Email Basics: What Is an Email Thread?

Melanie Balke
April 23, 2024

You may have heard it when discussing workplace emails, but do you know what it is?

As technology becomes more user-friendly, many older terms become indecipherable anachronisms. However, they shouldn’t be dismissed entirely! These words describe complex concepts, and today’s focus will be the humble email thread.

What Is an Email Thread?

The protagonist of a video game is photographed by a bystander. "The Basics: What Is an Email Thread?"

An “email thread” isn’t a digital string or loom; it’s a series of email messages and replies. Today, these conversations are stored in a handy, compact view. Emails are often stacked in chronological or reverse chronological order; the specifics depend on the user’s email client and preferences.

When using an email thread, a user automatically appends all previous messages to the beginning or end of their response. In doing so, a user places all the related emails on the same page, making it easier for others to locate important information and prior communication.

Why Is It Called a “Threaded” Email?

The peculiar name comes from threaded communication, which remains a popular format on modern forums and message boards. More recently, threaded discussions have risen to prominence on social media platforms, namely Tumblr and Twitter (now “X”).

Email threading builds on the concept and uses the same format. In many ways, modern email threading functions like a bulletin board forum.

When a user responds to an email, their response is placed above or below the previous message. If any other messages exist within the same email chain, those will be displayed as nested comments.

Why Use Email Threading?

Now, it may seem odd to continue using such an archaic system. The traditional email thread is decades old, and alternative methods exist for organizing related emails. However, email threading remains the most popular option.

Legacy status aside, email threads can help organize conversations. When used properly, an email thread needs little more than user input to automatically group messages by topic. There’s no need for complex menus or inputs. Managing email threads is as simple as ensuring everyone knows the process and responds to the correct email conversations.

This organization reduces inbox clutter and simplifies conversations. In some ways, a threaded email chain serves as a simple checklist, delivering bite-sized bullet points to the recipient. More often than not, the sequence of messages is also displayed in a chronological (or reverse-chronological) view, promoting live feedback and on-demand access to specific discussions.

What to Know About Email Threads

Most platforms support email threads and offer tools to help manage discussions. In fact, all major email clients — namely Apple Mail, Gmail, and Outlook — support email threading.

There’s also an easy way to see if a platform can support threads. Respond to an email and scroll down. If the email client supports threaded emails, you’ll see the original message and all subsequent emails at the end. If you see otherwise, your email client lacks threading support.

What Happens When a Platform Doesn’t Support Email Threads?

Statistically speaking, you’re probably used to email threads. For most, it’s an innate part of the digital experience. However, there are ways to disable email threading and — as noted — platforms that lack support for a “conversation view.”

Generally, this means a user will receive individual emails rather than a lengthy conversation view. It’s a handy solution for anyone using a mobile device or discussing a topic one-on-one, but it lacks efficiency when speaking with more than one person.

Everyone Needs to Manage Email Threads

Now, if you email clients support threads, you’ll want to get everyone on the same page. Otherwise, you’ll be juggling irrelevant emails and chasing down business communications forever.

You can maintain your own inbox. You can sort everything into a neat conversation view and organize your email threads to your heart’s desire. Unfortunately, that won’t help you much if everyone else ignores the best practices for email threads.

The Etiquette Guide for Email Threads

A row of hardback books. "Etiquette: Best Practices for Email Threads."

The keyword here is “compliance.”

Users must understand the basics of email threading to take full advantage of its benefits. Otherwise, you’re increasing email clutter and making it easier to lose track of essential conversations.

The rules for email threads are generally the same as those for professional email conduct, though there are a few differences. These caveats emphasize the importance of organized discussion and using email threading tools.

1. Know When to End

Length is the downfall of any email thread. The longer your email chain, the more messages you’ll see. That content will be stacked and nested repeatedly, eventually creating a massive, unpleasant pile of nonsensical slop.

An email thread should end when the question posed meets a satisfactory conclusion. This golden rule ensures efficient communication, helps you track emails better, and avoids unnecessary discussions. Moreover, if you’re using a mobile device, restricting topics to a single thread simplifies your inbox and contains specific conversations in their appropriate places.

Trying to maintain a thread with too many messages is a fool’s errand. Digital business communication should be thought of as a set of task-based folders. Close each task as needed and move to the next, creating separate messages for each.

2. Be Concise

Similarly, you’ll want to use concise, straightforward language. Think of the body of the email as an extension of your subject line; you want your message to match that concise subject line.

You’re not writing an essay or journal entry.

The best emails convey their purpose in their opening sentence. Everything else should build upon those initial points.

3. Don’t Engage in Chit-Chat

At the same time, one-word replies are just as useless. It may be courteous to thank your coworkers for helping you, but you shouldn’t do so in group emails. Instead, address them directly in a solo email thread.

(Notably, this rule is more important for email threads with multiple recipients. An ongoing discussion with a coworker is more casual and can withstand some succinct responses.)

4. Know When to Send Group Emails

Another way to keep track of your digital communication is to organize your messages by the recipient.

Address every email conversation to the appropriate source — either singular or multiple — and do not stray from that goal. If you’re sending something for a group task, avoid sending responses that pertain to a single recipient. Likewise, when emailing a coworker, don’t ask them to rope another person into the same email thread.

Learn More About Emails

That’s all you need to know about email threads!

However, there’s still more to learn about modern emails.

At The Email Marketers, I strive to deliver high-quality email marketing to everyone. I’ve hired a team of like-minded experts to help brands thrive, and email threads are second nature to us. We’re always ready to tackle another case, so schedule a free strategy session to learn more about email marketing.

You can also learn more about emails by browsing the rest of my blog.