If people had to spend money each time they emailed a stranger out of the blue, would it change their minds? Behavioural finance expert Dan Egan decided to find out.

I ask people to donate $20 to cold-email me. And I think everyone should.

Allow me to start by making this personal: this is what I do for a living. I spend my time thinking about how to help people make better decisions about money, time and happiness. It’s not uncommon to have people contact me about research, career guidance or even personal investing advice. While this is definitely a good problem to have, the volume can be high and repetitive, sapping my enthusiasm for responding.

A couple of years ago I learned that Marc Andreessen (a successful venture capitalist) would respond to any email for $100. In the world of venture capital, where connections can make a huge difference, $100 is an incredibly cheap entry ticket. Intrigued, I dug into the idea and was convinced that it’s something we should all do.

So on my personal website you’ll find a link to a page hosted by Earn, a service which lets people earn Bitcoin by completing tasks. If someone wants to get in touch with me, I ask them to do it through Earn. I request a $20 donation which goes to a charity. They commit to it and the donation only completes if I respond.

At my end, I receive the message and decide if it’s interesting or not. If not, I can reject it (cryptocurrency messages usually get this response). Either way, the person has a clear response in a fairly quick turn-around time.

It’s not a money generator – but here’s the key: think of all the messages I stopped seeing

In two years I’ve opened five excellent connections this way. We often continue to email in the traditional way after the initial task is complete; the donation is not per message.

So it’s not a money generator – but here’s the key: think of all the messages I stopped seeing.

The asymmetric cost of emails

The internet is incredible. We can communicate with anyone in the world instantly for free.

Sending email is practically free, but filtering and reading it costs us in more ways than one

Of course, that’s also led to spam: messages that you wish you hadn’t spent time on. It’s been said that your email inbox is a to-do list that anyone can add items to. Sending email is practically free, but filtering and reading it costs us in more ways than one.

First, it takes up our most precious resources: time and attention. Once I’ve cleared my inbox, I’m ready for a break, even though I haven’t actually accomplished anything.

If it’s free to dash off a hastily written, poorly worded request, I’ll receive more of those than I will thoughtfully written requests

Second, and more insidious, is that all that useless email crowds out the good ones. Even excluding spam, if it’s free to dash off a hastily written, poorly worded request, I’ll receive more of those than I will thoughtfully written requests. But I have to read all of them to connect with the good ones. Here’s an archetypal message I’ll receive from a person:

“I see we share some similar interests and thought it would be great to connect. We should chat sometime there maybe something we can do together...”

Most email or spam solutions are ways the receiver copes with the quality and volume of email sent. But there is a better way: filtering inbound messages to where the sender values my time as much as I do.

The ‘sender pays you’ model

Imagine if someone trying to get your attention paid you based on how valuable your attention was to you. What if, for example, we got paid $1 for every marketing email advertisers sent us?

You couldn’t make a living looking at ads, but the cost to the sender of showing a poorly targeted advertisement would be much higher. Imposing a small charge would improve the quality of ads you saw and reduce the number you received. And the money would be a nice consolation.

And it’s not just advertisers whose behaviour could change. A fee makes anyone seeking your attention more thoughtful about whether or not it’s a good use of time and money to get in touch. Salespeople, recruiters, people ‘just looking to catch up’ would think carefully about whether it is worth $10 to ensure you read their email.

There are options out there. Bitbounce is a ‘spam-fighting solution’ that requires senders who are not on your contacts list to pay you a small amount for each email: otherwise it goes straight to spam. Bitbounce’s requirement that you use cryptocurrency will be a barrier for many people, but it’s a good start.

Ideally, each of us could personalise the costs by sender, time, issue and costs. People with less demand on their ‘attention cost’ set the cost lower, thus ensuring a personalised balance of inbounds to attention. We could set the price for family, friends and organisations we love to zero, while setting a hefty price for spam mail.

Seriously?

Even I have a reactionary cringe when explaining my email policy, however. Don’t people think it’s selfish, arrogant or rude? What about people for whom the cost might represent a significant chunk of change?

To the first question: all the people who got in touch through Earn were happy to do so. It helps that the money goes to a few charities I support – I’m not getting rich off this.

It definitely isn’t perfect though.

I remember being a young person with too many life choices in front of me. I’ve emailed people I admired, requested their time and guidance, and been lucky and grateful when they’ve replied.

Both in gratitude to those who helped and disdain for those who didn’t, I remember making a resolution to never ‘ghost’ a younger person looking for some guidance. Of course, that’s easier when you aren’t juggling a 50-hour-a-week job and a three-year-old child.

Using this system, it’s possible that – without knowing it – I might have missed some great conversations or people I could have helped. I like to think the most motivated people might find some other route to me.

Unintended benefits

Once you experience how much less cluttered your email is under a ‘sender pays’ model, it’s weird that we aren’t all doing it.

The benefits to this change are noticeable quickly. I look forward to reading email, because almost all of it is worthwhile. I spend much less time reading and ignoring generic requests.

And it makes me commit to a higher quality response because I know the sender has valued my time too. Goodwill and thoughtfulness are a virtuous circle.

Daniel Egan is the director of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment, an online financial advisor. He oversees a team of quantitative investment experts and behavioral finance experts.

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