Take E-Mail Marketing Copy From Good to Great

I’ve got a confession. Though I love good design, my real passion is great copy.

Copy is where the rubber meets the road. It engages readers, entices them to click a link and buy. A picture is worth a thousand words, but you still need some copy there, at least for an explicit call to action. I’ve seen fabulous copy in a not-so-great design succeed; I can’t say the same for not-so-great copy in a fabulous design.

Is your copy as great as it could be? Here are three real-life copy makeovers, with practical tips for making your copy more engaging, enticing, and successful.

Sell the Sizzle

One benefit of working with packaged goods companies is they usually have an abundance of copy. Product boxes are covered with it, and it’s written specifically about the products. Many companies use this copy on Web sites or in email and other promotions. Sometimes this works well. Other times, it’s just not a good email marketing fit. Let me give you an example.

The following product description isn’t bad at all. There’s nothing “wrong” with it. In fact, if I described it to you, you’d think it’d be great for email. It’s concise and clear, utilizes bullet points, and has some personality to it:

  • Combine clear red parts to create an ultimate XXX weapon!

  • Ultimate XXX weapons can be used with other XXX figures!
  • Comic book included!
  • XXX chip inside!

This is a very accurate description of the product, but I thought we could do better. After further research into the item, I wrote this for the email promotion:

YYY knows only two speeds — fast and faster. She’s one of the female XXXs introduced in the XXX movie, but don’t be fooled — she’s a skilled sharpshooter who changes into a super-fast sport bike in vehicle mode.

The biggest change I made to this copy was move from bullets to a story. I pulled in some subtler product details and added intrigue. It’s still completely accurate, but it’s more engaging. Since this copy was written specifically for adults (primarily moms), I minimized the weapons aspect of the toy; although we mention she’s a sharpshooter, we don’t focus on it.

Keep It Simple

Copy’s often used to change the reader’s perception of something. Such was the case with another client. Testing showed Web site visitors thought of the company only for one service, rather than the suite of products it offers. Although we had product lists in drop-down menus, and some promotional offers on the home page, the message wasn’t getting through.

We decided to test a tag line after the company name. We came up with a number of ideas. Some used terms like “Online Presence” and “Complete Web Resource,” things that meant something to all of us. One was much simpler. It spelled it out directly, without fanfare: “Domain Registration, Web Hosting, Website Development and More.”

Simple? Yes. Also, very clear. The testers preferred this last one to the other tag lines. Those terms we all understood didn’t mean anything (at least, not enough) to the target audience. The copy’s rough and must be massaged before it’s final, but it confirms that sometimes, simpler is better. If you get too clever with copy, you risk going over readers’ heads and having them miss the point.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Sometimes, the facts aren’t enough. You can undersell yourself with facts. For one client, I developed content for an online resource center for small businesses. I identified, and they linked to, some very good third-party resources. Here’s how one item I found was presented:

XXX has dozens of free sample/example human resource policies for Human Resources, available for download and customization.

Not bad. Very accurate. But the linked content was really great. Much better than the introduction made it sound. So I wrote this:

Got HR policies? If not, you may want to check out this site, offering sample wording for hundreds of issues, including flextime, purchasing and sub-contractors. It’s great for adding new provisions to your existing policies.

By making the tone more conversational, adding an explicit reason to click the link, referencing the breadth of topics, and adding examples, we made the intro more engaging. We increased the likelihood someone will explore further (which is what we want).

Why More Great Copy Isn’t Out There

  • Lack of a detailed, well thought-out creative brief. I’ve discussed creative briefs before; they provide copywriters with all the information they need, and sometimes much more. When I’m the copywriter, I like to immerse myself in the subject. And when I’m working with copywriters, I like to give them enough information so they can do the same. That’s what a good creative brief does. It lays the groundwork for the copywriter to start in the right direction.

  • Lack of time. Things happen so fast in the online world. You can’t fault clients for wanting copy in hours or overnight. The best copy takes time. Great copy is part art, part science. You don’t start writing by writing; you start by reading, brainstorming, researching, and getting into your topic area. Even once there’s a first draft, it can often be improved by sleeping on it and returning to it the next morning. This isn’t just my experience; many great copywriters I’ve worked with say the same.

    Speaking of which, the best copywriters are booked in advance. They aren’t sitting around waiting for work. I used to book copywriters months in advance when I was a product manager. Sometimes, I didn’t know exactly what they’d be working on, but I knew I or someone else in my organization would have a project for them. You don’t necessarily have to book that far ahead, but good writers will hesitate to agree to do a rush project on short notice. They want to do their best work, and lack of time is an obstacle. Often, they’ll just decline. After all, they probably already have plenty of projects lined up.

  • Lack of focus on what’s in it for the reader. Readers want to know what’s in it for them. It doesn’t matter whether you want them to buy, try, or just click — if you can’t spell out in a compelling way what’s in it for them, they probably won’t do it.

Copy can make or break email marketing. Don’t settle for so-so copy. Put in extra effort and make it great.

Until next time,


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

Related reading