At a glance, an e-mail is a very simple device. There are two primary components in an e-mail message, the first is the header, the second is the body. The header contains the sender information, the recipient addresses (To, CC, BCC), and the subject line. The body contains the primary message of the email and is conventionally followed by a signature. However, while the structure of an e-mail is fairly simple, the system of conventions used by modern e-mail can be dissected quite a bit more.
Technical Summary of an E-Mail
Without going into too much detail about how an e-mail message technically functions, it is important to note that there are three different protocol systems that can be used. There exists Post Office Protocol (POP), Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and MAPI / Exchange by Microsoft. Each one of these formats changes the technical structure of the email being sent, but all e-mail clients since the mid-1990's have been able to handle receiving any of these types of e-mails.
E-mail itself functions by sending encoded messages between two dedicated e-mail servers. It is not sent directly from one computer to another, unless the client and the mail server exist on the same machine (rather uncommon). Sometimes in work environments e-mail is sent within an intranet, but that's another scenario. What matters is that an encoded message passes from one e-mail server to another to the recipient client.
Reply, Reply All, Forward & To, CC, BCC
The From part of the e-mail is the Author, it is whoever is sending the e-mail, which is very straightforward. The Recipients of an e-mail are found in the To, CC, and BCC sections. The To section is the primary person designated to receive the e-mail, and it usually means that you expect a response if you are sending to someone on the To line.
The CC section stands for Carbon Copy, which means that you want that person to be able to see this particular e-mail for reference, but they might not have any action to take. The BCC section stands for Blind Carbon Copy, anybody in this section will see the e-mail, but they will not see any of the other recipients. So if you sent an e-mail to 30 people in the To or CC section, each person could see everyone else's email. However for BCC, each person would only see two e-mails, their own and yours.
Reply is probably the most used e-mail function, it will let you send a reply to ONLY the person who originally sent the e-mail. Reply All is used very often in business, because everyone in the To section or CC section will receive the reply that you type. There are many instances where Reply or Reply All is used incorrectly that can become embarrassing or problematic, so be sure to always choose the right one! Finally, there is an e-mail Forward. This is useful for passing on an e-mail to somebody else. It sends the body of the e-mail to whomever you choose.
HTML Rich E-Mails & Optimized Marketing
Not every e-mail is simple text. A lot of marketers will use HTML tables, images, and cleverly placed links. They will also use programs that systematically generate e-mails which have your name and buying preferences custom-tailored into the message of the e-mail. There are several best practices that go into successful marketing e-mails. You can either use these if you need to create marketing e-mails, or be aware of these methods to protect yourself as a consumer.
- A Subject line that grabs your attention, with a concise point.
- Using a Human Sender (rather than sending from firstname.lastname@example.org – send it from an account with an actual person's name).
- Make the branding very clear with company logos, colors, and informative links.
- Content personalization & clear context, why is this e-mail being sent and what behavior is being promoted.
- The Call-To-Action (CTA) is easy to understand, whether it's trying a product, learning about an offering, or signing up for an event.
- Social Sharing Buttons & links, to promote the profiles of the company sending the message.
- Unsubscribe button or link! This is legally required and can bring hefty fines if not included.
E-mails of a marketing nature can be used for anything, whether it's trying to sell you shoes or trying to get you to attend a political rally. A lot of e-mail clients and webmail systems today have a way to separate marketing e-mails from personal e-mails, which can be crucial in being able to communicate. There can be some value found though in receiving marketing e-mails; there are often deals and discounts to your favorite shops or services which would otherwise not be available. The challenge is in sorting what is relevant to you, and what is completely useless.
How do I send the perfect e-mail?
What really matters is audience and context. E-mail is a form of instant communication, and most people receive hundreds or thousands of e-mails per day. With that in mind, try to keep your messages concise and to the point. If you are sending a marketing e-mail, put your CTA somewhere easy to see. If you're sending someone an e-mail with questions, put those near the top or bottom so that it's clear what you need help with. If you want to know more, you can learn about understanding e-mail etiquette.