3 Tips for Better System-Generated Emails


When designing your GRC system-generated emails, think from your user’s point of view.

While it’s been a while, I still recall a time when getting an email was an exciting thing. Admittedly that day was the summer of 1994 when I first got an email account, but back then I looked forward to opening my inbox to see what surprises awaited me. Today, however, dealing with my email seems to consume the time and effort of having a part-time job in addition to my full-time job.

There are blogs and even books solely devoted to helping me manage the deluge of incoming messages that causes my inbox to swell beyond comprehension. However, whether you’re a “touch it once” disciple, a “batch processor,” or follow something equally profound (such as the Pomodoro technique) these approaches only address the in-bound side of email. If you’re a GRC system administrator or a GRC process owner, you may be one of the culprits of this email overload.

Thinking from the Recipient’s Perspective
Even though email fails to be as fresh and novel as it did in the 90s, it still has a significant impact (both good and bad) on much of our inter-office productivity. As an administrator of a GRC system or a process owner, you likely rely on email as your number one tool for keeping your stakeholders informed of the happenings within your environment. The list of emails you manage likely includes templates such as the following:

  • New Policy Notification
  • Past Due Facility Assessment
  • Policy Exception Expires in 60 Days (then a 30 day, 15 day, 10 day, 5 day, etc.)

We use these and other system-generated messages to remind end users of upcoming tasks and to raise awareness of key activities. (And, if we’re honest, we also use these emails as online “I told you so’s” for when people fail to follow through on their assigned responsibilities.) We spend time making lists of what to send and when to send it, but seldom do we invest significant time in what we actually put in the email and how it will be processed by the end user.

To craft an effective, clear system-generated email message, it’s critical to consider your audience. If you’ve not given any thought to your reader when creating an email notification template, it’s likely your messages have consumed an inordinate amount of a user’s time or been ignored. Have no fear, though. Once you realize the oversight, there are some clear steps you can take to make amends.

Tip 1: Write a Compelling Subject Line
Reviewing an email starts with the subject line. Great subject lines prepare the user’s expectations for the message, drive user engagement and establish the significance and importance of an email. Based on your subject, your users will either clearly understand the appropriate next step or waste time trying to figure out how to process your message. For example, compare the following versions of a proposed subject line:

    1. Assessment Completed
    2. Please Review: Assessment Completed
    3. Please Review: 2013 Facility Assessment Completed

Now review the following three versions of a separate subject line:

    1. Policy Is Expiring
    2. Please Review: Policy Is Expiring
    3. Please Review: Social Media Policy Is Expiring on 1/22/13

See a difference? By leveraging useful, relevant details, the subject line of a system-generated message becomes more engaging. (Note: The option ‘C’ in each example requires a GRC system that allows you to input variables, such as a policy name or a date, in the subject line. If your GRC system lacks that flexibility you can still see how option ‘B’ is an improvement over option ‘A.’)

Statements that clearly summarize what you need from the reader – such as “Please Review” or “Sign-Off Required” – help your users prioritize their emails and respond to you in a timely manner. In your attempt to be clear, though, there is a tipping point. Remember that many email clients only display a certain number of characters before the text is truncated. Try to remain around a 50-60 character limit with your subject line.

Tip 2: Don’t Make Your Reader Think
When I delivered training in the GRC space, I would always reference the “Ed McMahon” letter as a notification style to avoid. The late Ed McMahon would often send my older relatives messages that read something like this:


Avoid inserting your variable text into a static stream of content. This forces your user to read the entire message to understand the intent.

Scattered within the boiler plate text, were key values (poorly disguised by a mismatched font) that attempted to personalize the message. Within many GRC systems, we have the option of doing the same thing – building a static message with placeholders for field values. However, this feature is often counterproductive as it buries key information inside a lengthy stream of text. If Ed were a GRC system admin, he would be better off writing a message like the following:


Use bullets to call out important values and make your emails easier to scan.

This example is far easier to scan and process by your reader. Treat your reader’s time like the precious resource that it is. Don’t create work (unnecessary reading) when you don’t have to.

Tip 3: It’s All About the Hyperlink
For most system-generated messages, your goal is to drive a user into the system to complete the assigned task or review more detailed information. The hyperlinked value is your reader’s window to this robust information. Take note of the following guidelines when working with your hyperlinks:

  • Make your hyperlink easy to spot. If you are including a brief list of values, make sure the hyperlinked value displays first. Your user should never have to hunt for the link. If the email is one a user receives frequently, over time this will be the only element of your email your reader will ever reference.
  • Avoid underlining stray text. It’s tempting to use the underline option to add emphasis, but don’t do this in any form of online writing. Underlines have become synonymous with links; leave the underline option for your hyperlink. For text that just needs emphasis, use bold face text or italics.

An email can only contain so much; don’t try to force the breadth of an enterprise GRC platform into an email message. Point your users into the system for the full story.

Mailing It In
In summary, I encourage you to review your GRC system’s email notifications from your reader’s perspective. Remember, your message is just one of the over 100 messages your reader will receive on any given day. By taking a little bit of time to design a quality email notification, you can save your system users time and effort.

The first step to fixing any issue is admitting there may be a problem. If you’ll admit that you may not have taken time to invest in your email notifications, I’ll admit that back in 1994 I owned an Ace of Base album. Let’s call it even.

–Jonathan Kitchin, OrangePoint

This entry was posted in GRC Consulting, GRC Technology Implementation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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