Sunday, April 21, 2013

Does your (email) signature matter?

Image from FreeDigitalPhotos
When Raymond Tomlinson sent his first email in 1971 it said "QWERTYUIOP" and had no email signature.  Short, sharp and with no point except to test the technology, some go so far as to say that this first email makes more sense than all the subsequent ones put together!

Our reliance on emails for communication within and between organisations has seen email become more used for communication than the telephone or any other form of written communication.  More closely linked to a letter or memo than any other form of communication, emails took on the form of a signing off practice, not unlike the signature of a memo or letter.  While graphologists will argue that you can determine the personality traits and characteristics of someone from analysing their hand-written signature, there is no such claim to the email (or forum) signature.  Your email may be used for digital impression management though - and many organisations now have a standardised 'look and feel' requirements embedded in policy or practice for this particular reason.

Often called signature blocks, these "sign offs" have developed around the cultures and sub-cultures of senders and sending groups.  While they most often contain useful contact details (both digital and physical), over time there have emerged ASCII art, image attachments and the practise of adding buttons, badges and even motivational sayings.  It is these embellishments which cause the controversy.  What do they say about you?  Or your company? Are they helping you to build your digital professional network?  And, because in some cases they are, is the signature just down right annoying?!

The rules (or netiquette) surrounding email use has developed over time, however it began with the RFC 1855 on netiquette. The contents of 1995 Request for Comment (RFC)  are often quoted as 'netiquette gospel', but its use is more often in understanding the intended use of Internet based communications and protocols, for us to then develop up-to-date guidelines which promote effective communication.

It was in RFC 1855 that the "four line signature block" protocol emerged. It made sense to distribute your contact details (including your email address) in such early communication when searching for email addresses was nigh impossible.  The four line length also made sense as early Internet users were also encouraged to reduce their bandwidth use. It is fair to remain considerate of these elements today.  Searching email addresses can still be problematic, and with the exponential growth of mobile devices and the cost of data, keeping communication sort and simple is still appreciated.

Despite this however, email signatures in some organisations (or departments) are becoming simply annoying.  It is easy to  append an automatic signature to an email account, and useful to do so. The downside is that some people have them appended to every email they write, meaning email addresses lengthen every forward and email trail you receive. What message does this give out about you and your consideration of others?

What does your ASCII art or image say about you while we are at it too?  Quirky and fun might be fine to send to a close work mate on a Friday afternoon - but it gives a different message to a new colleague you have just begun networking with.  Marketing departments are now requiring staff to add more and more to their email signatures in order to promote both company and individuals. This is all well and good - but there is often a fine line between image control and a spam like advertisement on every email.

Take five minutes out of your day today to check your email  signatures by checking the following:
  1. Is the information current and correct?
  2. Is the signature using the least amount of space and characters possible - while still remaining legible?
  3. Is the signature free from typos?
  4. Does your signature follow organisational policies?
  5. Are the auto-rules set on your email client for your signature "friendly"?  (for example, if you work in a small company with only 6 employees, your internal emails probably don't require signatures at all!). Check to see if you have an option to turn off your signature for certain emails or situations.
  6. Use imagery sparingly, if at all.  
  7. Do images create a sound impression of you and your organisation?
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