Email signatures were simple when I started using email back in the 1990s. The only rule was “4 lines or less.” It was part of a loose body of rules called Netiquette.
Today Netiquette has been forgotten. Email signatures come in a huge variety of types and formats. Some of them are offensive. Some of them are boring legal documents. Some of them are invisible thanks to a software misconfiguration.
If you want an email signature that gets read, you have to start with the basics and understanding how email signatures started.
Email Signature Basics
Email signatures are the lines that your email program automatically puts at the end of every message. They used to be limited to plain text in the days of plain-text emails, but now they can include HTML—fancy fonts, creative colors, and pretty pictures.
But I suggest that you stick with plain text email signatures. Why? Everybody can read plain text, but HTML only displays correctly on desktops and laptops. People who use older computers and some Smartphones won’t be able to see your fancy HTML signatures.
Worse, if you use an image in your email signatures, it’ll probably be blocked by many spam filters—even if you’re sending an innocent message to your grandmother.
The Original Email Signatures
Email began without From addresses. When you got a note in your inbox, it was anonymous unless someone signed it. But people then were as lazy as people today, so lots of people innocently forgot to sign their emails.
Someone, I don’t know who, probably got fed up with this situation. I suspect he got one too many accidentally anonymous notes saying, “Hey, when you have a moment can you drop by my office. It’s important.” So our forgotten frustrated programmer created the .signature file (called “dot signature” or “dot sig” by us old-timers.
The contents of your dot signature file would be automatically inserted into any email you sent. Assuming your dot signature file included your name, as most did, you could safely send an email knowing the recipient would know whom it came from.
Email Signatures Evolve
Email quickly grew and it would eventually add the To and From address fields to allow email to transfer from one computer to another. Yet all of the old users still had dot signature files and they continued to use them.
By the time I got on the Internet, most people were using dedicated email programs (the earliest email users didn’t have a program for writing emails, just for sending them—it was called Sendmail). These programs included a built-in dot signature file for email signatures.
Some people went a bit crazy with their email signatures. In those days of text only, ASCII (text) art was popular and some people would even include page-long text renditions of recent Playboy models in their email signatures.
Somebody had to lay down the law. Again, I don’t know who first made the rule, but anyone from those days can remember the four-line dot signature rule. Zealots enforced it, ridiculing anyone who dare include a fifth line.
Email Signatures Today
Email signatures saw a big change when email programs began to support HTML. Suddenly people began experimenting with email signatures again—they could now include different fonts, colors, and pictures. Although I haven’t seen anything from Playboy, I have seen some woolly things in email signatures.
But the old four-line rule still has it’s proponents—including me. Four lines of plain text is enough space to communicate all the essential details. Plus everybody can read plain text—from email programs stuck in the 1980s to Smartphone users with striped-down email programs. If you want people to read your email signatures, four lines of text is, in my opinion, the best way to go.
Making Email Signatures Work For You
Email signatures can help you find a new job or promote your small business—but only if you use them right. Done wrong, email signatures can make people think you’re incompetent or even make them hate you.
The Work An Email Signature Can Do For You
If you write a good email, people aren’t just going to read it. They’re going to wonder about the person who wrote it. They’re going to forward that email to other people. They’re going to save that email for years to come.
But if you don’t make it easy for these people to find out more about you, they’re going to get distracted about something else interesting and maybe forget all about you. That’s a lost opportunity.
Email signatures are your chance at self promotion. (Or an opportunity to promote a cause you strongly support.)
A plain text link at the bottom of my email has driven almost as many people to my website as my most popular articles do. Links in your email signatures can do the same for you.
How To Format Email Signatures
The old-school rule for email signatures is “keep to four lines max.” You don’t need to follow this rule any more, but I suggest you try to—especially if you send email to email mailing lists. A four-line signature is concise and easy to see all at once, so nothing you say will be missed.
Don’t make the number one email signature rookie mistake and include your email address in your email signatures—anybody who’s reading your email has your email address in the From header. Repeating your email address in your signature makes you look like a novice.
The number two rookie mistake is putting a quote in your signature. There are exceptions to this rule, but in most cases a quote in your email signatures will either offend, anger, or disappoint some of your readers—or make them think you’re pretentious.
The main exception to the above rule is quotes related to your business—customer testimonials, your Unique Selling Proposition (USP), or a guarantee. Still—be careful about using these quotes.
What You Want Email Signatures To Do
There are two things you want email signatures to do:
1. Help people learn more about you or your business.
2. Get people to take action.
A simple text link to your home page will satisfy the first criteria. If you’re looking for a job, consider linking straight to your résumé (but be very, very careful about sending email to your current boss and co-workers).
Getting people to take action is harder. The best way to get people to take action is to promise them a reward—but what kind of reward can you promise in email signatures without looking campy?
I suggest you offer them free useful advice. For example, you can put a link to your blog in your email signatures next to the phrase, “Read my all-time top 10 [whatever you blog about].”
This is what marketers and salespeople call a “call to action” and, if your call is enticing enough, it will make your email signatures work for you.