Jeff Selin

Jeff Selin is Interspire's user education manager. Jeff has over 15 years of marketing experience with companies of all sizes and is an expert of ecommerce shopping cart software, email marketing, and other web software technologies.

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Writing Email Copy that Turns into Sales

A thorough email marketing guide on composing email copy that turns into sales.

Jeff Selin

December 22, 2008

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For many of us heavily invested in eCommerce, the official economic recession of 2008 has one positive spin: it bolsters and quickens our culture’s direction online. We are increasingly moving to the Web not just for product research, but actual browsing and buying. This year, more shoppers are comfortably online for all the reasons we expect: 24/7 access, no lines, gas prices, convenience.

In terms of marketing, online sales success is also thanks to well-crafted offers and promotions like free shipping and discounts that quickly expire. These are delivered through the simple, workaday effort of links in emails. Despite issues with spam, email is still a hardworking champion for sales and currently the ultimate marketing delivery vehicle for an online audience.

It follows that many marketers are in search of the magic-bullet email. Here are some simple, tested writing methods to help judge and enhance your email campaigns. These ideas offer a handful of successful approaches and considerations, depending on your audience, experience and needs.

Concentrate on the basics of email delivery to increase sales

First, it’s important to understand the vehicle, the medium, in which we are sending out our message. This is so basic, but many marketers and copywriters take this obvious step for granted. Often the marketing vehicle is established based on opportunity, but it might not be the right delivery mechanism for your audience and needs. We’ll assume we know email is the best direction for our offer and our online, Web savvy, surfing audience. Now let’s consider all the elements for a writer that make up email delivery.

From line: when receiving email, this is the first place most people look. If it’s a trusted source, from a friend, from a recognized name, from a site often visited, the chances of opening the email increase exponentially. This is why transactional emails—like to finalize a sale, to open a receipt, or to become a member of a site—have the highest open rates from businesses. In theory, your from line should remain consistent throughout your emails to engender trust and a modicum of brand awareness.

Subject line: Here we have about 50 character spaces that can make or break all your efforts. It’s a topic that requires its own chapter in the book of building better emails. To encourage readers to open your email, the subject line needs to be straightforward; and, to convert opens to click-throughs, the subject line must be truly representative of the content.

I like the axiom “tell don’t sell” for subject lines. Selling reads like spam. Try to be as simple and direct as possible. For a newsletter, a subject line like “Our Dec. Newsletter” actually tests quite well. The assumption here is that the reader subscribed for updates and wants your email. If possible, make your subject line relate to the reason someone joined your list. Was it to receive news or discounts?

If you can personalize and segment your list, it’s often helpful to inject this into the subject line, along with a sense of urgency. Deadlines and real breaking news work wonderfully. “Discounts for Jeff until Dec. 31st” promises results. But this also assumes you understand something about the relationship between frequency, relevancy, and audience. Together, these elements work to define your success.

Spam keywords: Every marketing delivery vehicle comes with challenges to overcome and with email it’s spam. As copywriters, we need to ensure we avoid spam filters by avoiding spam keywords. This is essentially a discussion of too many capitalized words like FREE repeated numerous times, followed by too many exclamation marks. If you write the way a sideshow barker yells to passerby on a summer beach boardwalk, you’ll need to tone it down. Otherwise you should be safe. Luckily, any decent email software system nowadays offers automated spam keyword checks prior to sending out a campaign.

Email writing style: This whole article informs your writing. But it’s also important to consider the general writing style in terms of this vehicle. According to most tests, people like writing about the length of their attention span; that is: short. Readers don’t generally look to the screen for lengthy prose. Keep your emails short and to the point. Brevity works, with headlines, sub-headlines, call-outs and bullet points that break up text for quick scanning. Try for simple, plain-sounding language sprinkled with action verbs.

Improved creative briefs lead to successful campaigns

When starting a writing project I always begin with a creative brief. Every ad agency has their version of the creative brief at the beginning of the process. The information needed is always similar. These are the essentials needed before creative development can commence—audience, intention, message, delivery… They are so basic. Then why are some of these ad aspects often ignored or misunderstood? Let’s take a closer look at some of the elements from a creative brief you’ll need to write email copy that turns into sales.

Audience – “The people who will receive my email” is not a definition of audience for a copywriter. In the case of email, you should be extraordinarily specific since segmenting a list with different offers is a simple matter of automation. Elements might include gender, age, nationality, family, location, likes and dislikes, purchase history… Understanding the audience is one the building blocks and keys to all successful campaigns.

I believe it’s an imperative to fully envision the audience receiving the email. Who are they? Where are they? What are the circumstances? When did they open the email? What email client do they use? Are they at home or at work? Are their kids in the background screaming? Or are those voices just college roommates? How is this offer going to get this person to react?

Intention – What is the single clear intention of this email? I find it extraordinarily helpful to define the single clear intention, especially for larger organizations with a bureaucratic system of approvals. I want a singular purpose. In this case, what is the reason we are sending this email? “To make a sale” is too quick of an answer, unless your audience can finalize the sale in the email. Instead, the job of the email is to encourage people to click. Now what is the reason they will click? We want only one reason for an effective sales email.

A single clear intention for email might look like: “extol the virtues of our peanut butter as an organic product”. Be sure not to reduce the value of your product or service by suggesting people will click because of the offer – such as discount price point or free shipping. Equipped with this information, we can focus our writing and messaging. Often, any product information outside of the single clear intention I like strike from the email.

Offer – What is the tie-in and reason to purchase? Now that you have my attention with creative connected to the single clear intention, I need that extra nudge to encourage an immediate sale, especially for purchases that are based on emotional and impulse buying. This is the discount, the giveaway, the mega-sale, the deadline, the sense of urgency, the reason I will take action now.

Messaging – Often in broad-based campaigns the messaging has already been developed with a tagline and headline for the Web site, the print ads, or other marketing collateral. Often it may be tied into the product’s brand positioning or the unique selling propositions. Given our single clear intention, what are the words and ways that we use to define and describe our products or services? I’ve found for many small business owners, they have detailed knowledge of the messaging but it must be coerced from their anecdotes and experience. This is great area for writing exercises and exploration.

Call-to-action – This is basic and paramount for marketing: Ask for the sale. Click here. Call today. What are you asking your reader to do? What would it say in the vision of the horribly designed orange starburst at the top of the page? This is easy in email—usually we want more visits to our landing page. But I’ve seen this discussion lead to restructuring of an organization’s entire CRM system. How can a potential customer connect? Do you provide enough information?

Voice – The voice is an important element that must be defined before the writing begins. Usually voice has been established long ago based on the brand positioning and the audience. Voice defines the mood of the words as well as the layout and artwork. Is this “polite, professional, intelligent” or how about “witty and youthful”?

Voice for me often leads to a discussion of ad versus direct mail copywriting. Perhaps you’re struggling to extend your brand awareness and to make offers that read more like poetry. Or maybe you don’t care so much about winning creative accolades, but improved metrics and sales would be a welcome holiday bonus. Knowing this is extraordinarily helpful for the copywriter to define voice.


Engage, educate and empower your readers

There are many ad agencies that sell their services based on methodologies. This seems to attract large bureaucratic companies. One such approach that I learned was based on these three Es. You can examine your creative execution to determine if the email copywriting is working.

Does the copy engage audiences? This is the job of the subject line first, then the headline and the connection to artwork. Will it attract my eye given all the other offers and emails in my inbox? Does the copy educate—providing relevant information that this audience wants? And does it empower, with call to actions and links that lead audiences to the next step.

Crafting effective language takes time, energy, thought, experience, testing, editing and rewriting. This bears repeating, as many people I know go out of their way to express the fact that they are not writers. They maintain a fallacy that an effective writer pumps out nearly perfect copy in minutes.

For overall email success, please keep in mind that here we’re only covering writing aspects of your email campaign. There are many other elements to consider and connect, such as design, deliverability, HTML versus text, CAN SPAM laws, list procurement, timing, frequency… Ultimately, defining “effective” campaigns will be informed by your needs and determined through testing. But practicing and considering some of these ideas have helped numerous companies dramatically improve their odds. I hope you find the same success.


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