The Etiquette of E-Mail Signatures

Back in the old days, your signature (or “.sig”) was a statement about who you are – and in some places (such as forums like Slashdot), it’s still used for that purpose. (In a way, it’s like having an electronic bumper sticker!)

Recently though, I’ve been thinking about signatures, and whether or not they were still useful in the context of email – specifically in the context of business emails. I mean, really, when was the last time you actually found someone’s email signature useful?

I’m talking, of course, about those huge, obnoxious, totally unnecessary email signatures that seem to be the norm nowadays. The ones that contain pictures, six different phone numbers, an email address (often a different one than the one in the email itself!), a picture, a long title & company name, colors, pictures, flashing lights… okay, maybe that last one was made up.

I’m much more old-school in my opinion of what a signature should be, mostly in the fact that I don’t think an email signature should have any formatting at all – it should be plain text only. I also think that shorter is better. I think 3-4 lines is about the max you’d want – any longer than that and your signature starts being significantly larger than most of the emails you’re sending!

Really, all your email signature should be is:

  • Your name
  • Your company name
  • Your phone number

Why is that? Because:

  • I already have your email address (or else how would I be seeing your email??)
  • I already have your web address, by virtue of your email address (we’re talking about “business” signatures here, so I’ll assume you’re not using Gmail or Hotmail or something like that, and that your email address’s domain name is the same as your web site’s domain name)
  • If you’ve got other methods of contact (IM, Twitter, blog, whatever), then you can just tell me those in the body of your email. There’s no need to repeat them to every single person you send email to.
  • Any flashy graphics or pictures just distracts from your message, and in all likelihood will not look right for at least some people (so why take the chance?)

While some people think of their email signature as being like their business card, I think that comparison is a little off for one major reason: people don’t have to look at your business card every single time you talk to them. On the other hand, they do have to look at your email signature every time you send them an email. So it’s important not to overdo it. After all, “less is more,” and simple is always tasteful.

The alternative – for those that feel that they absolutely must give out all of their contact information at once – is to have a signature you use when you first email someone, and then a smaller signature (or none at all!) for follow-up emails after the fact. The problem with this is that you’ll forget, and eventually you’ll just fall back to sending the big signature to everyone.

I think of an email signature as being like “fine print” – the less of it there is, the better. And conversely, the more of it there is, the more… formal, harsh, corporate, and impersonal your email will sound.

There’s another aspect of email signatures as well – the closing line.

Some people include a closing line in the signature block that their email client auto-attaches to every email – which I find annoying, since every single email from them has the same “yours truly” or whatever attached to it and it sounds like I’m talking to a robot.

People who add closing lines like “yours truly” or “sincerely” tend to come from the world before email – that is, the world of physical letters & correspondence. Email is not a direct replacement for old-fashioned mail (for better or worse), and I think it’s inappropriate to try to “force” things that were meant for a different medium onto email.

Although I do sometimes like to close my emails with outrageously formal and archaic closing lines, just for fun – I have been known to use “I have the honor to remain / Most Sincerely Yours.” But that’s for special occasions, not for everyday use.

Other people will close emails with less formal, more casual phrases, such as “ciao” or “cheers,” perhaps hoping to lend a little “international” flavor to their message. My opinion on these sorts of closing phrases is mixed – they tend to be hit or miss, depending on the context.

For myself, as I’ve said, I’m quite old-school, so my emails end quite simply. If I want to use my name (rare), I’ll simply write:

-Keith

Often with no closing line at all. As for my signature, that is just my name, company, and phone number. (My personal signature is equally short – just the tagline of my blog, my blog’s address, and a URL to my PGP public key).

In the end, people who try to make their email signature be more than it really is are just deluding themselves and annoying others.

For more on the do’s and don’ts of email signatures, check out these two articles:

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that there are certain sub-industries where you can’t get around the need for an obnoxious email signature – where they may be mandated by law (or almost mandated by law). Take, for example, lawyers in the U.S. They have some of the longest signatures you’ll ever see – full of disclaimers, legal references, and so forth. Ernie the Attorney has a two great posts on these uber-long email signatures over at his blog which is well worth reading – even if you’re not an attorney (but are in an industry that has mandated email signature laws).

5 Responses

  1. Jesper Frier May 21, 2009 / 1:50 am

    You forget the legal aspects since 1 Jan 2007 in many companies in Europe.

    Companies in the UK (and in Germany) must include certain regulatory information on in their email footers before 1 January 2007 or they will breach the Companies Act and risk a fine.

    Every company should list its company registration number, place of registration, and registered office address on its website as a result of an update to the legislation of 1985. The information, which must be in legible characters, should also appear on order forms and in emails. Such information is already required on “business letters” but the duty is being extended to websites, order forms and electronic documents.

    Learn here why I recommend using HTML emails:
    http://www.emailsignature.eu/phpBB2/what-are-the-different-email-formats-recommendation-t320.html

  2. Keithius May 21, 2009 / 8:25 am

    I didn’t forget – I didn’t *know* about that law in Europe. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    Actually, I’m aghast at this act – requiring regulatory information in email footers just does not make any sense to me. What purpose does it serve? What benefit does it give? What problem does it prevent?

    Although I don’t think there’s any benefit to HTML emails (do we REALLY need color & fonts in an email??), I’d prefer HTML emails over, say, Outlook’s RTF format. (And if you send HTML emails, you should send them in plain text & HTML together, unless you know the recipient can read HTML emails. Thunderbird, the email client I use, does this very nicely of course!)

    p.s. I’ve updated the post with some information on “mandated” email signatures. I don’t approve of them, but I understand now that some people don’t have a choice.

  3. best psychics January 30, 2010 / 7:21 am

    That was a interesting read|. Your insights were very educational and made me reconsider the current developments in these areas. If only more writers are as cognizant and as passionate about educating everyone relating to these issues as you, we aspiring journalists wouldn’t get such a bad rep. Thank you for expressing your self so articulately. You made my day.

  4. Jeremy Mittman May 23, 2011 / 1:34 pm

    It is extremely frustrating when people do not include their e-mail address in their signatures. You are incorrect when you write “I already have your email address (or else how would I be seeing your email??)” Oftentimes, you are looking at a chain of e-mails that has been forwarded to you, you wish to e-mail someone on that chain, but his or her e-mail address does not show up; rather, only their name does. This happens in Outlook all of the time.

    • Keithius May 24, 2011 / 3:20 pm

      That is a very rare edge case that I don’t think justifies putting your email address in your signature every single time you send an email when 99% of the time your email address is already easily available in the “From” field.

      And in a long email chain, wouldn’t the person’s email be somewhere in the CC field anyway?

      And if Outlook is to blame, shouldn’t we change the way Outlook works, rather than annoy everyone else for all those times when it doesn’t matter?

      Just saying…

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