email from your inbox and have it return again later. Nat Turner explained on his blog how useful Boomerang is:

On any email I’m sending that I need a response for, I utilize Boomerang religiously to remind me if someone doesn’t reply in X days. This is great to use when, for example, scheduling something time sensitive. Boomerang automatically Stars the thread and moves it to your inbox when the deadline passes.

write good emails - manage emails successfully boomerang gmail

15. Unroll.me

If you subscribe to a lot of newsletters (and especially if you’re not using a throwaway email address for this purpose) then Unroll.me could be just what you need. This free service monitors your inbox for emails that look like newsletters and pulls them all out of your inbox. They’re stored away in an Unroll.me folder so you can see them if you want to, but you’ll also get a digest every day of which ones you’ve received so you can batch-read them.

One of my favorite features of this service is how easy it is to unsubscribe from email updates you no longer want. In your Unroll.me account, you can see a list of everything you’re receiving and with one click you can unsubscribe from most newsletters.

16. Batched Inbox

If you need to keep your inbox open during the day, Batched Inbox for Gmail could be really handy. It takes all of your incoming mail and keeps it out of your inbox until a time that you’ve specified. So you can keep your inbox open to read, send and reply to emails, but you won’t receive anything new until a set time.

This will give you a chance to batch read and respond to emails at a time that’s convenient for you, rather than being interrupted during the day.

17. SaneBox

Another tool to help you keep on top of your inbox is SaneBox. This one does a few different things to make your email more manageable—it helps you unsubscribe from newsletters with one click, defer emails until you’re ready to deal with them (like Boomerang) and most importantly: it filters emails that are unimportant into a separate folder, leaving your inbox free from time-wasting distractions. And you don’t even have to lift a finger—SaneBox does it all for you!

write good emails - manage emails successfully


18. Rapportive

For building relationships (see points 5 and 6), Rapportive is a really useful tool. You can add it to your Gmail inbox for free and it will show you details about the contacts you email, such as their Twitter handle, LinkedIn bio, their photo and even their location. You can add comments to each person’s profile as well, so you can remember important details next time you send them an email.

It’s always tricky, but email’s the way I stay in touch with things. You always wonder what might come up, what new problem…I first find out about problems often with a piece of email. – Bill Gates

Image credits: AppRiver, Mailchimp, Beyond Startup

If you have more suggestions of useful tools or tips for managing email successfully, I’d love to hear them. You can comment below, email me or find me on Twitter at @bellebethcooper.

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • LucidGal

    Despite what MailChimp says, there are better times to send marketing emails. For example, some big servers, like BellSouth, limit the total amount of traffic at certain times of day, and you can get lots of bounces during those times. Your email metrics may show you that 3:00 am is a far better time to send, when server traffic is light. I have personally found that late afternoon is a terrible time to send…people are busy, distracted, tired, and wanting to end the business day. Early morning seems to work best, but not Monday morning. As for when to post to social media, it depends on the platform and, in the case of Facebook, on the page. FB Insights now shows you the days and time of day that a page’s actual fans are active. I manage several pages and those stats vary by page, sometimes a great deal. Blanket statements don’t really work.

  • Michael Hyatt recommends NOT using labels. (http://michaelhyatt.com/yes-you-can-stay-on-top-of-email.html).

    What do I do? I use labels for my personal email, and juts a “Processed” folder for all my work emails (when complete).

    I seem to be liking the latter system.

  • Caleb Warren

    Great post. I’ll definitely be using these! Another thing I would add to this would be to not be afraid of deleting your emails. This keeps both your inbox and labels from overflowing. I confess that I used to be an email hoarder until I started asking myself, “Will I actually ever need to read this email ever again?” The answer is no more than you’d think.

  • John Gibb

    hi Belle

    I see lots of blogs and bloggers talk on email marketing, like they did years ago… it seems email is re-gaining the attention it deserves, and is not dead as most so-called “specialists” told last year, is it?

    “If you want something, make it clear.” – this tip alone is priceless. Imagine… most people are hiding their intentions , some are lying or don’t telling the whole truth… why fake it? Be direct, straight to the point, short and sweet…

    Also, making the recipient feel important and worth their time is crucial… I often get emails from subscribers thanking me for thinking about them, and giving them some relevant goodies from time to time…

    John Gibb

    • Belle

      Hi John,

      Really glad you liked this article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well!

  • Great post, Belle. I’ll never get tired of finding ways to streamline email, and this was a stellar list. Thanks and I’ll humbly add a few thoughts:

    1) Avoid “checking” or sitting in your inbox. Process it a few times a day and close it at any other time

    2) Forget about email on mobile unless you have to, and then Mailbox is the only platform worth processing email on

    3) No pressure 😉 but anyone that values their contacts and having up-to-date contact info on them, should check out the service my team has developed to automatically update your address book/CRM (WriteThatname).

    4) Avoid email for internal use. Get onto yammer, do product development on trello, use hipchat, and enjoy a bit of face-to-face instead of the never-ending chain of emails and CCs and unproductive email habits.

    PS Boomerang is indeed one of my favorite tools, and especially great for follow-ups with the “if no reply” when you send an email. If that person doesn’t reply, the email comes back to you a few days or week later, and to keep a conversation that would’ve died going, I simply A) add to the subject: “You might have missed this RE: previous conversation” and B) mention that “they might be busy (as you said in pt #3) but, the value of our exchange” etc…

    Also boomerang is great for hitting that post noon timing with any time-zone, and whenever you’re writing the email.


    • Belle

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Brad! I agree that HipChat and Yammer are great tools to stay in touch without having an inbox to worry about.

    • This is great advice for managing your own email. Unfortunately, most of your recipients will never “forget about email on mobile.” That’s one of the reasons we felt the need to go beyond Boomerang’s functionality to actually bump those important emails back to the inbox if they don’t get a response. (Sorry for jumping in here 7 months late – if only we had a time machine.)

  • FR

    Thanks for the great post. Another great gmail extension for processing email as to-dos is Active Inbox.You can postpone emails, add reminders, categorize emails in projects….and it’s compatible with Mailbox. And I don’t even work for them!

    • Belle

      Thanks for sharing that one! I definitely miss Mailbox’s postpone feature on the desktop.

  • Kohinoor Devroy

    Dailymuses’ article “Finally! The 23 Unwritten Rules of Email”supporting the fourth point is good. Refer link

  • Including a ‘line of context’ is a great tip! Thanks.

  • rogercparker

    Very helpful advice–I wish I had known these ideas years ago–even a month ago!

  • Cathy Goodwin

    Great post – I’m going to refer back to this one. Abitger tuo us ti choose your email service carefully. It’s a long-term commitment in many cases and a hassle to change.

  • Gotta have the throwaway email box! I still have a ‘hotmail’ from 1996 for this purpose.

  • Tim O’Neil

    Followup.cc is super helpful in remembering to get back in touch with people, without losing a reminder to do so in your calendar, or CRM.

  • Great post Belle, thanks for sharing!

  • Very nice post! I am looking for a way out of email because it is an immense task to manage in itself. I never feel like a morning in my inbox was a morning well spent. Rapportive has been an amazingly useful tool and I’ll be sure to try out some of your other recommendations. Overall, maybe people should move back to using email for email’s original use (just sending messages!) and try out other productivity and collaboration tools.

  • Kroben

    Thanks for the tips!
    You can also use the Beesy app ,which is an all-in-one app for productivity that includes a feature to transfer mail directly to your ToDo just frowarding it to a specific mail. This has seriously improved my productivity handling mails and saves me a lot of time: http://www.beesapps.com/beesy-me-online-platform/beesy-co-easy-collaborative-project-management/email-management-with-mail-to-task/

  • awesome helpful blog post,really it will work for all management students.thanks for sharing post.

  • krestene john

    Sane box is a great application. The best part about this app
    is that It puts the emails from businesses, newsletters and promotions in the @SaneLetter folder while continuing to give me the ones I needed right away. This feature of Sane box really helped in saving my time. I don’t have to label the emails, Sane box makes two separate boxes one for the important emails and one for the unimportant ones.

    For those who are new to Sane Box, watch this video to learn more: