An Exploratory Study of the Impact of Formatting on Email Effectiveness and Recall

By Marshall, Bryan; Cardon, Peter et al. | Communications of the IIMA, December 2009 | Go to article overview

An Exploratory Study of the Impact of Formatting on Email Effectiveness and Recall


Marshall, Bryan, Cardon, Peter, Goings, Douglas A., Humphries, Sally, Jones, Neil, Communications of the IIMA


INTRODUCTION

According to the Radicati Research Group, the number of world-wide email users will grow from 1.2 billion in 2007 to 1.6 billion in 2011. In 2007, the average user sent 34 emails and received 99 emails every day (Radicati Group, 2007). Not surprisingly, email users complain about feeling overwhelmed by the volume of messages they receive and keeping track of these messages (Whittaker, 2005). Mass email messages, in particular, cause significant loss of time in the workplace. By one estimate, the time employees spend deleting junk email costs companies nearly $22 billion a year (McAfee, 2003). While the time spent deleting junk email has been quantified, the intangible loss of information due to email noise is not so easy to quantify. Moreover, from the email sender perspective, constructing effective email messages in this climate message bombardment is especially important.

Although literally trillions of emails are sent annually, little empirical research exists about how formatting of emails impacts email effectiveness. Abundant research exists about the use of subject lines and message content (Bellotti, Ducheneaut, Howard, Smith, & Grinter, 2005; Jenkins, 2006; Ngwenyama & Lee, 1997; Rudy, 1996; Stallings, 2009; Takkinen & Shahmehri, 1998; Zack, 1994), yet little research addresses the formatting of email messages. Many experts from the business communication field have offered advice on effective formatting. The purpose of this study was to identify the impact of applying this advice. We constructed a non-formatted and formatted version of identical messages and asked two groups of respondents to assess the degree to which formatting increased message persuasion and memory recall.

The paper continues with a review of literature concerning document formatting, readability, and document organization. This review was used to prepare the documents employed in the study to which students responded, yielding research data. Discussion of the research data concludes the paper.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Over the last 15 years, email, as a communication channel, has evolved from its origins as an electronic postcard to a more proper and professional way to communicate in the business environment. Email is being used for more than pure business--Neville, Marsden, McCowan, Pagliari, Mullen and Fannim (2004) support email as an effective, quick access medium between medical professionals and patients, for example. As this evolution has occurred, organizing one's thoughts, composing carefully, and being concerned with grammar and punctuation has become more important. Ironically, as computer-mediated communication norms have increasingly become less focused on standard formatting compared to traditional business communications, effective formatting may be becoming increasingly important in persuasive communication (Guffey, 2009).

Research has shown most email users will only look at an email for about 15-20 seconds (Email Sherpa, 2005). This short time period does not allow much time for the recipient to read long and poorly formatted messages. Loren McDonald, Vice President of Marketing at Email Labs, suggests that users can scan approximately 50 words in the 15-20 seconds they allot to each email (Email Sherpa, 2005). Add to this the constant distractions (noise) we are now getting in email messages, by way of animated pictures or crazy backgrounds, and the recipient's ability to scan 50 words is diminished. A quick snapshot view of email messages is sufficient for many people to catch the necessary meaning in a message. As a quick snapshot is vital for understanding a message, research concerning the design of questionnaires by Mullin, Lohr, Breshahan, and McNulty (2000) offers tantalizing insight that is applicable to email design. They want documents that are free of irrelevant information (noise) that would reduce the significance of relevant information. …

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