Begging, screaming, demanding my limited resources are phone calls, text messages, emails, in-app alerts, billboards, mailers, flyers, guys holding big cardboard arrows and dancing on street corners. Things constantly grab my attention. I cling to sanity only by instantly judging the thing's worth. Only things with merit are allowed past my defenses and into my brain. So, when you've got a message for me, how do you get me to actually absorb it?
I'm not talking specifically about me, of course. I'm making a point of using myself as a sounding board because in my experience, marketing people tend to think of their recipients as "other people" who make decisions differently than themselves. This is not true. If the chef doesn't like the broth then neither will the diners.
And this question of how to get me to read a message isn't a trick question. We all inherently know the answer. We know it because we know what messages we do allow through our filters and into our brains, even if we've never sat down and written it out.
good writing isn't enough
From the number of times I've seen co-workers and friends struggle with having their messages go unread and ignored, there is need in having these intuitive rules spelled out precisely. And this isn't about writing style or ability. I am a fan of good writing – good writing makes your message more understandable and compelling – but good writing alone isn't enough to make it through our mental spam filters.
So, when you really want me (or anyone) to read your message, here's what you need to understand.
1. be known to your recipient
The better I know who you are, the more likely I am to read your message. It's why Hollywood knows the best movie marketing is word-of-mouth – I listen most to my friends and family. If you're messaging me and I don't know who you are, then very early in your message, tell me! Tell me how we're connected! Tell me why I should care what you in particular have to say!
The sender should always be a human being. A person always writes messages. Committees, companies, automated systems – they all may be involved, but ultimately, there is a single human being who put final approval on the message. Whether it's the committee's chairperson, the company's president, or the automated system's maintainer, it's the name of the person with whom the buck stops. Obfuscating the human behind these constructs is a very popular way to deliver bad news, and is akin to using the passive voice to hide blame and duck responsibility. A message whose sender won't take responsibility for it is by definition a weak message.
2. address and date your message
Nearly as important as who your message comes from, is who your message is addressed to and when it was written. Even if I don't yet know you, the more you can show you know who I am, the more relevant I know that message will be. And the more recently your message was written, the greater the chances of that message containing new information.
There is no such thing as 'evergreen' content. The concept of evergreen content is a lie created by bloggers in an attempt to fool search engines into placing their messages higher in the results. Every piece of information ages and grows outdated with time. I am not fooled by undated messages.
3. send your message to fewer people
The more people you've sent your message to, the lower the chances any of it applies to me. I'm much more likely to read a message sent directly to me alone than I am a message sent to a large number of people, a distribution list, or even worse, an unknown list of people.
When you've written a message and sent it only to me, I know that 100% of the contents were put there with me in mind. When you've written a message going to thousands of people, I will, at best, skim through your message searching out the parts relevant to me. At worst, I will disregard your message out of hand, knowing that nothing relevant is contained.
4. get to the point
If you're asking me for something, say so first thing. If the message is only an FYI and you don't need a response, also say that first thing. If you have a long message that rambles on and on before coming to its point, I begin skimming, wondering why you've sent this to me. If you start by telling me what you want me to do, I will better understand the rest of the message as an explanation of that request.
In conversation, it may be polite to begin a conversation with friendly chatter, but the opposite is true when sending a written message.
5. only send messages when you have something to say
Maybe you're reading this and thinking "why would I ever send a message without something to say?" And yet, every single day I get newsletters from organizations. These newsletters are created not when the organization has something they need to tell people, but only because it's been X number of days since their previous newsletter and they don't want to "lose contact". Keeping in contact with people you know is good advice, but to be effective it must be real human contact, not a faceless newsletter. Anything truly important is sent in a message separate from all other content and regular schedules.
If you must send regular bulk updates, the only effective contents are calendar items. A list of upcoming events I may have forgotten about is the only useful thing I've ever found or could imagine finding in a regular newsletter. If you don't even have that, why are you sending me something?
and that's it
There's no secret to getting your message read by its recipient. The above list are common-sense items based on how people actually behave. Trying to circumvent this by making your message look pretty with lots of fancy photos and graphic designs and emojis is a waste of everyone's time. People are busy and intelligent. The only messages we allow into our brains are those sent to us from people that we know when those people have something worth saying and know how to say it. Everything else is just noise.