Writing Effective Copy for Email Marketing

By: Bryan St. Amant


Now I have to admit, I'm still a student of email copywriting.  After years of writing direct response copy, I still find inspiration and ideas from gurus like Nick Usborne and Donna Stein.   

On the other hand, you don't have to be an 'expert' to produce effective email copy.  In my experience -- writing several hundred direct response campaigns and observing their results -- I've found five simple techniques that can help even a student of email write highly effective copy:

1) Start with a creative brief.  Writing effective copy in any medium requires a clear understanding of who you're talking to, what you want them to do, and why they should act on your proposition.  A creative brief is simply a document that answers these questions before you begin the creative process.  This document can be as elaborate or as simple as you prefer.  Click here to see an example of the format we use at VinterActive. 

Developing a creative brief for each mailing you send will help clarify assumptions about your audience and the benefits you must successfully convey in order to motivate their response. 

Not only will this help you focus your copy for better results, it will also give you and your team an objective tool for reviewing work-in-progress.  Instead of asking for open-ended feedback, imagine how much more productive it would be to ask "how does this copy deliver against the creative brief?" 

By channeling your creative energy -- and your review process -- towards producing specific results, developing a good creative brief is the single most important step you can take towards producing consistently effective email copy.  

2) Establish relevance and value.  When customers sign up for our mailing lists, it's because they believe they'll receive something relevant and valuable in return.  As they sort through their incoming mail, relevance and a credible promise of value are the primary screens our prospects use to determine if they'll open and read the email we send.

So before you dive straight into a description of your wonderful new offer, make sure your customers can easily identify "what's in it for me." If you know they value "special savings" or "exclusive access to rare wines," make sure your subject line and/or email headline tells them upfront that's what they'll get by reading further.

Of course one of the best ways to deliver relevance and value is to ask your customers what they want to hear about, then send information you know they want to receive.  Establishing value is then as simple as saying, "you asked me to keep you informed about XYZ, so I'm writing to tell you about..."  This is the core concept behind preference-based email marketing and the primary reason it consistently outperforms other direct marketing techniques.

3) Make your "call-to-action" early and often.  All direct response copy should have a specific call-to-action (i.e., click here or call there).  Some customers may need to read quite a bit before deciding to act, while others require relatively little convincing.  In order to accommodate all types of customer behavior and maximize click-thru rates, our advice is to place your first link as early in your copy as possible, followed by additional links as you offer more reasons to respond. 

The goal is to have your first link clearly visible in even a relatively small email window, so that eager prospects can take the action you're requesting without having to scroll through their email browser.

It may help to structure your copy in the classic 'pyramid' style of a newspaper article.  Begin by summarizing the primary features/benefits of your offer, and then make your first call to action.  Next, expand on your summary with more details, and make another call to action deeper in your copy.  Repeat as necessary.  And like a newspaper, don't overlook photo captions as a great place to emphasize key facts and make another call-to-action. 

4) Write from one person to another.  Over the years, the limitations of traditional marketing vehicles (billboards, brochures, advertising, etc...) have forced most of us to learn a style of mass communication that usually has our business addressing many people at once.  But at its best, email is a one-to-one communication medium.  So why not use it that way?

Instead of "Dear Wine Enthusiast," why not begin with "Dear Steve," and instead of sending your email from "All of us at Chateau du Vin," why not send your email from a real live person?  To complete the transition, stop writing "we" and start using "I."  Add a liberal dose of "you," and you're well on your way to writing one-to-one marketing copy. 

Of course developing true customer relationships via email requires more than first-person prose.  Take a look at your tone, your writing style, and most importantly your underlying intent. 

If it feels real and authentic, you're on the mark.  If not, try this trick: pick a person on your mailing list that you actually know and write a letter just to them.  By writing to someone you know and respect, you're forced to skip the hype of typical marketing copy and make the transition to real relationship marketing. 

5) Offer a reason to act now.  Think of all the simple things you already know you'd like to do: workout, floss, catch up on your reading, whatever...  Why don't you do them as often as you'd like?  The answer is easy -- there are usually too many tasks vying for our attention -- and those that have to be done immediately command the highest priority.

The same dynamic holds true in email marketing.  Your offer might be so wonderful that everyone who reads it wants to take action.  But without a sense of urgency or a reason to act quickly, you'll lose much of your potential response as other priorities compete for your customers' attention.

For this reason, the most effective email copy usually contains a deadline or other element that creates a sense of urgency and provides a reason to act now.   Events have a natural deadline built-in, and so do orders for holiday gifts.  Most consumers accept that discounts will only be offered for a limited time and even if you don't have a deadline, factors such as limited supply or the anticipation of heavy demand can be used to create a sense of urgency around your offer. 

You have to be careful about taking this too far, but if you can find a legitimate reason to introduce a sense of urgency in your email copy, you'll almost certainly see response rates rise for any offer you present.