Blog Post

How to Deal With Low-Quality Messages

Around 94 percent of all email is classified as spam. In 2005, Americans threw away around 5.8 million tons of junk mail. Fortunately, we can take steps to avoid both junk mail and spam email.

46936_communicationBut what about the gray area? I’m referring to low-quality messages: those emails, tweets and messages that aren’t exactly spam, but aren’t ham either. If you spend too long dealing with unsolicited press releases, “Please Digg this!” emails, forwarded jokes and the like,  you will know what I mean.

There may not be an automatic filter you can apply to these types of low-quality messages, but there are ways you can reduce the time and effort you spend on them.

Batch process your communication tasks. We’ve talked about batch processing here on WWD before. Apart from saving time, batching your communication tasks prevents you from being constantly interrupted throughout the day.

Also, whenever I batch process something — whether it’s email or RSS feeds — the huge number of items I have to go through forces me to prioritize. If I see five unread items on my inbox, I’ll take action on all of them, regardless of their importance or quality. But if I see 100 unread items, I’ll start with the top priority emails, then defer or delete the rest.

Watch who you interact with. I used to autofollow everyone who followed me on Twitter, but this is making less sense as more and more people use it. Why? Because most of those people aren’t in it for the interaction, they just want to promote their stuff.

Be careful about who you follow on social networks and you will reduce your intake of low-quality messages. In this great post by Damon Cortesi, he shares a strategy for identifying spammers and heavy self-promoters in order to avoid them. Are most of the links they share similar to their bio link? Do they give meaningful replies to other users? How many of your friends also follow this person? Although he’s talking about Twitter, these ideas are applicable to other social networks as well.

Look for patterns and find a way to filter. Recognizing patterns in low-quality messages allows you to create better filters for them. I’ve already mentioned the “Please Digg this” emails I receive. To eliminate them from my inbox, I’ve created a filter to look for the phrase “digg this” and automatically archive that message, so that I don’t have to see it when I open my inbox.

I’ve also noticed that many of my relatives regularly send me forwarded messages that I never open (or regret opening). This forced me to create a filter for each of them. If Gmail finds “Fwd” in the subject line of emails from my relatives,  they’re automatically marked as read and archived. The time I spent setting this up was worth it, since I receive at least two such emails every day.

Let other people know about your strategy. By letting others know your strategy, you should reduce the amount of low-quality messages you receive. In the book “The 4-Hour Workweek,” Tim Ferriss recommends a generic autoresponder, but this increases the low-quality messages that your contacts receive. A good alternative would be smart autoresponders, which allow you to set an autoresponder tailored to each recipient or condition. I only use autoresponders with people who contact me via the contact form on my blog. I never send autoresponders to my regular contacts, as I know they’d find them annoying.

You can also place a footer below all your emails letting people know your strategy and indicating the times you’ll be checking and replying to email. It’s not as intrusive as a generic autoresponder, but it gets the message across.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that if you’re consistent with your efforts, you will “train” others how to value quality communication over quantity. Make sure you only send high-quality messages. Most people learn by example, so practicing this yourself is one of the best ways to “reprogram” people who send you numerous low-quality messages.

There’s an old adage that goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Now that technology has afforded us a glut of communication tools that are accessible and very easy to use, a more relevant saying would be, “If someone can’t say anything meaningful, don’t follow them on Twitter.” The recipient has the power, after all.

Do you receive a lot of low-quality messages via email, social networks and other communication tools? If so, how do you deal with them?

Image by tecknare from