E-Mail Copywriting 101

When marketing folks can’t afford my services as a copywriter, I often offer instead to critique their internally written copy.

Usually, their writing is quite good. The most common problem is copy isn’t written to use email’s unique selling capabilities to best advantage. Because most people write in a word processing program and print the copy, they’re stuck in paper-based, rather than electronic, thinking.

Though the guidelines below may be old hat to experienced email marketers, I’ve done enough copy critiques to know many companies, large and small, still need to learn some basics. Think of this as summer school for those who need to catch up on E-Mail Copywriting 101.

Create a Site-Like E-Mail Template

Think about typical actions you want readers to take: order your product, request a brochure, forward the message to a colleague, subscribe to your e-newsletter. Put this all at the top in a menu bar. If possible, use a small but compelling photograph or logo treatment, too. After all, this is your email letterhead.

Maximize the First Screen of Copy

Use two thirds of the page for your main message and one third as a sidebar. Now, you have two copy areas in which to engage the reader’s limited attention. Use the sidebar to highlight:

  • Customer testimonials. If your clients are large companies, use their logos (with permission) to create graphical interest.

  • Your offer.
  • Product features.
  • An interactive quiz or a survey.

Once you have that structure in place, add headlines, a Johnson box, a personalized greeting, links, and starbursts up top to multiply the touch points to the reader. Another common tactic is to create a short table of contents at the top of the email with listings that link to paragraphs further down the page. The key is to design the email in a clean, uncluttered way.

Try this to structure your thinking: write your main benefits/messages on small Post-its. Move the Post-its in different formations on a screen-sized page to see how many key copy blocks you can get up top.

Say you sell three groups of educational courses. Rather than write three long lists of seminar titles vertically, put the lists side by side in three columns. That way, a reader can see all the seminars on one screen, rather than having to scroll down the page.

Start With the Offer and Call to Action

When I review email copy, I typically find the offer and call to action at the bottom of the page. This is because in the old days, postal letters first stated the problem, then explained how to solve it, then ended with the offer and call to action.

That logic doesn’t work in email. Very few people read to the end of a long message. Put the offer and call to action up front in a hotbox. Add a deadline to spur immediate action.

This isn’t to say long copy doesn’t work. It often works quite well when selling a content-heavy product, such as a conference. But all primary information must be telegraphed at the top of the screen, before the reader clicks off to do the next thing.

Manage Copy Length With Links

Instead of including some standard copy blocks, link to them. Don’t bog down copy with that paragraph about your company’s reputation; include a link with the copy, “Why the ABC Company…” Interested readers can learn all about your credentials on the landing page.

If you have lots of product descriptions to cover, show the product and link to the description. The same goes for biographical information for keynote conference speakers; display the speaker’s photo with an intriguing linked caption.

If you have a designer, try graphical buttons instead of links in some places. I did this recently for a conference promotion campaign where we usually list the top five industry issues in bullet points. To create a little more excitement, we turned the list into graphical buttons with the headline, “The Top 5 Industry Hot Buttons of 2005.”

Whenever you have a long paragraph or a lengthy bullet list, ask yourself if you can replace it with a landing page link. That way, you can limit paragraphs to one or two lines each for easy readability, and keep the overall message as short and actionable as possible.

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Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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