Why automated group emails fail

Woman in disbelief holding a mobile phone

Communication is always personal. It’s always one-to-one.

If you forget this golden rule, your automated group emails are going to suck.

True fact: Everyone is the centre of their own world. Everyone is the main character in their own story. That’s just a consequence of how we experience life through our own, individual senses.

And it’s important to remember this rule when you’re sending automated group emails to people.

One to one

You might think you’re sending one email to lots of people. This is known in comms as ‘one to many’, when a single sender provides information to multiple recipients.

But it’s not one to many when looked at from the perspective of the recipient. As far as the recipient is concerned it’s always one (you) to one (them), no matter how many others are getting the email.

And it’s the recipient’s perspective that matters in communications. Not yours. (And if you don’t believe me, you have a bigger issue on your hands, which I can help you work through.)

Because communication is always personal, automated group emails generally don’t work when your system shoots them out with each recipient’s first name at the start.

Let’s break this down

You might think you’re personalising your group emails by having your system put individuals first names at the start. You’re not.

Sticking a first name at the top of what is clearly a group email does not make it personal. It does not build connection. It just feels weird.

Why? Because, as Dale Carnegie observed, “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”. A first name is hugely intimate. It’s the biggest connection trigger.

So when you follow that up that massive heart-opener with some depersonalised content written to a broad audience, there’s a big jarring, a painful mismatch. Like when you hear your own name and turn around expectantly to see the speaker is in fact calling out to someone else with the same name. Deflating, right?

We’ve actually met

For example, as a recipient it always hits a bum note to get an automated professional email from someone you actually know. Someone you have a personal connection with. Maybe you’ve socialised with them. Or spoken with them at a meeting. Or connected a lot on social.

Then you get an email from them that’s addressed to you by first name, but is written as if you’ve never met. Super weird. Like this:

Hi (your actual first name)

(Lots of the same words being sent to a large number of people with no care for your unique personality or your unique connection points to the sender or the organisation)

(A sign off that is not how you and the sender ever speak to each other)

(Name of sender, who you know as a real person)

Rationally you know they’re just doing their job. That they’re sending you an automated email with their professional hat on. And it’s efficient to send that email to lots of people at the same time.

You get it. In your rational brain.

But emotionally it still feels kind of urgh, did you forget that we know each other, or what??

Scotsman says no

Another example: I got an automated professional email the other day from an author I follow who I do not know personally, but whose work I admire. It opened like this:

Hey Leigh,

Remember me? It’s your pal Mel.

For some reason, this stirred up my deep inner Scot (my maternal grandparents came from just outside Glasgow) who emerged inside my head to declare: ‘Mel, yure no ma pal.’

And indeed, Mel is not my pal. She’s an author I admire. She’s not a friend. I’ve never met her in any way. So uhm, overfamiliar, Mel.

I get that this is her email voice. But it’s just not going to work with a large percentage of her email subscribers, the vast majority of whom are simply not her pal.

Getting it right

So what’s the solution? Three things:

  1. Write individual emails to individual people as often as you possibly can. And hold those people in your mind and in your heart when you’re writing to them. Be funny if they like funny. Brief if they’re efficient. Chatty if they’re companionable. Be like a real friend.
  2. If you must send group emails with individual names on top, strike a more neutral tone in the body of the content, because that at least acknowledges to them that it’s a group email and not one pretending to be a personal email.
  3. And if you are going to send an email with your ‘voice’ turned up to 10 (think “It’s your pal Mel”), do not put individual names at the start. That way, the recipient can just enjoy you talking in your special way without having first been uncomfortably tricked into a totally fake connection with you.

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels