A Whole New Style of Writing

In my last article, I was rash enough to say:

“At last, the web will have a style of writing that isn’t derivative of offline direct marketing, advertising or editorial writing. Writing to sell on the web will have a style that is unique to this new environment.”

In reply, I received a number of emails beating up on me for not giving examples.

Oh fine!

The examples I’m going to use this week are all drawn from emails. I’m using email text for a couple of reasons:

First, email is where you see words having to stand and work alone. Bare, naked words. (The examples I’ve chosen didn’t come as html versions). Second, more and more e-commerce is being driven by email. That goes for customer acquisition as well as customer retention.

So, without further ado, looking at the bad stuff first, here are some examples of email text that I DON’T think has a style that is unique to this new environment.

Bad Example #1

“Dear [web site] Customer:

You have been automatically subscribed to our email notification list to receive updates of new product and exclusive special offers. We look forward to serving your online purchasing needs in the future!”

Why don’t I like this? Couple of reasons

First, I’m really getting to expect to have my e-commerce emails personalized with my name. Especially if there has been some prior contact that includes my volunteering information to the site — including my name. Personalization can go a long way towards making me forgive a pile of other sins.

Second, when I’m told I’ve been “automatically subscribed” to something, my hackles rise. In this case, I had asked to be added to the list. So it’s not as if the sender is trying to pull a fast one. But the use of the word “automatically” suggests that there was something involuntary happening here. Just a poor choice of words.

And do I believe that I’ll really receive some “exclusive special offers” if they don’t personalize the email and go on to tell me my subscription has been “automatic”?


Wrong words for the new medium.

Bad Example #2

“By now, everybody knows that when you’re ready to buy a computer, [site name] has just what you need — no more, no less — at a price you can afford. But that’s just the beginning! Does your office need an upgrade? Check us out. How about your home? From home electronics to home improvement to home cookin’, [site name] has the goods — with all the convenience, service, and security that comes with membership at the premier Internet shopping site: [site name].”

No salutation of any kind. A horribly constructed first sentence. The message is all one long paragraph; a repeated, self-serving use of site name. And they’re trying to cover six or seven separate points in the space of a just a few lines.

Plus that nasty, nasty device of “everybody knows.” The unsubtle subtext here reads, “Everybody knows — so if you don’t know, you must be stupid.”

And this is from a large, successful site. Which is encouraging in some ways. Because if it can succeed with writing like this, there’s hope for us all.

Now for some good stuff.

Good Example #1

“Dear Fellow Fool,

Over the past few years, you’ve probably heard us ribbing financial magazines and newsletters. We’ve seen too many covers celebrating the 25 stocks for the next hour, the funds you should have owned yesterday, and celebrity money managers. Whatever happened to long-term thinking, accountability, and — dare we say — fun?”

It wouldn’t really work if I tried to hide the identity of this one. It’s from The Motley Fool. Take a moment to read this one, and then my two bad examples. The key difference is the tone. The first two examples were written to “segments B&C of database #3244-YT6.” This last example was written by one human being to another. (Hint: To market one-to-one, you have to write one-to-one.)

Interestingly, I’m made to feel good and part of a group of like-minded spirits, without any personalization. They just called me a fool — and it worked. The style is warm. It welcomes the reader. It respects the reader.

Good Example #2

“Dear [site name] Customer:

We noticed you haven’t shopped here in a while (at least with this email address) and we hoped that a $5 gift certificate might get your creative shopping juices flowing again.”

Again, no personalization. But I’ll forgive them because they clearly have some idea of who I am. And they’re offering me real dollars to come back and shop. They’re rewarding me for being a not very good customer. I like it!

This one I like because it’s all about me. They’ve noticed something about me, and they want to give me some money. It’s not about how great they are. They’re not trying to push a whole bunch of stuff at me.

What do these last two examples have in common? The sense that the email is about me as an individual — even without personalization. The sense that I’m included and they want me to feel good. Which, as chance would have it, is something a lot of us really, really like. We like to feel good.

So how did the first two examples get it wrong? They were written in a broadcast style. It’s the kind of writing you find in a mass mailing. Not very targeted, and often full of pressure and breathless, insincere enthusiasm.

The second two examples were written one-to-one. And that’s a key marker of a style that is unique to this new environment. Effective e-commerce copy is written one-to-one. And not many people write that way.


Related reading