Your e-mail signature - a meaningful touchpoint or disappoint

After a long day at work, you are finally coming to your appointed massage. Before booking it, you chose the type of massage and desired time and then you were informed about the price – 70 dollars. Not too much for treating yourself from time to time.

And it was a great experience. Calmed and relaxed, you’re approaching the front desk to pay. And then comes an unpleasant surprise. Instead of the expected 70 dollars, your receipt says 100. Not wanting to ruin your newly found peace, you just pay and leave. Still, you feel a bit disappointed and the overall experience is just… not so great anymore.

But, wait… where’s the logic in this? You just had an hour-long pleasurable experience, and now it’s been ruined over what? 30 bucks? Are you ungrateful? Why has this small thing just ruined something so delightful?

Don’t worry, this isn’t about you being cheap. Or ungrateful. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation. It’s because we equate a whole experience with the last thing that happened (if the experience was what we had expected it to be). In psychology, it’s known as the peakend rule.

Experience aftertaste is a real thing, but most brands and companies don’t pay enough attention to it (if any at all).

The same goes for email signatures. Every email you send says something about you. And if you are good at this form of communication, you can make your signature – the very last thing the reader sees – a perfect match to your message. Or it can be just like the one-hundred-dollar massage receipt – a disappointment that doesn’t have a positive effect on your (personal) brand’s image.

Before we think, we expect

Experience aftertaste (a hundred bucks for a massage) is closely related to our expectations (70 instead of 100 dollars).

If you work as a fitness instructor, it’s perfectly reasonable to meet your clients wearing shorts and sneakers. But if you work as a judge, this style of clothing would be considered inappropriate, right?

Every transaction between people is communication. Even when you absent-mindedly wave to your neighbor across the lawn. Even when an angry driver yells at you. Or when you receive a receipt. Or send an email.

To make this communication quicker and more effective, our brain creates shortcuts. They are somewhat useful, but they can lead us to wrong conclusions. So we form certain expectations of the people we meet: we expect that a judge won’t wear shorts and sneakers to the courtroom. If they do, it’s harder to make assumptions about their competencies only based on what they do (and not how they look) because their look does not match what we expect from a judge.

This is a two-way street: not only can the judge’s clothes influence our perception of them, but they can also influence the judge’s own mental state and performance. There is a term in psychology that describes the systematic effect of clothing on psychological processes of the wearer. It’s called ‘enclothed cognition’.

It applies to all aspects of communication, including what our email signatures look like.

Psychologists on the most common mistakes in email signatures

So far, you’ve probably seen tons of email signatures. Have you ever paid attention to them? Do you care what your signature looks like? If you’ve read this text so far, we can assume that you do.

Emails and email signatures are usually not something a lot of people pay enough attention to. They often see them as something they must use, but without being aware that they are another touchpoint with their clients and customers.

Without the senders being aware of their significance, the following common mistakes usually show up in email signatures:

Too generic – Most of us know what an email signature should have. Some basic information about us, such as our name, surname, title, contact information, company name etc. The list of these types of information is seen as standard in people’s minds. They include them in their signatures because everyone else does the same. Doing what others do is very wellknown in psychology: it’s called compliance and it represents a sort of social pressure – going along with what other people do, even if we don’t agree with them. The logic behind this is simple: if we do what others do, we are lessening the chance of making mistakes. So, by being compliant, many folks have almost identical haircuts, shoes, attitudes, music tastes or… well, email signatures.

The ‘Save trees’ guys – One widespread form of compliance in emails is a note saying that we should save trees by not printing the email we’ve received. While saving trees is an absolutely great idea, this way of propagating your environmental concerns isn’t the most appropriate. If a person has an intention to print the email, they won’t feel discouraged by reading your small green-colored font. In fact, they may feel even more motivated to print it because of psychological reactance – the desire to do something primarily because we are directly instructed not to. It’s common in children’s behavior, but adults are also prone to it. It often represents our tiny act of rebellion, even if it means that an innocent tree has to die because of it.

Too messy – Adding any information you can think of related to you, your position and/or your contact information can seem like a good idea: like, if a person wants to contact you, they can call you, tweet at you, direct message you on LinkedIn or Instagram However, although having an open channel of communication towards clients and customers is generally a good idea, giving out all of them may seem desperate. It’s like that annoying salesperson who rings at your door seven times or calls your landline during the evening, assuming that you must be home during that part of the day. So, it’s not about having all your communication channels open; it’s about choosing the ones that your target audience (clients and customers) use.

Confidentiality mess – Another common instruction in emails that makes them messy is the notice that the content of the email message is confidential and that you shouldn’t pass the information to third parties. It usually includes a lot of explanation why you shouldn’t do that, or what could happen if you do. Instead, this information can be short and straightforward, with a link to the webpage which can tell you all about their confidentiality concerns.

Make your email signature representative

The good news is: your email signature doesn’t have to be generic. It doesn’t have to be messy. Of course, you don’t have to forcibly turn it into a special snowflake just to avoid doing what other people do.

You can make it authentic so it adequately represents you and your business. How?

Look & feel

Remember the judge in shorts and sneakers from the example above? Everyone would notice their clothes and the vast majority of us would make assumptions about his or her competence only based on their clothes. So let’s be honest here: form matters. It is the first thing we notice: how something looks and feels. We often judge it unconsciously and not rationally.

The form of your email signature, in terms of colors and fonts, may be defined by the brand book guidelines adopted by your company. If you use one font in all your materials, you should also use it in your signature. The same goes for the color.

If you don’t use a brand book or have, for some reason, chosen not to follow its directions, you can choose fonts and colors that represent you and your brand.

How to choose a proper font?

The look of your signature should mimic the look of your brand’s image. And your brand’s image should be easily associable with qualities and values it represents.

For example, we associate something exclusive and beautiful with qualities such as long, thin and perhaps even fragile. Just remember the famous cosmetics company Avon and their logo – it’s thin, sharp and elegant – the exact qualities we connect with beauty.

AVON is far more fitting with what Avon represents than AVON.

So why does this happen? Why does AVON, rather than Avon, feel right?

It’s because every time we see a font, we perform direct and perceptual associations with it.

Direct association is what a word or a company actually stands for (e.g. beauty). Perceptual association is what qualities of a font mean to us (e.g. bold typeface is seen as heavy and thick while thin is perceived as elegant and fragile).

Show your true colors

People choose the meaning of colors based on their personal past experiences. For example, the color green may remind an investor of money. On the other hand, the same color may remind a farmer of vegetables!

Just as people take apart fonts into their basic qualities, they do exactly the same with colors.

Red color may be appropriate for a Ferrari, but not so much for an obituary. Even the biggest fan of red color would agree. It’s because people evaluate appropriateness of color.

The second thing is color aesthetics. This one is the most straightforward – plain and simple, if it looks good, that’s enough.

The last thing that people subconsciously think about when it comes to color is whether it has objective or subjective value. Objective value may be that is easy to read while subjective value may be that it means showing support for minorities.

But if you’re short on time and are looking for a rule of thumb, here it is: warm colors such as yellow, orange and red evoke restlessness while cool colors like blue, green and purple evoke calmness.

This is why warm colors are related to making quick and uneducated decisions based on heuristics, while cool colors are related to making calculated and rational decisions.

Another basic rule about colors is – less is more. Don’t make your signature too colorful because it can look messy and visually overwhelming. Go with simplicity.

The content of your email signature

Besides necessary information (and that would be your name, surname and title), your signature should contain only relevant, and not all (contact) information. Remember the annoying salesperson from the earlier example? Well, don’t be that guy.

How to choose the information to include in your signature? The basic rule is: less is more. Ideally, your signature won’t have more than three lines of text. Up to five lines can be acceptable, but anything more than that would be too exhausting for a reader, so choose them wisely.

If your clients and customers are mostly in IT, you will probably have your website included in the signature. If you are a fashion designer, your Instagram page might be one of the most relevant pieces of information you can share with people. Think about the people you communicate with and ask yourself the following question: which communication channels do they use the most?

Keeping it simple is always a good idea. The person who sees your email message already has one of the most important items of your contact information – your email address. Sometimes, that’s enough. Adding one more, or maybe two more, isn’t too much, but don’t list all your contact information. Try not to overwhelm people with information and avoid giving them too much choice. The more choice we have, the more the possibility to get confused rises. It’s called the paradox of choice and it’s a real thing.

An email signature is a touchpoint with your clients and customers. But it’s not a place to make sales. Avoid inserting ads or other information that sells directly. Not only does it seem desperate, but it also usually looks messy and inappropriate. If this is your only way to present your offer to potential clients and customers, you should probably reconsider your entire marketing strategy. But that’s a totally different topic.

If you want to stand out and communicate your authenticity (which is strongly recommended), you can add a detail that describes you and/or your business. It can be a quote you like, a piece of information about you, or something that associates you/your brand with your values and qualities. This way, you can create a sense of familiarity with the person you are writing to once you meet in person. If they realize that you are a psychologist and passionate about it, they will see you as a psychologist as soon as you meet, without you mentioning Freud or cognitive dissonance.

Your email signature is your brand signature

Check out these two signatures:

At first glance, you can quickly tell which one is neater and easier to read. Does that mean that the one you prefer is better? Not really.

The look of your brand's visual elements, as well as your mail signature, should be the most effective way of transferring the message to your target audience. You wouldn't use a logo showing kids playing with a dolphin for your sushi restaurant and you wouldn't have the same approach selling a used Ford Focus and a brand new Tesla Roadster.

One can tell that the left signature from the examples above looks cheap. And when we say ‘cheap’, it usually means something bad, undesirable and low in quality. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this. If you are a graphic designer who offers affordable services, it would be okay to form it like this to communicate with your target audience that your services are affordable.

If your brand’s values and quality are all about creativity, spontaneity and playfulness, your signature shouldn't contain all straight lines and right angles. Remember the difference between direct and perceptual association? The same applies to all elements of your branding, including email signature.
You are not sure how to create associations between your brand's aesthetics and your target audience? Then put on your research goggles and find out!

You can conduct your own small (but relevant!) psychological research. Create two or three versions of your email signature and ask your friends (and their friends, and even their friends’ friends’ friends) to tell you how they feel about it. Ask them what their first impression is when they look at it, what associations they draw from it and what message it sends. Gather as many opinions as you can. Then choose the one that is the easiest and most accurate way of communicating your brand's values with your target audience.

Keep in mind that it's not only about aesthetics or what you personally like; it's about what is effective to your clients and customers. It's the only way to use this important touchpoint wisely.

Everything you do makes a statement about yourself and it’s only a question of what statement you’d like to make. Even if you aren’t aware of all the messages you’re sending, that doesn’t mean you are not sending them. So become aware of this and make sure you communicate your business’ qualities and values properly. Turn them into not only your assets, but the first things that pop into people’s minds when they get in touch with you.