Boo Radley’s Clue

When I wrote about Jeremy Bachmann’s talk at last week’s B2B Email Strategies Conference, I expected a lot of feedback from folks who disagreed with his premise, which is that limiting your mail’s circulation can be a key to success.

It didn’t happen. Instead I got this from David Jackson of InterPacific Online in Toronto: “One aspect that I can only hope you elucidate on in later articles is content selection.”

That’s a great idea, because a good list is only half the battle. It’s what goes into the email that counts.

While the specific answer to that question is always changing, the general answer is always the same. I call it “Boo Radley’s Clue.”

You may not remember Boo Radley. He was a fearsome character in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” who turned out to be not so fearsome after you walked around in his shoes a while. In fact, he wound up as a hero in a classic piece of literature.

What does this have to do with email content? It’s that you need to understand your readers in order to serve them. You have to walk around in their shoes for a while, then look back at yourself honestly, in order to do that.

Most corporate emails I’ve seen ignore this clue. They either trumpet the sender’s achievements or put on the hard sell. They’re about them, in other words, and not about you.

Excuse me, says the reader, but I don’t care about how wonderful you think you are. I don’t care how you think this price is a bargain, and I don’t care if you think I can’t live without your upgrade. What can you do for me that will justify this email’s existence in my inbox?

“Me-Mail” (Jim Sterne’s term) talks about how I can get more value from what I bought from you. It’s about new uses for your product or service, tips I can use now. Drew Kaplan calls these “fortune cookies,” and he’s famous for not just putting them into customer letters, but into pitch letters as well. When he tells you how to find the game hidden inside Microsoft Excel, you’re more likely to buy the computer he’s selling.

Writing these kinds of letters takes two kinds of skill. Certainly you need the skills of a journalist. But you also need the ear of a customer service rep. You need to ask yourself, “What do I have to say of real value?” and if you don’t have anything to say, you need to shut up. (Customer-focused commercial emails don’t need to be sent on a strict schedule the way magazines do.)

The branding of your email may lie mainly in the tone you take. Kaplan’s is an excited, confidential tone. Yours may be more straightforward. Depending on the kind of company you have, your tone may be conversational or humorous, or your email may just be short.

However you decide to do it, just remember that the content of your email is not about you. Give the best of yourself away, and your customers will throw money back.

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