Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be E-mail Copywriters

Lately, I’ve been getting about five calls a week from prospective clients requesting my copywriting services for their e-mail campaigns.

How many have become clients? Zero.

The reason? Extremely low to nonexistent e-mail copywriting budgets. I call it the “Midas Muffler Effect,” or “I’m not going to pay a lot for that e-mail!”

I can only shake my head after those calls and get back to work generating mega-sales for my existing clients by using proven, but little-known e-mail copywriting techniques.

Here’s why I think the low-ball e-mail budgeting approach is a mistake.

E-mail Is Inexpensive; You Can Spend More on Creative

Unlike direct mail and print, where you have to make a huge investment in either printing, paper, and postage, or media costs, e-mail is ridiculously inexpensive to broadcast — and generates a higher ROI (define).

In a logical world, e-mail’s inexpensive broadcast costs should mean there’s more money for creative. Instead, there’s a prevailing notion that everything about e-mail should be cheap — including design and copy.

The “wisdom” behind this astounds me. For example, most clients will pay $1,200 to $2,000 for a one-page printed direct mail letter of 350 words. Yet they expect the same message in an e-mail to cost $200 to $500, $700 at the most. The same thought process goes behind the writing, the same words are produced, but the creative fee is substantially less.

Am I missing something?

E-mail Allows You to Test Key Messages Inexpensively

E-mail is a wonderful creative testing ground. Unlike direct mail tests, which cost a fortune if the key messages fail to generate sales, e-mail allows you to test repeatedly with impunity. When you arrive at a winning approach, you can then translate it into direct mail and be pretty confident your investment in print, paper, and postage will pay off.

I’ve seen this happen successfully several times in my own practice. Recently, I wrote a business-to-business (B2B) e-mail for a client that achieved a 60 percent open rate and a high number of online sales. When it was time to write the postcard, which message do you think we decided to use?

In another case, I was able to create e-mail messaging that generated 10 times the number of sales the organization typically produced from an e-mail. As a result, we were able to create further e-mail messages that capitalized on the momentum to bring in even more sales, a direct response package that beat the control, and a TV ad that brought the campaign nationwide exposure. And it all started with a lowly e-mail.

An E-mail Writing Investment Pays Off More Than a Web Writing One

I’m going to be brutally frank about this. Web content writing isn’t really rocket science. You can leave that to just about any good writer.

In my experience, the B2B Web site is still just brochureware. You simply repurpose existing “about us,” “products and services,” and “capabilities” copy in a clear, straightforward way, and you’re done.

Of course, there are exceptions. Creative companies, such as advertising agencies, must have better copy to show off their creativity. And Web site copy must be optimized for search engines, which requires specialized skills. Plus, B2B e-commerce requires yet another skill set.

However, you should really invest your copywriting budget in efforts that generate direct, measurable sales. That’s why the best direct mail copywriters have always been paid top dollar. And why e-mail copywriters should be in the same league.

Low E-mail Writing Rates Keep Good Copywriters From Working in the Field

At $500 an e-mail, there’s no incentive for good copywriters to learn the e-marketing tricks of the trade. Sure, writers will take on an e-mail if it’s part of another assignment or if they have a cash-flow lull. But they’re not going to study response-generating techniques if there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

What’s more, a lot of experienced copywriters I know turn down one-shot e-mail projects because they’re just not worth the time and effort. This is similar to the direct mail field, where writers turn down postcard-writing assignments. Conceptualizing a compelling headline for a postcard can take almost the same time and effort that goes into a national print ad — but the pay is miniscule in comparison.

Low E-mail Copywriting Supply Will Drive Demand

Another reason direct mail copywriters are paid way more than other writers is because no one grows up wanting to write direct mail.

Most young writers come out of schools wanting to join the exciting (and low-paying) world of publishing and PR. Only later, when they realize they’re not making enough to pay the rent, do they even consider the down-and-dirty world of direct mail writing. But without learning the relevant direct mail skills, they find they can’t succeed — since the key to success is beating the existing control package.

Think about it: how many kids come out of school wanting to be great e-mail writers? I’d venture to say none. Even most direct mail writers haven’t gone to the trouble of learning these specialized e-mail skills.

With that low supply, experienced e-mail writers will eventually be in high demand and will be paid commensurate with their sales-generating abilities.

Luckily, I’m already at that point in my own career with clients who understand the contribution that good e-mail writing makes to their bottom line. But it will be awhile before this kind of thinking reaches critical mass.

How has e-mail boosted your bottom line recently? Send samples and case studies to Karen for future columns.

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

Related reading