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A Study of 300,000 Messages Reveals the Best Way to Start an Email

And it’s much less formal than you might think.

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BY Jeff Haden - 12 Mar 2018

A Study of 300,000 Messages Reveals the Best Way to Start an Email

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Somewhere along the way I quit using email greetings like "Dear..." and fell into a pattern. If I don't know the recipient, I start an email with "Hi (John) --". If I know the recipient, I say, "Hey (John) --".

And if I've exchanged emails with the recipient but for some reason feel a slightly more formal approach makes sense -- like if we haven't emailed for a long time, or their status makes me feel like "Hey" is too familiar -- then I stick with "Hi."

I figure I can't go wrong with "Hi --".

Turns out that research backs up my approach. According to Brendan Greenley, these email greetings generate the best response rate:

  • Hey: 64 percent
  • Hello: 63.6 percent
  • Hi: 62.7 percent
  • Greetings: 57.2 percent
  • Dear: 56.5 percent
  • All emails: 47.5 percent

While you might think that a 5-8 point swing in response rate between "Dear" and the combo of "Hey" and "Hi" isn't significant, think again. If changing your greeting results in nearly 1 more out of 10 people responding to your emails -- whether you're cold-emailing, trying to connect, or simply asking a friend for a favor -- it's definitely worth it.

And if you're a fan of "Dear," while great for handwritten letters, in emails "Dear" sounds too formal. "Dear" sounds like the sender is about to ask for a favor. Or to apologize for a mistake.

As Brendan writes, "Interestingly enough, research cites that formality tends to be higher when there's less shared context, as well as when speakers dislike each other, neither of which are ideal if you need a reply!"

So what should you do?

First, always include a greeting when you start an email chain. Any greeting performed better than the overall response rate for all emails.

Once you're in response mode it's fine to skip the greeting. If you and I have been emailing back and forth all morning, there's no need to say, "Hey Jeff" every time.

Then, start your emails with "Hi," "Hey," or "Hello."

(If you're emailing me, don't use "Hello." It sounds like you're trying hard to be casual and professional, which means you're doing neither.)

Use "Hi" for people you don't know well or haven't emailed in a long time. Use "Hey" for people you know well or have recently corresponded with.

And then make sure your next sentence isn't one of these, because that will make it much less likely the rest of your email gets read -- much less generates a response.