When it comes to creating emails I am a great believer in two maxims. Firstly, that practice makes perfect, and secondly that marketers can learn a lot from their peers. That’s why I am always keen to hear from experts, like Ann Handley, who craft email content that regularly inspires its readers.
Ironically, the most effective advice has often been hidden in plain sight – obvious tactics that are easy to forget or ignore. So in this article I have collected some of the best tips and advice for writing emails that have been shared with me.
Employing one or two might not make too much of a difference, but when combined they can deliver emails that not only reach their target audience, but subtly draw readers in and ultimately deliver the big prize – user engagement.
Compelling email heads
Unless your readers slavishly follow everything your brand does, the key decision as to whether they click on your message is down to the effectiveness of the subject matter and the way it is reflected in the head. An intriguing subject line and brand recognition in the inbox are your first chances to impress them enough to engage.
The key here is to incite enough curiosity to get the click. There is a balance to be struck, though. There’s nothing worse than a clickbaity headline that leads to an email that bears little relevance to what its head promised. Email marketing is all about delivering on your promise, whether that’s knowledge, a discount, or something else of value to your subscribers.
Likewise, cryptic heads are to be used sparingly. You might find your in-joke is funny, but chances are that a lot of your readers won’t make a connection.
Sadly there are no magic bullets when it comes to writing email heads. What leads to a connection for one brand might be a ticket to the junk folder for another. My advice is always to test, test and test again. See what works in terms of length, tones and even inclusion of emojis. Don’t be afraid to monitor what your rivals are doing too. Which headlines worked for them? What can you glean from their approach?
Another thing to bear in mind when writing headlines is avoiding the dreaded spam folder. Admittedly, many spam-filtering systems have now got pretty sophisticated and if you are a known brand you can get away with using words like ‘free’, ‘offer’ and so on.
If you are still concerned, then use a tool like SpamAssasin, which scans elements such as subject lines, headers, attachments, punctuation, spam-related text and messaging to give a ‘spam score’. Generally, emails with a score above five are considered spam (eg saying ‘money back guarantee’ is a whammy and automatically adds more than two points to your spam score).
Don’t forget the pre-headers too. They are the chunk of text that, in some email platforms, appears underneath or next to the main headline. They deliver an opportunity to add a little more information to someone browsing their messages.
In other email platforms, the head is followed by a few words from the main text. Which is a neat way of introducing my next point – go for a punchy introduction. Even if they click on the email, some readers might not get beyond the first paragraph, so make it a good one. Journalists have in the past told me that they try to pack as much information as possible in the first sentence, with the secondary information following after. This is also good practice for email. Get to the point as quickly as succinctly as you can.
Further, a clear call to action is crucial when writing short emails. If you’re asking your audience to do something, it should be very clear when scanning an email. Don’t make them hunt for what to do, or you won’t get that conversion. Be straightforward and conversational.
Getting the right length
If you are starting out creating an email newsletter, you are probably concerned about its length. How long is too long? Does every communication need to be just a few paragraphs?
I think the rise of the long-form email newsletter in recent years – see platforms like Substack and emails like Morning Brew and The Hustle for more – has dispensed with that notion. It has highlighted that readers will consume long-form content on an email, as long as that content is relevant and interesting.
The key is to pack the email as tightly as possible with interesting content. Long-form email newsletters should deliver an explosion of ideas, but at the same time presented in a short-form way – with lots of subheads, illustrations and other ways of breaking up the text.
Another important criteria to bear in mind when producing email content is, how personal is it? Some marketers have told me they believe that the only way to personalise email is to use technology. If your company hasn’t got access to those tools then you are stuck.
I think this simply isn’t true. A skilled email writer can personalise emails in a number of ways. Segmentation is important here. Write different versions of your emails by product, persona, etc, while all the time trying to picture your reader. Who are they, what do they do and how would you like them to respond to your email?
Another tip is to use merge variables, but be authentic, so don’t use someone’s name or company in places where you wouldn’t naturally say that.
Watch your language too. Don’t be afraid to generously use the word ‘you.’ It creates a more conversational email and in my experience encourages readers to respond.
Test, test, test
My final tip is one I mentioned earlier while talking about headings, and that is the need for testing.
First and foremost, always have someone else read your email before it sends. An extra pair of eyes on your copy is the simplest form of email quality assurance. Because let’s face it, we’ve all looked at a word or sentence so many times that it doesn’t even register in our brains as English anymore.
It isn’t all about catching typos; a good editor can also help you take out the parts of your email that readers will skip.
Spend some checking the links too. If they don’t work then the chances of your emails being successful are virtually nil. Finally, see what the email looks like in different formats and on different devices. Someone using Gmail on a mobile is going to have a very different perspective than someone on Outlook on a Windows PC.
Cynics have been proclaiming that ’email is dead’ for at least 15 years now. Yet email continues to drive engagement, demand and ultimately revenue, year after year. It’s the workhorse of marketing. It is a fabulous tool and, in an era when first-party data is becoming ever more valuable, if used effectively, it might just be the most important communication platform you have.
For those of us that continuously seek more inspiration to fuel our minds, watch the inspirational Ann Handley as I play a game of Two Truths and a Lie with her to uncover email writing tips and tricks. For a quick read, an ebook version of the best bits is also available to download.