Ten E-Mail Starters to Break Writer’s Block

You’ve just gotten an assignment to write an e-mail, but you’re staring at that empty computer screen. And you’re totally drawing a blank on where to begin.

What do you do? Try some of my proven e-mail copywriting ideas.

The Top 10 List

One of the most consistently successful e-mail approaches I use is a top 10 list. It’s a sure e-mail opener because it piques the reader’s curiosity and promises an easy-to-scan list, rather than paragraphs of dense copy.

I’ve used it in any number of ways as a subject line:

  • Top 10 Reasons

  • Top Five Priorities
  • Top Four Concerns
  • Top Six Issues
  • Best Eight Tools and Tricks
  • Three Need-to-Know Tactics

It always works. Then, in the body of the message, you simply need to write a list. Just be sure to write the most compelling reason first (I sometimes highlight this top motivator in a box), since you can’t guarantee the reader will scan the whole message.

To encourage the reader to read the whole message, I’ll often mention at the top that there’s a bonus at the bottom.

The Research Subject Line

If you have a compelling snippet of research, feature it in the subject line. Write it in a way that’s relevant to the reader. “50% of IT Projects Fail. Beat the Odds” is a good example.

A research headline is less promotional, promises valuable information, and enhances your credibility as a knowledge resource.

The Competitive Angle

Everybody needs to know what the competition’s doing. A recent e-mail test conducted by one of my clients found a subject line with a competitive focus outperformed other e-mail messages focused on the product’s unique features.

Highlight the Opportunity

“Millions to spend and nowhere to go” was a subject line I wrote a while back to vendors. It was intended to bring to life the very high IT budgets of the CIOs readers could expect to meet at a conference.

The Personal Message

Try some everyday business e-mail message subject lines, such as:

  • Per Your Request

  • Due Today
  • FYI
  • Please Review

Good News/Bad News

When I’m stumped, I often pull this e-mail message technique from my bag of tricks:

  • The Bad News Is…

  • The Good News Is…
  • The Best News Is…

Just fill in the blanks with copy that matches your audience’s pain points, your product’s solution, and your terrific offer.

The Interview

Interview your CEO, best customers, or a well-known person who uses your product. People like to read candid remarks from other people. As with the top 10 list, write the interviewees’ comments so the most interesting ones appear first.


This approach is child’s play for writers. You can write a Q and A headline with a question in the headline and the answer in the subhead. Or you can write the whole e-mail in FAQ style. To really zero in on the audience’s key issues, put a little table of contents with links to the questions up top, so readers can just click on the questions they care about most rather than reading the whole thing.

The Quiz

I’ve written about this proven winner in previous columns, so I won’t expound on it here. There isn’t a quicker e-mail to write: just one intriguing question in the subject line, followed by the answer in the body of the e-mail.

Anything New, Anything Free, Anything in the Future

I just read about those recently released AOL search results. The words “free” and “new” were among the top searches (not including “sex”). That really isn’t a surprise to anyone in advertising.

Of course, e-mail’s challenge is we can’t use the word “free,” so I usually try other words and phrases, such as:

  • On the house

  • Our treat
  • Be our guest
  • Complimentary
  • Giveaway
  • Zero cost

Also, I’ve found the future is always of interest. That’s why about this time of year, I jump ahead and put the next year in the subject line, such as, “Top 10 Strategies for 2007.”

What proven e-mail techniques do you keep in your back pocket? Send them to Karen.

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

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