You may love email or hate it, but there's no getting around it. The ability to write a compelling email is a make-or-break skill, whether you're sending marketing blasts or e-newsletters to your customers, making a pitch to a potential investor, or trying to persuade a top candidate to work for your company.

The problem with email is that most of us have time to read only a small portion of what lands in our inboxes every day. And an exquisitely crafted pitch will do no good at all if the person who receives it never opens your message. Yet many smart people -- even marketing and publicity professionals -- consistently make mistakes that discourage recipients from opening their emails.

Don't let this happen to you. Before the next time you click "send," make sure you've done all you can to ensure that your message is opened and read. Begin by avoiding the following all-too-frequent goofs:

1. Being deceptive.

We've all encountered things that look like one thing but turn out to be something else -- the large fancy chocolate box that turns out to have lots of packaging and just a few chocolates inside, for example. Do this with your email and you may get someone to open it -- once. But it will backfire.

As a writer who gets lots of email pitches, my own pet peeve is the subject line "Quick question." If you and I have corresponded or spoken and your quick question is a follow-up to a conversation we already had, that's perfectly fine. But too many people use the subject line "Quick question" when we've never corresponded or spoken, and the contents of the email is an unsolicited pitch about some new client they're hoping to promote. It works to the degree that I open their email -- once. After that I often flag that address as spam so I won't get fooled again.

2. Not putting essential info at the start of the subject line.

Unless you're a mind reader, you can't know if a recipient is reading your email on a desktop, a laptop, or maybe a smartphone or smartwatch, so you don't know how many characters of your subject line that recipient will see. With that in mind, you'd think smart people would make sure to put the most important info first, but they often don't.

Just today I got an email whose subject line was the (not very informative) title of a book. And after that it said, "First book to reveal how…" and then the subject line ran up against the edge of my email window. If people can't tell from your subject line what your email is about, they're not likely to open it.

3. Not mentioning a personal connection.

Most of the email we receive is from total strangers (including the occasional Nigerian prince who needs our help to retrieve a large sum of money). You may be less of a stranger than that because you've spoken to a recipient on the phone or in person. Or perhaps you've never spoken, but you've been following the person's blog or press accounts. All of these can form the basis of a personal connection. As a good salesperson or networker, you already know to make the most of any personal connection you can. Begin by putting that information early in your subject line.

In fact, when I have a personal connection to exploit, I'll start my subject line with "Met at [event where we met]" or "Referred by [person who referred me]." Those emails nearly always get answers. And whenever I get an email that references something I've written in the subject line, I open it.

4. Not mentioning a local connection.

For the same reason, you want to make sure to mention any geographical connection you may have with the recipient. If your small business is located in the recipient's hometown, make sure to say so in the subject line. If you come from the same town as the recipient or went to the same school, make sure to say that too. Anything that suggests you are part of their tribe will help you capture recipients' attention.

5. Failure to arouse curiosity.

One of the first rules of writing headlines for the Web is to create a curiosity gap that makes the reader click on a link to find the answer to a question or puzzle. For example, you may have clicked on this piece because you were curious to know what kinds of email mistakes people are making.

While it's not appropriate in every case, an email subject line that incites curiosity can often compel readers to click. I'm supposed to be writing this column but I couldn't resist opening an email with the subject line: "Tablets are becoming the next tech dinosaur." (I thought: They are? I use mine all the time. And what are people using instead? Phones and laptops, it turns out.)

6. Using words that get you sent to spam.

Certain attention-grabbing words will send your email straight to recipients' spam folders. Never put them in the subject line, and avoid using them in the body of the email as this can trigger a spam filter as well.

You may be surprised at some of these trigger words, many of which turn up routinely in promotional emails. Yes, you know to avoid "sex," "penis," "Viagra," as well as any variant that uses asterisks instead of letters. But "Income from home," "Amazing stuff," and "Dig up dirt on friends," also make the list of words and phrases that get you in trouble. Unexpectedly, so does "partner" because many spammy emails come from marketing partners of brands you've engaged with, such as a travel company that advertises with a newspaper you've signed up for. If it came from a partner, spam algorithms know, that means you didn't opt in for it yourself.

7. Making other mistakes that get you sent to spam.

A few other triggers will get your email marketing campaigns or newsletters dispatched to spam. For instance, using all caps or too many exclamation points. Using an out-of-date email list with bad addresses on it can also get you sent to spam. And of course, sending email that recipients mark as spam themselves is a very effective way to get yourself filtered -- which is why you should only send marketing email to people who have opted in for it.

Some of the other ways to get sent to spam may surprise you. For instance, pasting content from a Microsoft Word document will add code to your email that may cause it to be routed to spam. So will bad links and even link-shorteners, according to a blog post on the popular email marketing service MailChimp. Not having a text-only version of your message along with the HTML version of your email hurts too.

8. Using hard-sell words.

You know the ones I mean: "Last chance" (it never really is); "Act now"; "Limited time"; "Huge savings" Many of these phrases will trigger a spam filter in any case, but if your message does reach recipients' inboxes, phrases like these are likely to annoy them. Even if you really are offering huge savings, tone down the hyperbole.

9. Paying no attention to timing.

I once pitched an editor who would simply never respond to a message sent after business hours or over the weekend. Yet, I observed, when I sent him a message in the middle the work day, he would always respond immediately. Other people are likelier to respond if you email over the weekend. Everyone is different, so you need to experiment.

When it comes to email marketing, timing is a more complex matter, especially if your recipients fall into a range of time zones. Some email services tackle this problem for you by sending out messages to different time zones at different times, or helping you figure out what the best timing is for your particular audience. The only hard rule is not to ignore timing because it really can affect whether your email is opened.

10. Failing to test different options.

You can spend a lot of time and brain power trying to figure out which subject lines and times of day will be most effective for you, but there's only one way to really find out -- by trying different things out. If you're using an email service to send out marketing email, take advantage of A/B testing if it's offered. (An "A/B" or "split" test sends two versions of your email to sub-groups of your email list to see which gets the most response.)

If you're not using a service, or you're just sending a message to one important recipient, send samples to a group of your friends and get their votes on which is most effective. The more you find out about how your subject lines and body content resonate with people who read them, the more effective all your email will be.

Published on: Sep 28, 2015
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