You would think that a initiating a message with “To whom it may concern” is a safe bet, but you might be surprised to learn what those words really convey to your reader – and it’s not all good news.
Avoid generic formalities at all costs.
It’s been common practice to use formal, non-identifying salutations in a variety of occasions, from resumes and cover letters to addressing potential clients to writing business letters and beyond. There used to be a good reason for that: people writing these types of communications were typically either sending them en masse or didn’t have enough information about the recipient available.
But times have changed.
As marketing and communications have shifted to a more personalized approach, combined with the research assistance that the internet now provides, there simply isn’t a good justification to use the same old “To whom it may concern” segue. (The old “Dear sir or madam” is equally horrific.)
Generic formal greeting pisses people off.
Using a formal tone as your opening words has become such a tradition that people can just about anticipate what those words will say without having to read them.
Although you might not know exactly who you are speaking to, using a generic formal greeting does nothing to help your letter stand out from others. It’s bland, it’s trite, and it’s boring. Your opening line is your chance to set the tone for your entire letter, and if you opt for the basic “To whom it may concern,” the reader will anticipate the rest of your letter to be nothing more than basic, as well.
The lack of differentiation creates a problem of a second sort.
What you might consider a safety net (since you certainly don’t want to assume a gender, job title or marital status), the generic “To whom it may concern” actually lets the reader know you have no clue “to whom you are concerning.” In other words, it immediately tells the reader that you are out of touch with your intended audience.
If you want to market yourself or establish a relationship, you need to have a better idea of who you are marketing to. Granted, you might not always have a name available, and that’s okay. But you can get to know more about their company culture, which could give you ideas in better ways to address your intended recipient.
For instance, a fun, vivacious company culture might respond to an equally fun greeting, such as “Hey there, [first name]!”
When in doubt, you can do a little research online to get a name, or call the company and ask for the information directly.
Seeming behind the times is a problem in itself.
Whether you are selling a product for your company or selling yourself for a job opportunity, people want to work with others who are “in the now,” people who can (and have) adapted to the fast-paced changes in the industry. Think about it: are you still using a rotary home phone, dial up internet connection, and a photo development lab? No? Then why would you opt for an archaic expression as your first impression, especially when there are better options out there?
Simply put, using old phrases can make you seem dated, static and, in some ways, obsolete. And those aren’t the qualities you want to associate yourself with if you aim to get what you expect out of your communications.
Is it ever okay to use “To whom it may concern?”
Although there are so many better, more modern, more effective options, there still exists a scenario or two where the classic “To whom it may concern” might be relevant.
And it depends on whether or not the letter is for a specific purpose.
Consider if you asked someone for a letter of recommendation you could use to present to potential employers. In this case, the person would write one letter, not for anyone in particular, and you would present the letter as needed. The person writing the letter has no intentions of establishing a relationship with the intended recipients, and can use a formal salutation to cover any potential scenarios.
However, it would be better if you could get an editable copy of the recommendation letter and each time address it specifically to the persons requesting it, but the formal option here isn’t completely frowned upon.
There’re alternatives to vague, overly-used formal salutations.
The way you address your reader is the first thing they will read, and can set the tone for the rest of your content. If you want to catch their attention and boost your chances they read all the way to the bottom, take a look at some of these alternative salutations:
As a job applicant, you only have a few seconds to make a standout impression. That said, generic wording will never put you on the top of the callback pile. Instead, try these phrases in your next cover letter:
- Dear Hiring Manager,
- Hello [first name of recruiter],
- Greetings, [name of department or company]!
- Dear [First name of recruiter],
When you want to catch the eyes of a potential client, you want that client to feel like you know them, or least know something about them. Business is about building relationships, and those relationships won’t exist unless you make the effort to get to know the people you are targeting. Instead, try addressing your prospects like this:
- Hi [first name],
- Hi, [company] [department] team!
- Hello, [company]!
Email to Potential Client
If you only choose to avoid the dreaded generic opening line in one type of communication, it should be emails. Your email stands a better chance of being opened if you can personalize it to the recipient. To do this, you should include their name in the subject line, as well as in the salutation.
If you are sending an email to a single-owner inbox (not a generic one like firstname.lastname@example.org), your greeting should reflect that it’s to a person, not a potential group:
- Hi [first name],
- Dear hiring manager,
However, if you are emailing to an inbox that might be monitored by multiple users, you can address your communications to reflect a group:
- Hello [company] recruiting team,
- Greetings, [company] marketing department!
Remember, just because you see “To whom it may concern” on business communications does not mean it’s the best option. Don’t be afraid to try something different.