AIDA Plus the Five Ws

I’m going out on a limb: A background in direct marketing is not a prerequisite for a successful email marketer.

Conventional thinking is that email marketing is another form of direct mail, except that it’s faster and cheaper, it gets a better response, and you can track it.

True. But that doesn’t mean you need 15 years of experience in direct response marketing to try your hand at email marketing. Here’s why.

Email is an experiential medium. It comes into your in box and asks for your attention. It’s insistent — or irritating — in a way that a piece of direct mail is not. If you’re like me, you sort your mail over a wastebasket. In go those unsolicited flyers, postcards, and brochures — unless the copy or design is truly outstanding.

Email is a one-to-one communications medium. A message that arrives in your in box is specifically directed at you. True, if it’s a poorly conceived email campaign, the message may not be personal or relevant and won’t speak to you. In contrast, direct snail mail is picked up by whoever gets to the mail first. It doesn’t feel as… personal.

Email is about words. An HTML message is appealing and may catch your eye, prompting a click. But ultimately, you’re going to read it — and be moved to act or not. Direct mail, dare I say it, is more about design and packaging.

Which brings me to the point of this article. Words have extraordinary power. And yet, we waste them. So many flabby marketing messages circulate through the Web, blasting from servers and popping, unbidden, into in boxes.

How can we do better? Let’s go back to basics and review the fundamentals of good writing. We’ll use two frameworks: AIDA (attention, interest, desire, and action) and the five Ws (who, what, why, when, and where).

AIDA is a formula for successful direct response copywriting. The five Ws are the pillars of good journalistic writing. Both frameworks can guide the creation of effective email marketing messages. (Disclaimer: I happen to have 15-plus years of experience in print journalism.)

Note that the five Ws below are out of the conventional order. I’m also omitting the H (how). Please excuse this liberty.

Attention and Why

I wrote about this a while back, but it’s worth repeating. The single most important thing you have to do in writing an email marketing message is answer the question, Why should I care? In other words, you (the writer) have to convince me (your target audience) that there’s a good reason for me to open your message. You’ve got to grab my attention.

The same holds true for the lead of a news story. A good editor will make sure that the why of the story (Why should I read on?) is in the first paragraph. My favorite bad lead: “The fire engine rushed to the fire!” Well, of course it did. That’s what fire engines do. That’s not news.

Interest and What

Now that you’ve got my attention, kindle my interest. What’s new? What’s in it for me? That’s what editors in newsrooms say to reporters. In fact, that is one of the fond memories of the late Katharine Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post. The story goes that Graham always greeted reporters excitedly: “So what’s new? What are you working on?”

In an email message, this is where your offer comes in. Tell me what it is as quickly and concisely as you can. Don’t wait! Experiment with the preview function in Outlook or another email client. Is your offer high enough up in the copy that I can read it without opening the message? Of course, you’ve already piqued my curiosity and given a hint of what the offer is about in the subject line, right?

Desire and Who

Now it gets tricky. You’ve got to build your case. Tell me a story or paint me a picture, but make it clear that the benefits of your offer strike the core of my business problem. If you’re selling me high-priced widgets, let me know that you can save me money or make me money. For example, overnight delivery and great customer service will save me time and eliminate frustration. That’s a cost savings if it frees up internal resources for other stuff — like selling more widgets.

In journalism as well, everything boils down to a simple equation. A great news lead cuts right to the quick of an issue or event, lays it out clearly, and puts it in context (answering the question, Why should I care?). Then, in as few words as possible, the first paragraph or two give us the most important facts (who, how many, when, where).

This is a great lesson for business-to-business (B2B) copywriters who, in the words of master copywriter Bob Bly, must “persuade readers by giving them useful information. The more facts you include in your copy, the better.”

Action and Where/When

You got my attention, you kindled my interest, you made me desire your offer — tell me what to do next. Tell me where to go and when (that’s your limited-time offer). Make it breathtakingly simple: “Click here to download our white paper on Top Tips for Writing Great Email Copy!”

And… if you’ve read this far, you’ve got your tips.

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