By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Harvard Business Review.
We’ve all been there. You email someone asking for a conversation, information, input, or an introduction, and you get no response. Whether you are reaching out to a coworker, a client, a recruiter, a classmate, or even an old friend, not everyone will get back to you on your timeline — if at all.
As frustrating and disappointing as it may be, a lack of response doesn’t mean they’re ghosting you. It’s important to maintain perspective. People are often juggling a series of important work and personal responsibilities. Your email probably doesn’t make the top 10 on their priority list. Remembering this can help de-personalize their silence, and make you less hesitant to send a follow up message.
That said, it can still feel awkward to follow up, especially if you need to do so more than once. Here are some key things to keep in mind when you reach out to someone for the second (or third, or fourth) time.
Forty-seven percent of emails are opened or discarded based on their subject line alone. Research shows that shorter subject lines with only four words have the highest open rates, which makes sense since two-thirds of emails are read on mobile devices.
For example, Paul, a client of mine, needed his colleague to sign off on a communication plan around the announcement of his move to a new group. His first email, with the subject line “Team communication plan in advance of firm announcement” didn’t get a response. Paul emailed his coworker again, changing the subject line to “Time sensitive: communication plan,” and got an immediate reply.
Though not every email will be urgent, like Paul’s, you still need to be thoughtful about your subject line. Avoid generic phrases like “Following up” or “Checking in.” Those are not only vague — they may also make the reader feel bad for being slow to respond (even further delaying a prompt reply). Instead, use the subject line to give the recipient a short preview of your request. You might say, “Next steps on X project” or “Question on job application.”
Tone can easily be misinterpreted via email, so take care to craft a message that sounds friendly and polite. Research shows emails that are slightly to moderately positive in tone have a 10-15% higher response rates than more neutral messages.
Think of your message as a gentle nudge. Imagine receiving an email that says, “Please send your feedback on my project by Thursday,” versus, “Given your experience with these types of projects, I’d love to get your feedback on the work I’ve done so far. This would be a big win for my team and I, so we appreciate you sending any thoughts you have by EOD Thursday.” The former is neutral and could potentially be construed as demanding, whereas the latter is slightly more upbeat and appreciative while also being complimentary to the recipient. Subtle flattery — without going overboard — helps.
No one likes to receive a long or dense email. The most effective messages are short and easily scannable. Research shows that between 75 and 100 words is ideal, yielding the highest response rate at 51%. This means that if you’re forwarding your initial email, your follow-up message should be even shorter.
The same research also shows that using simple language (at a third-grade reading level) results in the highest response rate (53%). Longer, more complex emails are often put to the side and revisited later when the reader has time to focus on your message. This means that longer emails are more likely to be forgotten.
Try keeping it simple and straightforward. For instance, you could say something like, “I’m following up to see if you might have some time to talk in the next week or two about your experience working at Company X, as I just applied for the financial analyst position.”
An unambiguous, direct question will make your request evident to the reader. The clearer you are, the easier it is for them to respond. In fact, you are 50% more likely to get a response if you ask up to three questions than no questions at all. Your questions might sound something like:
One reason someone might not reply to an email is that they aren’t able to help, or don’t feel comfortable following through on your request. Giving your email recipient an out will ease their discomfort and demonstrate humility, making the other person more likely to reply.
Try using one of the following phrases:
You can also give the recipient a chance to save face by acknowledging that you know they’re busy and have a lot on their plate. The last thing you want is for them to associate negative emotions with receiving emails from you. In this case, a simple statement like, “If you’re too busy or it’s not a good time right now, no problem,” works well.
Research shows that asking for what we need reduces anxiety and improves your self-esteem, sense of agency, and the quality of your relationships – not to mention, it may help you to get your request fulfilled. In short, following up is worth the effort.
But there’s a fine line between being persistent and being annoying. You need to demonstrate both assertiveness and good judgment about when to follow up and when it’s time to cut your losses and move on. As a general rule, a week after your initial email is a good time to reach out again as a first follow-up. However, depending on the nature of your request, prior conversations, and/or relevant deadlines, it may be appropriate to follow up sooner.
Unless it’s time sensitive, each successive follow-up should be spaced a bit further apart, adding another week’s time in between, until you’ve followed up three times. There could be an additional fourth “hail Mary” attempt, depending on the situation. One client of mine had interviewed for a senior role and the recruiter said she was impressed and wanted him to meet with the CEO. After three follow-up emails, my client had still heard nothing. It had been six weeks from his last follow-up email. He had nothing to lose, so he decided to email the recruiter one last time and got a response within minutes.
Following up with others who aren’t getting back to you is an inevitable and necessary part of business and accomplishing your goals. Use the strategies above to increase the effectiveness of your follow up and help you get the response you need.