3 Lessons for Better E-Mail Messages

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In this column, I want to share the three most important things I've learned about writing winning e-mail marketing campaigns.

The first: When e-mail copy refers to what's going on in the news the same week or, even better, the same day as it is distributed, response rates soar. Financial publishers probably were the first to find that e-mail messages reflecting what's happening in the market that day - for instance, "gold hits $700 per ounce ... should you sell or buy more?" - pull much better than generic promotional e-mails or those with evergreen content.

Example: The publisher of a financial newsletter boosted subscriptions by referencing the Martha Stewart case during her trial. Headline: "Stay one step ahead of the stock market, just like Martha Stewart ... but without her legal liability." The HTML e-mail even had a color photo of Ms. Stewart looking contrite on the courthouse steps, an image the reader probably saw daily on TV and in newspapers, thus attracting his eye.

The idea of including news in your copy is not new. But e-mail marketing makes it easier to coordinate and time your messages precisely with current events and developments.

Of course, it is easier to tie in with news for some products than others. A company that sells aluminum siding to homeowners might find it tougher to link e-mail copy to President Bush's latest speech than a company promoting penny stocks.

But it's not impossible. And whenever your e-mail reflects news or trends, readership and response are likely to soar.

My second tip for writing winning e-mail messages: Giving away content in the e-mail itself strengthens copy and results, contrary to what you might expect. I say "contrary to what you might expect" because you might reason that: "If I give the information away in the e-mail, the reader's curiosity is satisfied, and he does not have to click through to find the answers he is looking for."

The trick is to give "partial content" as a sample of the kind of help your product, service or firm offers. Ideally, this could be as quick as a simple how-to tip embedded in the e-mail copy. Then, you promise many more useful tips and advice when the reader clicks through.

This works for two reasons. First, people are trained on the Internet to expect free content, so this technique fulfills their expectation. Second, having real content, and not just teasing e-mail readers with promises to provide valuable content when they respond, shows your expertise and knowledge right then and there. The reader is convinced you know what you are talking about and may be a resource he wants to know better.

My third tip: Open and clickthrough rates rise when your messages match - in look, content, tone and style - the other e-mails that prospects get from you or the list owner on a regular basis.

For instance, if your e-mail is going to an opt-in list of subscribers to a text online newsletter, your response will be better if you send a text e-mail rather than an HTML. If people on your list are used to extremely short e-mail messages, a long-copy blast probably won't work as well as a short teaser e-mail linked to a landing page where they can read the rest of your message.

Look at past e-mail promotions to the list that worked and also issues of online newsletters these readers receive. If they all contain graphs ... or technical information ... or pictures of pets ... or news ... or a pithy how-to tip ... or survey results, then your e-mail probably should, too.

People on a given list are trained to accept e-mails with a similar look and feel to those they get regularly. When your e-mail matches their expectations, they believe it's something they read regularly and open it. When your e-mail looks wildly different, they view it as spam and delete. This is contrary to the creative approach Madison Avenue favors in print advertising, which is to make ads look different from all others the reader has seen.

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