I want to be very clear about this.  The title above is NOT an insulting rhetorical question.  I really want to know what you’re thinking.  It’s easy to comment anonymously here.

sombodyexplainittomesmallPlease explain some things to me.  I’m just taking wild guesses at what some activists are thinking when they send me communications.  You’re my comrades.  My tribe.  I want to help, but I have to understand you first.

Haven’t heard much from most of you in the last month or so.  Yes, I understand, “We need to ACT NOW TO SAVE THE WORLD FROM TOTAL DEVASTATION”, but not during the holidays, right?  The biggest exception is big national orgs that want me to send money during the “holiday season”.  I don’t know why they think people have money to spare during that time, but these are people who are always asking for money anyway.  I won’t try to understand.

Anyway, here are some questions, and the reality I perceive that prompts them.

EMAILS A DAY?hahahawowsmall
– How often are you sending?

Am I a core activist in your organization?  wessidejetsgatherThis is pretty easy to determine if you keep track of the people on your list and how they got there (You DO keep track of that, right?)

Do I show up when you call a business meeting?

Maybe not “core” but considered “active”? Have I shown up at a demo, or some kind of “action” you’ve called, in the last year or two?


Then why would you send me an email, or any other sort of communication EVERY FORKING DAY, or anywhere near that often?  Members of my immediate family don’t do that.

This is especially strange if it comes from a big national org that doesn’t seem to have a local chapter.  I imagine some “professional fundraiser” d-bag who can think of nothing better than to compose a daily email exhorting us to donate.

newsboysmallI subscribe to a VERY FEW lists that frequently, even daily, send a varied collection of links to recent news articles that might interest me if I have time to read.  They format their messages such that it’s very easy
to scan the titles and quickly decide whether there’s anything there worthy of my attention.  These are the ONLY kinds of orgs from whom I would tolerate a daily message, just as we used to buy a daily paper, remember?

If you’re an org concerned with a particular issue, something more restricted than a broad assortment of news articles, you can’t expect people to view it as their whole world, though it might be yours.  Make it a little more of a rare, special event when you send a message, and you might get more attention.

– How are you composing it?

If your message starts like an essay, trying to set a scene and build suspense for a few sentences before getting to the point, you’d better be writing to a personal acquaintance.  Likewise with any opening sentences like “Hope you are all well…”, etc. No one else will read for more than about three seconds before deleting.  Assume that the person has dozens of messages to get through.  You need to get to the point immediately, with the what, who, where, when right at the top, easy to find at first glance.  There are times for polite phatic communication.  A mass email is not one of them.



dogsurelyjestsmallOccasionally, that might really be the case, if you’re only sending to a working group, or a small mailing list for a small org, and you’re not interested in growing.

If you ARE interested in growing, or encouraging the general public to participate in something,  your email message needs to be something EASY TO FORWARD TO NEWBIES, that will make sense to newbies and give them a basic introduction to who you are and what you’re about.

That means the name of your org, maybe some people’s names, links to your web site, where you have lots of background info, and some contact info for yourself.  That means an email address, maybe a phone number, where someone actually answers messages pretty regularly.

You wouldn’t believe some of the flakey things people have sent me, presumably intended for broad distribution to people who’ve never heard of them, looking more like a text message to a friend.



Your occasional emails are generally not the place to harangue us about how important your cause is.

moretalkslessmeansmallThey should refer to your web site for that.  If you’re any kind of an organization, you have one, right?  It’s free and easy to set up, as long as you’re not too picky about it looking original in its layout.  That is the place to post lengthy explanations and links to other web sites on the same subject.  Email is not the place for anything lengthy, with very rare exceptions.

If there’s a particular situation that has arisen, very time-critical, and you’re sending an action alert about it, I understand that it might take a little time to explain.  Your skill is tested here, but the email part needs to be as short as you can make it, with a link to the new entry on a web page somewhere that will give the whole story, for those interested.  This should be welcomed as a  reason to put some new material on your web site.  Web sites that don’t get updated for a long time are rarely visited.

The longer your email message is, the less likely it is to be read.

PS for academics:  The general public (assuming you’re inviting them) doesn’t give a flying phainopepla what degrees your guest speaker has, where they’ve taught, or about every minor work they’ve published.  A quick one or two-sentence summary of the career is enough.  We can Google the name.



don'tknowlaughcrysmallLet me explain something:  People might view their email, or even a web site, on a regular computer, through a variety of browsers, or on a cute touchscreen thingy, or on a phone, with a variety of applications.  These platforms do NOT all display things the same way.

In particular, when it comes to the phones, the screen might be tiny and there might be quite a bit of scrolling involved to get through a long message.  Graphics are likely to be useless.  Might look very pretty on a regular computer screen, but they’re just in the way on a phone.  Waste of bandwidth.

tacticalfacepalmsmallI’ve noticed a trend with some groups to use services like Constant Contact, MailChimp, Nation Builder & such, which seem to provide a template for a fairly complex HTML message that looks exactly like millions of others out there.  Some people might think this looks “professional”.  They would be wrong.  It has some drawbacks.  I would never forward such a message as is.  Sometimes they show the courtesy of a thing at the top something like:  “Email doesn’t display right?  Click here to view in your browser.”  If I really know and like the people, I might forward that link by itself, but I’m probably the only one in the world who will do this for you.

I would never, ever, use the “forward this email to a friend” link that I see on some of these messages.  They seem to want me to trust them about how to handle it.  No way.

I keep advising people as follows, though it seems to be like asking a cat to make me a cup of coffee:

  Send any email you intend for mass distribution in PLAIN TEXT.  It’s the simplest format for text, the one that all software can work with.

putin-medvedev-less-moresmallMy own experience might be limited to three or four webmail-type pages and three or four email clients, but plain text is an option on all of them, for any outgoing message.  It’s the default option on most.
You have to be trying to do something fancy, like different sizes, fonts, and colors, or inserting graphics, to make another format necessary.  Look around at the “tools”, “options”, and “settings” in whatever email interface you’re using.  Somewhere there will be a choice between “plain text” and “HTML”.

  Embedding a link in text, without spelling out the URL, is not advisable.  Much better (in an email) to spell out the whole URL so it’s obvious.  Two reasons for this:

(i)  Linked text is generally ok on a web page, because people usually view a web page with one of the commonly used browsers, which display the URL when you hover the cursor over the link.  Not so with email clients.  They have a variety of ways of dealing with links.

Let me explain:

We all get those spammy messages with one excuse or another to get us to click on a link.  Not-too-alert, curious people will just click it, not noticing that what it connects them to is NOT as advertised.  Occasionally, this can mean malware starts downloading onto your machine as soon as you connect.  Generally safer to look at the actual URL first.  That way, at least sometimes, one can see ahead whether it really looks like it’s going to a known web site.  Not everyone trusts everything about your email message.

(ii)  If someone is going to forward your email (You do want wide distribution of your message to other possibly interested lists, right?), and they have a clue, they’re going to do it in plain text, which doesn’t allow for linked text.  They will have to click your link just to find out what the URL is, copy & paste it, and maybe make a tinyurl for it.  Your message is much more likely to be forwarded if you do this work for them.  It’s your message.  Make it easy for others to work with.

“But what if the URL is so long it makes my composition look messy, or makes copying & pasting clumsy?”

That’s what tinyurl.com is for, and a few similar services.  I’ve never had any trouble with tinyurl.  People who trust you can use the short URL.  People who don’t trust you can use the long one, and you can set it apart from the rest of the text.  If your email message contains lots of long links that mess up the composition, there’s something wrong in the basic concept you have of what your message needs to be.  See #3 above.

●  Occasionally, there’s a reason to compose something fancy, like for printing on paper, if you’re asking people to distribute a paper flyer.  That’s what word processor formats and .pdf are for:  printing on paper, and nothing else, with rare exceptions.  You don’t need to burn up bandwidth by sending it as an attachment.  You can simply post it on the web somewhere and provide the URL for it in the email message.



Snopes had a good explanation of this a few years ago, but I can’t find it on their web site now.  Fortunately, I saved the text for sending to a few people, and here it is:

There are more honest ways to build your mailing list than to say:  “Please forward this to everyone you know and get them to sign the petition!”

uglypollutedsmallReally, think of your reputation.  I certainly think of mine.  No matter how much I wish you well in building your mailing list, I’d feel a little dirty in forwarding such a thing.  A message that calls this “TAKE ACTION!” would be especially insulting to one’s intelligence.



accidentpornsmallYou’re in the business of selling your ideas.  A typo once in a while is like a mole or wart here or there.  No big deal in tiny quantities, but there’s such a thing as too much.  It gives your enemies an excuse to make fun of you and can really distract people from whatever point you’re trying to make.  Please proof.  Ideally, have more than one person proof.



So, explain already.

(If you see an ad below this post, that’s WordPress paying their bills, not me.)

This entry was posted in communication, organizing, politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Elyse says:

    OH yeah. Can I add one?

    “Hey Elyse, Did you read that email that _________ sent out 32.5 minutes ago?!?!?!?! Act now!” Uh, no. I ignored that one. Yours makes me hit “unsubscribe.”

  2. Loved your article, I found it very informative. It actually helped me understand how people who have databases feel when I forward a request to them to share with their fans. I think this information needs to be presented at the OC Progressive Summit. Perhaps you ought to contact them to do a workshop or a Ted Talk? One point needs clarification . . . petitions. While some people use them to build their database, petitions have accomplished a lot of good. While paper petitions are the most effective, especially when attempting to pass legislation since they become part of the bill analysis, the online petitions can be used as ammunition when presenting the the case for the popularity of certain cause. So, I would suggest that if the petition has merit, the cause is something critical or one that we are passionate about, that we attempt to forward it or post to our Facebook page. We can always unsubscribe later from a mail list if we don’t wish to be on. Thanks again for all you do.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Flattered, D’Marie, but I’m not sure how I’d work this into a presentation, since it involves so much guessing at what people are thinking. It’s usually really difficult to get people to talk about this.

      Feel free to give out a link to this, though. I gave up on the “secret blog” idea a while ago. Now it’s just an “extremely narrow interest blog”.

  3. kitchenmudge says:

    Ok, maybe I should concede that there are still SOME people left who might be impressed when someone says “We got 20,000 sigs on this online petition”, but the number is fast dwindling.

    I’ve never worked with an online petition, but there’s little doubt that, with access to the “signature” file, I could copy & paste a few thousand in there from whatever lists I have lying around. Most people are wise to this fact and are unimpressed by online petition numbers.

  4. Tian says:

    Plain text is awesome! Another reason is that all that formatting and pictures and so forth eats way too much bandwidth. As a dialup user I dread getting huge emails. They take forever to download. Then if I’m dumb enough to open the email it takes forever to finish importing digital bleepstuff! Plain text doesn’t have either of those problems.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Thanks, Tian. I was wondering whether any of my readers were still using dialup.

      Avoiding data bloat is a serious consideration if you transmit to other countries. I hear there are places where dialup is about all there is, or where people pay by the minute of connection, or by the megabyte transmitted. The free wifi we get in coffee houses & such is not such a common thing abroad. Anyone with firsthand experience of this is welcome to chime in.

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