The Art of the Follow-Up

Ah, the follow-up email. It’s never a straightforward task. Perhaps you’re working to land a guest post on a certain blog, or maybe you’re heading up biz dev for a new start-up. No matter the project, circling back on a line of email communication is tricky. Each individual has his or her own email behavior and, more often than not, the situation can be murky because motivations aren’t transparent. Composing a successful follow-up email is an art form all its own.

When attempting to master the art of the follow-up, it’s important to recognize that every scenario will call for a different tack. That said, here are a few ideas that can help make the follow-up email more succesful.

Know Thy Audience

Everyone engages with email differently. Some of us are in our inbox first thing in the morning. Others only wade through their inbox on downtime during the day. The point is to try to understand the email habits of the person you’re working to follow-up with. If you’ve already had email conversations, look to see when they responded to you and notice if those responses are clustered around certain parts of the day. Or, if this is a new encounter, try poking around their Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter accounts. If they’re updating their social networks frequently, there’s a good chance their email is open.

You can also learn a lot about their personality by the content they post around the web, and you’ll need that info later to craft your pitch. So while you’re looking at timestamps, also be on the lookout for any patterns in interest or anything you can use to communicate with this person in a way that makes them feel positive about the experience. The bottom line is to learn as much as you can about the person you’re communicating with — and all you need to know is literally at your fingertips.

Tone is Everything

By nature, follow-up emails are annoying. The standard “Hi Matt, I was just checking to see if you received the email I sent last week regarding the such-and-such…” comes across as canned. It basically says, “I want something. Respond to me.” (And not much else.) One way to remedy this is to embrace a tone that gives context and character. Make fun of yourself and your follow-up task. For example, you could try something like, “Hey Jim — I know the line between persistence and annoyance is thin (and I hope this doesn’t lump me into the latter category), but I wanted to see if you had a chance to check out the spec sheet I sent over last week…” I’ve found that when you call out exactly what it is you’re doing and add a little good-natured self-deprecation, people appreciate the forthright approach.

Be Concise

Sometimes your recipient misses your first email because it was too long. (How many of us have tried to read an email only to have zero idea what the person is talking about a mere three sentences in?) ┬áSo while your first email was hopefully straight to the point, your follow-up needs to be even more concise. Capture the gist in two sentences and reference the “full story below.” I find that this approach can get someone’s attention simply because the most recent message is concise and easily digested, with the opportunity to continue if interested. You get bonus points if you can follow-up with just a link to a video or product page.

Understand Time

We all get tons of email, and it can sometimes be days before you respond to something. So parlay that feeling into understanding that responding takes time. As such, you need time your follow-up. There’s no golden Vince Vaughn-like “three day rule,” but say you sent your initial email on Monday, wait until at least Wednesday to follow up. It’s just polite. And think about it — if you send your follow-up the very next day, you’ve already set yourself back, because you’ll be annoying the person you emailed. It comes down to respecting people’s time. Do that, and following up gets much easier.

There’s no universal way to follow up, these are just a few personal tips I’ve picked up along the communicative way. Toss in your own follow-up ideas and tactics in the comments.

Dave Clarke is the Communications Strategist at Churnless, a web strategy and production company that helps businesses satisfy, delight, and keep their customers. Follow Dave on Twitter: @thedaveclarke.

Photo by stock.xchng user barunpatro