11 tips for writing better marketing emails


Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 3 Comments | Licence this content

spiderI once had a tarantula walk over my hand.

The experience comes to mind every time I face a blank piece of paper.

A rising sense of panic…paralysis…a prickle of sweat.

Sound familiar?

So I thought I’d share the practical tricks I use to write email marketing copy.

Not so much the intricacies of word choice or paragraph structure, but the process of actually getting the job done and done well. Your tips are also welcome!

1. Define the recipient

The writing process needs a framework to proceed in: a real or implicit briefing…the whos, whats and whys of the task.

Who will get this email and in what context?

Have they undertaken some specific action (like registered for an event)?

When will they get the email?

How does this email fit, conceptually and in terms of timing, with other emails or related marketing campaigns the recipient might see?

2. Define your objectives

Well, yeah! But this is where I’ve seen (and made) a lot of mistakes.

“Get another email into their inbox” is an objective. So is “raise awareness” or “build loyalty” or “generate sales”.

But are they defined well-enough?

What is it you actually want to happen as a result of this email?

There is a big difference between “tell people about our new service” and “get people to go to Page X and start a free trial of our new service.”

What emotional response or physical action do you want?

The clearer and more specific the objectives, the tighter and more focused the writing process and the resultant text.

3. Define what’s really important

We can argue about whether you should want recipients to do more than one thing…but if you do, what’s the most important?

Are there any specific key messages that must come across, as opposed to those that “would be nice”?

When space and attention is scarce, where should you focus your efforts?

You can’t communicate seven corporate values and three calls to action in a four-word headline. At least I can’t.

In trying to achieve everything you can end up achieving nothing.

4. Account for the email context

Email text does not exist in a vacuum: it’s surrounded by images and other template elements, and changed by colors, fonts, backgrounds, line lengths, and positioning.

All of this affects the tone, readability, impact and influence of the words.

What works well in a plain text file can take on a different hue when placed into the email itself.

If you don’t have the template and images to work with when composing the text, then review your efforts afterwards and check it all still reads as you wanted it to read.

5. Choose your moment

Only the lucky few can sit down and simply rattle off top text any time of day and night.

So time writing tasks to those periods of the day when your mind is at its creative / disciplined / energetic best. For me, for example, that’s 8-11am and 4-7pm.

The middle period of the day I use for checking the football news, drinking tea, lunch, staring pensively out the window, emails, accounts, background research etc.

Encouraging creativity is an art in itself. For reasons unknown to science, my best creative moments come while waiting for the kettle to boil. Which is why I keep a pen and paper in the kitchen…more tips on encouraging creativity.

6. Review

After completing a text, I always try and review it again the following morning.

A night’s sleep can bring a fresh perspective and this never fails to lead to improvements. You can get so involved in the detail of the text that you miss the big picture or little errors like typos. These things jump out at you immediately next day.

7. Give yourself enough time

All of which means you need enough time at your disposal. Easier said than done and work realities will often drive a truck through this ideal writing scenario.

But enough time is important. Not so much for the basic writing task, but for refining the words. Tightening a text often takes me longer than the first draft.

And if you’re pressed for time? Well, the silver lining in that cloud is that imminent deadlines have a marvelously curative effect on writer’s block:

writing time

8. …but don’t give yourself too much time

It is possible to analyze, edit, review, rework and rehash a text to death…where the message is obscured by all that red ink. Or where the personality is squeezed out of it after editing by committee.

9. Use the science

Make use of all the public information out there on copywriting that works, especially from such data-driven websites as MarketingExperiments and WhichTestWon.

Take care though: the results of a test or campaign depend on the context as much as the content. What works for me might not work for you…and vice versa.

10. But don’t lose your humanity

If you take an entirely pragmatic approach to writing and accept the average reader has the attention span of a gnat on acid, you can end up with a list of bullet points.

Pragmatism is good, but people still want to be amused, engaged, tickled, entertained, motivated, moved and enthused.

Humor, a little animation, some word play…a touch of personality goes a long way.

11. Seek inspiration elsewhere

Everyone advises keeping a “swipe file” of great text, phrases, subject lines and emails you’ve come across that you can draw on for inspiration.

No argument there, but there are two problems.

First, using your inbox to collect and review hundreds of emails for your own swipe file takes time. An alternative is to use what we might call public swipe files as and when needed.

If only someone had a list of links to public email campaign galleries, databases, reviews and award sites!

Here you go.

…and some sources of subject line inspiration while we’re at it.

Second, a danger is that as a marketer and writer of emails, you like emails that match that experience and your personality. But your favorite emails aren’t necessarily those that appeal to your audience.

So it also pays to have an “internal” swipe file, featuring words, phrases, CTAs, headlines from previous emails and other marketing copy you or your client has already used (ideally with an understanding of how they worked out).

This helps guide tone, style and vocabulary. And if consistency and repetition are required, then you just copy, paste and adapt as needed.

So, just a few ideas that have helped me. How about you?

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Permalink | June 11th, 2012 | 3 Comments »
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3 comments on “11 tips for writing better marketing emails”

  1. Welcome back Mark!

    Within the objective defining, I would certainly include.

    A) Creating/Delivering value to recipients (that old chestnut!).

    Content that is more focused on benefiting recipients than achieving a notional checklist of inclusions/calls to action is showing to work more effectively than brief alert-style content in the last few months.

    Moving to content which is richer and provides insight to a topic with contextual links rather than direct calls (SHOUTS) to action has recently measurably increased both click rates and replies praising the difference in style by a number of my high volume sending clients.

    If it seem too long, only put a single topic in that email – don’t add in-message clutter to inbox clutter.

    B) Frequency (ahem!)
    Try to find a natural balance between having something new to say – and any level of anticipation you hope to build up with your audience.

    C) Swipe File
    Along with that internal swipe file – sign up and be an avid consumer of email content from your nearest competitors or aligned businesses – and don’t do that – be better, stand out.

    One of the simplest comparison’s for prospects or customers is that between your email design, content and style – and others.

    D) Dialogue
    Allowing and actively encouraging replies (and responding and acting on them) has provided the greatest insight to improve of any measure I have taken – there are not usually that many – and they are invaluable.

    Hope that helps.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks as always for sharing your wisdom Robin. I’d only add that delivering content value is easier than many think. It doesn’t have to be a 1500 word article (mea culpa!)…

  2. Stanley Rao says:

    Great article and a very helpful one.. emails with a proper subject line and content is what makes it look better in the marketing process. Following these one can lead to a better marketing campaign