Many email systems such as Gmail, Yahoo!, and Outlook allow for email threads. Whether you run your own business or work for a company, threaded messages are a great tool to make sure everyone on your team is up to date with project information.
In this tutorial, I provide you with nine best practices for setting up and using email threads properly, so you can keep conversations moving, and make sure you're only sending important messages to those team members you need to reach out to.
Note: While the desktop version of Gmail is used here to illustrate these group email principles, many of them also apply to other popular email systems.
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What Is an Email Thread?
An email thread treats related emails like a discussion by keeping related emails together in your inbox. In Gmail, all you need to do to create a threaded discussion is to press Reply to all when answering an email.
Be careful when you use an email conversation thread, though. In Gmail if you can change the subject line when you reply to an email, the email with the changed subject line becomes a new thread. The message is no longer a part of the original thread, even if it is related to the topic.
Many business professionals love email threading and encourage their use for the following reasons:
- Reduces email inbox clutter. Without email threads, if you have an original email with ten replies you would see 11 different messages in your email inbox. When you use a group email thread you only see the original email in your inbox with the number of replies in parenthesis next to it.
- Keeps related emails together. Most of us receive many emails. It can be easy to miss an important email or to lose track of what a sender is talking about.
- Keeps everyone informed. Many projects use teams. With threaded emails, the team leader can answer a question and everyone on the team sees both the question and the response.
The email above is a threaded conversation about XYZ Project as it appears in the Gmail inbox. There are four participants in the conversation even though only three display. There are six messages in the thread as indicated by the numeral 6 in parenthesis after the list of participants.
Despite the advantages, there can be some drawbacks to threaded emails. Here are few:
- Distribution list is too large. If people are added to the thread unnecessarily, it can annoy those people and cause the thread to fill up with questions.
- The thread is too long. Sometimes a thread becomes so long it takes forever to scroll to the beginning and follow the entire conversation.
- Some email systems don't support threads. If you send a threaded email to a team member whose email system doesn't use threads, it will appear as a new email in their system.
We’ll address some of these drawbacks later in this tutorial with our best practice list. For now, let's take a look at how to create and use email threading.
To learn more about all types of email, review our selection of email tutorials on Envato Tuts+.
How to Use an Email Thread
There are three basic techniques you need to understand to use email threads:
- How to turn an email thread on or off.
- How to change an email thread's recipients.
- How to mute a threaded conversation.
Let's examine each of these techniques separately. Here is a quick guide to some Gmail threaded basics:
How to Turn an Email Thread On or Off
If you use Gmail, you're in luck. Threaded messages, also called Conversation View, is the default. To turn threaded messages on (or off), follow these steps:
Click on the Settings button in the far right of the screen to display the Settings menu.
Scroll down to the Conversation View option. Select the toggle button to turn Conversation View on or off.
Many other email systems also allow you to use threaded messages. In Yahoo! Mail, for example, the process is very similar to Gmail. You can turn threaded messages on or off by choosing to enable (or disable) conversations through the Settings menu.
How to Change an Email Thread's Recipients
You may realize that you've left someone out of a threaded conversation who should be included. Or, you might want to remove someone from the thread because they no longer work on the project.
If you use Gmail, adding a recipient to or removing a recipient from an email thread is easy. You just need to edit the Cc field before sending your next reply to the thread.
1. Add a Contact
Here's how to add a contact to a threaded message in Gmail:
Click Reply to all at the bottom of the message.
Click anywhere in the field where the email addresses are so that you see the To field and the Cc field. Next, click on the Cc to display your list of contacts. Finally, select the check box next to the contact you wish to add to the message thread.
Type and send the message as you normally would.
2. Remove a Contact
Here's how to remove a contact from a threaded message in Gmail:
Click Reply to all at the bottom of the message. Next, click anywhere in the field where the email addresses are so that you see the To field and Cc field. You should also see a list of email addresses with an "x" after each name.
Click on the "x" behind the name of the person you wish to remove from the thread.Type and send the message as you normally would.
Caution: If you remove someone from the email thread the person stops receiving messages from the thread. They won't know they've been deleted or have a chance to ask to be included. Before deleting someone from a threaded conversation, it's a good idea to check and ask if they mind being removed.
Tip: You can send a private email within a thread by removing all the recipients except the person that you want to receive the message. When you are ready to send a message to all recipients again, just select Reply to all from the message before the private message. (If you select Reply to all from the private message, only the single recipient receives the new message.)
How to Mute a Threaded Conversation
What if you are included in a threaded conversation, but are taking a break from the project for a few weeks? You may not want to receive project emails while you're on vacation.
With Gmail (and many other email systems) you can mute a threaded conversation. Muting the conversation means that you won't see the messages related to the conversation.
When you return to work and are ready to rejoin the project you can unmute the conversation.
Here's how to mute a conversation in Gmail:
Open your Gmail inbox and select the message you want to mute. Next, click the More button towards the top of your inbox.
Click the Mute option at the bottom of the popup menu.
The conversation is removed from the Primary tab of your inbox.
It's just as easy to unmute the conversation:
Click the More option on the left of your inbox. It's located below the Drafts option. Next, click the All Mail option. All messages display, including those that are in the draft folder and those that have been muted.
Select the message you want to unmute and click the More button. Next, select the Unmute option at the bottom of the popup menu. This conversation displays in your inbox the next time a message is added to it.
If you don't want to wait for a new message to see the conversation in your inbox, select the message and click the Move to Inbox option.
9 Best Practices for Group Email Threads
Let’s examine some best practices for threaded messages:
1. Set the Ground Rules
If you’re going to use threaded messages, the best way to start is by setting ground rules. Call a meeting of team members and discuss how the threaded message is to be used. Address issues like how often to send a message, when to add a contact, and what types of messages should not be included in the thread.
If you can’t meet with your team, consider sending the ground rules out as your first message in the group conversation thread. Just remember that if it is your first message, it displays at the bottom of the threaded message in Gmail. Members will have to scroll down to refer to it.
2. Stay on Topic
One reason message threads get too long is that team members stray from the conversation’s original topic. When you set the ground rules, be sure to emphasize the importance of sticking to the topic.
Members should only add questions when they affect more than one person. A personal question such as “Can I have the afternoon off for a doctor’s appointment?” adds no value to the conversation. These messages should not be included in the email thread. They should rather be sent as direct messages to the intended recipient.
3. Avoid Too Many Replies
Too many replies can clutter up the thread and make it longer and harder to follow. When you set the ground rules, define how often messages should be sent. For example, most projects benefit when weekly statuses are added to the conversation thread.
One word replies such as “Thanks,” “Okay,” or “Got it” add little value to the conversation. If every person in a five-member team sent such a message that would add five new messages to the conversation thread.
4. Add Contacts with Care
The people who are Cc’d on your message are your participants. These people can see each other’s names and email addresses. These are the people who take part in the conversation thread.
There may be times that you want someone to see the conversation, but not join in. For example, you may want your boss to see the email thread even though your boss is not directly involved in the project. Adding a person to the Bc field allows that person to view the conversation without others realizing it.
5. Use an Email Tool
Email tools can help you get more from your email system. Make use of these email add-ons whenever you find them helpful. Here are two examples of useful email tools:
- Rapportive. This app allows you to view LinkedIn information from within your Email contact box. Rapportive integrates with many email systems, including Gmail.
- Boomerang. This Gmail add-on app lets you schedule an email to be sent at a later time. Boomerang is helpful for team leads who want to control when members receive announcements.
6. Filter to a Folder
Folders (called labels in Gmail) are an easy way to keep track of your project-related emails. You can filter them to a label (folder). Your labels display on the left side of your inbox. You can also set them up to display across the top of your inbox.
Instead of your inbox, your project-related message then go straight to your project folder.
If you have a lot of conversations going, labels can keep your files organized. Here’s how to set labels up in Gmail:
- Open the inbox and select the threaded message you want to sort to a folder.
- With the selected message open by clicking the Label button above the message.
Select the Manage labels option from the popup menu. When prompted, type the name of your new label.
All future email messages in this conversation thread will be sent to the project label (folder) you created.
7. Be Professional
Whenever email is used, there is the temptation to respond quickly and without thinking. You may also let emotion creep into the discussion without realizing it, which can affect the morale of the team.
Always review your email responses before you add them to the thread. Remember, an unprofessional email reflects badly on you.
To learn more about how to create professional emails review these Envato Tuts+ tutorials:
- WritingHow to Write Clear and Professional EmailsDavid Masters
- CommunicationAre You Making These Email Blunders?David Masters
- How to Master Proper Business Email Format - and Avoid Professional DisasterLaura Spencer
8. Delete Unrelated Messages
Despite your best efforts, a few unrelated messages may creep into the group conversation thread. Don’t worry. Many email systems such as Gmail and Yahoo! Mail allow you to delete unwanted messages from the thread without removing the entire conversation.
Here's how to delete an unwanted message using Gmail:
- Open the email and scroll to the message you want to remove.
- Click on the message to open it.
- Click the down arrow in the upper right corner of the message.
Select the Delete this Message option from the popup menu.
Note: If some team members use an email system that doesn’t support threaded messages, the deleted message may still exist in their email system.
9. Know When to Stop
If you're used to using group email threading to reach certain colleagues, it can be tempting to keep the thread going after it is needed. Don’t do it.
A good rule of thumb is to end the project discussion when the project ends. Even if you start a new project with the same team members, don’t use the old group email thread or it may become unmanageably long. Instead, start a new thread.
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