I have a love-hate relationship with email.
On one hand, I love that I just need to waggle my fingers to get pretty much anything I want. In fact, my livelihood depends on email, and if I wield my powers of persuasion correctly, life becomes much more efficient, whether I’m requesting a client’s approval on a project or asking my roommates to submit their rent checks.
On the other hand, I hate that I could spend all day crafting the perfect email, and still get nothing back.
Because the truth is that people are flooded with email. And neither you nor I are guaranteed a response — let alone the response we want.
But what I’ve come to learn from writing thousands of emails, good and bad, is this.
When people ignore your emails or give half-hearted responses, there’s usually one main culprit: your call-to-action (CTA). That’s the part of the email where you tell the reader what to do next.
If you want to dramatically improve your response rate and quality, you’ll need to master CTAs that are simple, well-formed, and thoughtful. Your reward for a well-crafted CTA is the exact response you want. Which is the real point of sending email, right?
So here is a set of practical tips on how to put your emails to work for you, by harnessing the power of killer CTAs.
Your email’s CTA is the only thing that matters.
As fun as it can be to craft a well-written note, you’re not writing email just to see your beautiful prose and impressive vocabulary on the screen. If you’re one of those people, I adore you (and congratulations on reading Merriam-Webster every morning), but you’re ultimately writing emails to get something you want. Even if what you want is to offer your insight or get to know someone new.
With that in mind, here’s the most important step in improving your email responses: decide on your call-to-action first.
Once you know what you want the reader to do, write it down. That’s the first line of your email.
(Later, you can move the CTA to the middle or toward the end — but more on that in a moment.)
This simple technique will help you clarify for yourself what you want from the reader, which will then keep your email brief, clear, and incredibly easy to respond to.
Then, the rest of the email will fall into place with this question: “What information do they need in order to act on my CTA?” In other words, what do I need to share for this person to do what I want?
With that question in mind, add only the information that’s absolutely necessary to make your CTA crystal clear. Because you’ve decided what your CTA is upfront, this will save tons of time writing unnecessary prose and including tangential information.
Most importantly, it puts the focus on the reader.
Without this step, you’ll be tempted to launch into a stream-of-consciousness email about you, you, you — what you’ve been thinking about, your problems, your ideas, what you think your reader might want to hear.
Delete! People ultimately don’t care about anything that isn’t truly essential for them.
So respect their time (and yours!) by sending an email with a purpose: a clear, actionable CTA.
The best kind of CTA results in “yes.”
The best email CTA allows the reader to hit the reply button and say “yes.” If your email gets people to do what you want, then you’re writing a perfect email.
For example, let’s say you want to plan your mom’s birthday party by email. The basic CTA of your email is: “Decide when you want your birthday party.”
Here’s an example of a CTA that doesn’t hinge on “yes”:
When do you want to have your birthday party?
We could do Friday or Saturday. The downside of Friday is that people who are working won’t be able to come before 6pm and they might flake out altogether. Saturday has a better chance for good attendance. Weather.com says there’s a 20% chance of rain on Saturday, but we’re in California, so who are we kidding?
Anyway, what do you think?
If you write a CTA like this — a vague, open-ended “what do you think?” — you’re asking your mom to write custom sentences back, which easily adds confusion and unnecessary complexity. She might even delay her response, or call you to discuss the matter, or just avoid the conversation altogether because she’s unsure how to respond — a common syndrome of poor email writing.
Let’s look at an example of how to get a fast, decisive response using a CTA that hinges on “yes”:
I’m planning your birthday party and deciding whether it should be on Friday or Saturday.
I recommend Saturday because more people will be able to attend, especially those who work during the week.
Does Saturday work for you?
Making the default reply “yes” increases the likelihood that your reader will respond with the outcome that you want the most. And even if the response is “no,” then you still have a simple, clear exchange, which will make the next communication even easier.
The best part? People will learn to expect easy-response emails from you. Over time, they’ll be more likely to open your emails first and respond quickly.
Form an opinion and lead with it.
In the last example, I reframed the email to Mom so that she can reply “yes,” rather than having to type out her own opinion.
Of course, that kind of CTA required me to have my own opinion about the party, so I could make the email clear and pithy. Before writing it, I had to decide which option I preferred (Saturday) so that my email could lead with one recommendation, which I hope she will agree with. If the first CTA was vague and easy to ignore, it was largely because there was no firm opinion behind it.
CTAs are connected to opinions. Crafting a great CTA forces you to have a clear stance on the topic you’re writing about, and having a clear stance makes it easy to write a great CTA.
Having a strong recommendation is like having a spear tip — it cuts through the noise and helps you get things done faster. It’s much more effective than asking for other people to come up with opinions, because you’ve already put a stake in the ground. Sure, they might still disagree, but at least they have something to disagree about. That’s much easier for both parties than asking someone to form an opinion from scratch.
So don’t be afraid to step up in your emails — to develop your own opinions based on your preferences and desired outcomes, and to communicate them in the form of clear CTAs. That’s the mark of a great communicator, and an essential quality in getting things done.
Use CTAs to manage big, lengthy requests.
When you have a request for someone that involves a lot of explanation — especially when you’re asking for a favor — try using Ramit Sethi’s “One-Two Punch.”
Let’s say you want someone to be a beta reader for your book. You might be tempted to send them an email that explains the commitment they’d have to make, how long it’ll take them, what the goals of the project are, and instructions to get started. That way, they can see what they’re in for, right?
The thing is, a request like that can get long and overwhelming pretty quickly. Chances are they won’t fully read the email in the first place. It’s hard for someone to open an email in the middle of their busy day, see a wall of text, understand exactly what it’s asking… and, ultimately, comply with what you want.
Instead, use the power of a simple CTA.
You could start the email with a short request: “Hey Ron, last time I saw you I told you that I’m writing a book on corn reproduction. I’d be honored to have your feedback. Would you be willing to be my beta reader?”
Ron is now in a position to hit reply and say “yes.” Best CTA in the world: check.
Once Ron signs on, you can then send a response with the details on the project. Ron is far more likely to read it and comply, because he’s already committed to helping you. At each step along the way, you gave him only what he needed to know to do what you want — first to say yes to reading your book, and then to deliver on that promise.
Email can be a powerful way to get big, complicated things done, because it lends itself so well to the quick-response “yes.” Once you have the response you want, you’ve created the initial mental commitment that will get them to engage with the rest of your request.
Make compliance easy.
You should move heaven and earth to let your reader respond with a “yes” and nothing more.
But sometimes you just can’t, and you need a more involved response or action from your reader. To increase the likelihood that they’ll go through with it, make it as easy as possible.
“If you have 2 mins to hit reply and let me know, that would be awesome.”
Saying “hit reply and let me know” walks the reader through what they need to do. It seems like the tiniest instruction in the world, but that’s precisely what helps them put one foot in front of the other and comply with your request. Imagine how helpful this sequencing can be when the instructions are more complicated.
The second tip is to give your reader everything they need to comply by doing any work for them that you could do instead. In many cases that work comes in the form of documents, which you can attach to the email or, even better, link to with Google Docs directly inline.
For example, if I want someone to give me feedback on a draft of a case study, I wouldn’t say, “Let me know what you think of the first draft of the case study I sent you!” That’s not specific enough, and it requires them to filter through their email to find the case study and pinpoint spots where I need their feedback most.
Instead, I’d go with something like, “Please click on the attached draft of the Corn Repro Case Study, then reply to the comments I’ve tagged you in.”
The difference is that I’ve served them the document on a silver platter and let them know exactly where to read and provide feedback. That courtesy and ease will make it super easy for your readers to give you what you want — and quickly.
Put your CTA at the beginning or end of an email.
You can influence an email reader’s response to your CTA based on where you place it in the message.
Ultimately, there are three places in your email where a CTA could go: the beginning, the middle, or the end.
I don’t recommend putting your CTA in the middle, because it’s hard to find and your reader is more likely to forget it. That’s the serial position effect at work — people’s tendency to remember the first and last things in a series. When you remember the first things in a list, that’s the primacy effect at work. And when you remember the last thing that was mentioned, that’s the recency effect — the item that came most recently.
So whatever comes in the middle of your email is at a disadvantage. When you want someone to remember what you’ve said, put it at the beginning or end.
Where you ultimately place your CTA will vary from email to email. My main piece of advice here is that when your email must be long, put the CTA at the top, even if it requires the rest of the email to truly make sense. That will hook the reader and justify the time spent reading the rest of your note. Shorter emails, because they are easier to process, can punch with a CTA at the end.
For example, this is how I get responses from a busy boss or client. I often send them a weekly update with the status of my projects, and 95% is just information they need to have on hand as an FYI. But sometimes I need to add a request to approve something or remind them of a task.
Since this kind of email is very FYI-like, and longer than average, they may get the message that no action is needed from them or may not read it at all. So it’ll be my loss when they don’t act on the CTA I’ve buried 70% of the way through or placed at the very end of the email. Instead, I put the CTA up top.
This is particularly handy when my CTA relates to a low-priority project and I want to talk about a higher-priority one first.
Here’s an update on last week’s projects. Could you please approve the attached press release?
Project update this week
Press release project #2
- AI: Please approve
- Document attached
When you’re emailing someone who doesn’t read email much or is extra busy, you can consider highlighting your CTA in yellow or making it boldface. But only do this with folks you have a preexisting relationship with so that you know that it’ll actually be helpful — some people readily admit they’re so busy that they miss CTAs in your emails, and it’s perfectly acceptable to help them out with a highlight. Otherwise, you might come off as condescending.
If you’re emailing a group of people who each have a CTA, help them find their action items in your note. This is especially handy if you’re sending a follow-up email up after a team meeting. Organize action items by name and consider making names bold:
- @Yolanda: Please XYZ
- @Jungsoo: Please XYZ
Even the most well-crafted CTA is useless if no one reads it. So put thought into how you’re presenting your CTA and how you want your reader to find it. That usually means being smart, deliberate and clear in your CTA positioning.
Commit to killer CTAs.
The best communicators let you know in no uncertain terms what they need from you, and make it easy for you to oblige. Mastering the art of the call-to-action lets you get things done faster without creating additional work or friction. This small but crucial skill can make the difference between good and great performance, and take your productivity and leadership to a whole new level.
So try these tips and see if you get a better, faster response to your emails. Then let us know how it goes in the comment section, so we can keep swapping tips. We’d love to hear how CTAs are working for you!
Featured image by Steve Snodgrass