Thinking Outside the Inbox: Tips for Writing More Effective E-mails
Like the relationship between display advertising and online advertising, e-mail copywriting and direct mail copywriting are two sides of the same coin.
When writing e-mail, general principles still apply: Tight prose, a call to action and a sense of urgency are all vital. But e-mail also has its own particular set of intricaciessubject line in place of an envelope, technology issues (HTML vs. text), and a more ephemeral naturethat requires its own set of rules.
We sought out the opinions of some respected copywriters of both direct mail and e-mail pieces. While the views varied on certain topics, what we came up with is that e-mail and direct mail are very much alike ... except when they're different.
First, let's take a look at the elements of an e-mail message piece by piece.
Imagine the envelope for your control package reduced to a single line of plain text. As unfathomable as this may seem, this is how you must think of your e-mail's subject line. The subject line is the firstand, when done poorly, the onlypart of your e-mail a recipient sees.
You've got no control over the look of your subject line; e-mail programs render subject lines in a standard font. So how to make your subject line stand out?
Subject lines need to be insanely short ... 40 characters or less says freelance direct response copywriter Ivan Levison. Any more and you run the risk of your subject line being truncated by the recipient's e-mail application.
"Getting someone to open a paper envelope is a heck of a lot easier than getting past the subject line," explains Levison, who publishes copywriting tips in his free Levison Letter. "Every subject line must communicate
Also of import is making sure your message gets past filters, which start with your subject line. Laurie Beasley, president of full service direct marketing agency Beasley Direct Marketing Inc., says "avoiding spam or words that will be caught in a spam filter" is the number one priority. Words such as "free" and "advertisement" and symbols such as "$" and "!" are just a few to steer clear of.
In a white paper for Captaris MediaLinq, Beasley suggests certain types of subject lines that tend to
generate better response:
* A subject line that is tied to the context of the relationship between the sender and recipient.
* A provocative subject line that arouses curiosity.
* A subject line that quantifies a benefit, such as "Top 10," "Save 10%" and "3 Great Ideas."
According to freelance copywriter Tom Gillett, "Make sure that [your subject line] is really targeted so that the reader feels that [the message] is targeted to him or her. I'll give you the classic example of an e-mail that isn't targeted to me: I get an e-mail every day about a septic tank. I don't own a septic tank."
Using correct names and titles is key here. "If you're sending something out to a human resources manager, or someone with a particular title," says Gillett, "make sure that title is there in the subject line."
To: and From: Fields
Rivaling the subject line in significance is what shows up in the "from" field of your e-mail. Messages coming from unfamiliar names or companies, or from inanimate entities like "offers" or "deals," don't perform well. "You should never hide where the e-mail comes from," says Gillett. "If you get an e-mail from Eddie Bauer, it should come from Eddie Bauer."
It can also be beneficial to work with recognizable names in a company or publication to get them to sign their name to a message.
"I sent a letter out where the e-mail came from the [publication's] editor," recalls Gillett. "It said there's some new features in the magazine, and maybe you might want to give a thought to
Getting a publication's editor to take the time to sign off on a message can be a hassle. But recognition in the inbox is invaluable. This is somewhat self-explanatory in the world of retention e-mailing to a house list. Where things get trickier is prospecting with a rented list.
"[With] something like eWeek [newsletter]," says Beasley, "if you're renting their list and they will allow you to use their name in the from line, I think that you're likely to get a better click-through than if you're just Joe Somebody renting their list and trying to get people on their list to open the e-mail."
Most e-mail applications come equipped with a preview box feature that allows a user to see a few lines of message text without opening the whole message. Consider this feature when writing your message, and make sure you frontload the first few lines with benefits, news, special savings ... whatever it is you're trying to hook the recipient with.
Beasley specifies that the offer is the part of your message that's most important to show up in the preview box.
"I think that because e-mail and anything online is an impulse kind of thing," she says, "people are going to impulsively read it or delete it. You have to hook people with the offer." The quicker you can hook people, the better.
"My basic rule of thumb is that it had better work on America Online," says Gillett, who explains that the ubiquitous ISP only shows one line in its preview screen. "If the [preview] line will fit and work okay with AOL, it will generally work with other browsers.
"If some of the message gets truncated by the preview box, that's not the worst tragedy," says Gillett. "But obviously you want to keep that preview message real short. It's a teaser.
"Use words like 'save,' 'free,' 'now,' 'new,' 'limited opportunity,' 'order before midnight,' '24-hour sale,' 'sale ends today.' It's the same as direct mail. It's all about creating urgency ... a reason why somebody should do something NOW," emphasizes Gillett. "Let's face it, with e-mail, even if somebody doesn't delete [the message], it goes into the [read] box. ... And if somebody did not click on it, it's gone and it's forgotten."
Now we get down to actual writing. There's much debate over whether HTML or plain text is the best format for a direct response e-mail. We'll address the question of format in more detail in a bit, but one of the arguments in favor of plain textin a world of increasing Web-based e-mail and HTML compatibilityis that a plain text message closely resembles that most revered of direct marketing tools: the letter.
In her white paper, Beasley offers a few rules to keep in mind when writing an e-mail letter:
* Always remember that the person you're writing to is someone who will benefit in a specific way from your offer and product.
* The faster you address a specific "pain point" or hope, the greater like-lihood that people will read on.
* Remember: Benefits outsell
features every time.
* Make sure your e-mail provides an all-in-one summary of product benefits, the offer and instructions on how to buy.
If this sounds familiar, it's because these are some of the things you should keep in mind in any response medium.
"Your direct mail piece hovers over the garbage can, and your e-mail hovers under the delete key," explains Beasley. "I find more similarity than difference between them. People still want a good offer. They still want a promise."
However, there are definite differences between e-mail and direct mail, and you can use these to your advantage. Because e-mail is such an ephemeral mediumbuying or deleting are decided with a click or keystrokecopywriters must be good at pressing hot buttons.
"I can't emphasize the importance of offering some urgency or a specific reason why you sent out the e-mail," says Gillett. "With e-mail, I have a way to create urgency that I don't have in direct mail. I know when it's being delivered. I can do a 48-hour sale. I can do it today only. You can't create that same urgency in print."
To facilitate that quick action, it's important to have a link to a target Web site early in the message.
"Don't bury your URL at the end of the e-mail," says Levison. "Put it near the top of your message so it's readable as soon as your e-mail is opened. Make it easy for people to see it quickly, so they can get to the landing page with the least possible effort."
And don't be afraid to repeat the link with the call to action as often as you feel it needs it.
The generally accepted rule for the length of an e-mail message is that it should be approximately the same length as a one-page direct mail letter. The attention span of the computer-bound consumer is short, so making him or her scroll excessively is not in your best interests.
"We try to keep it to one page or a page and a half," says Beasley, "so they can see it in one opening of their Outlook box."
Sometimes you may feel you've got more to say than will fit in one page. Behold the magic of the Internet. If a
recipient is interested, she will click a link that will take her to that information.
"If you have to convey a lot of information to make a sale, just say 'click here for more details,' take them to a splash page, and they'll get those details if they're interested," says Gillett. "You don't overwhelm them with information."
A final consideration, however, is not to write too short. "Some people have a terrible fear that their e-mail won't get read so they write two short paragraphs and run for the hills," explains Levison. "Don't be so afraid! Prospects will read your e-mail if it's got valuable information for them. The typical e-mails I write run a good seven or eight paragraphs in length ... often with bullets too. They work just fine."
HTML vs. Text
There are varying opinions as to which format e-mail should be sent in.
Gillett says, "I usually send HTML. Almost everybody has a browser that will now support it, and you can be sure that it's going to pop up on the screen properly. ... It's certainly much jazzier, less drab than a text message."
Beasley, however, in her white paper, quotes a September 2001 eMarketer.com survey that says worldwide, 62 percent of consumers would prefer to receive text messages.
So what's the best strategy? Well, if you're e-mailing a house list, try to find out customers' preferences, and give them easy access to change that preference. Because after all, what the consumer wants is most important, even in e-mail.