E-mail advertising that doesn't suck

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Most e-mail advertising sucks. There, I said it. And I don't think many direct marketers - or consumers, in particular - are going to disagree.

Anyone with an inbox knows how rare it is to receive e-mail with the seemingly intangible attributes found in great ads. Like porn, many of us know it when we see it.

But if it's so tough to define the qualities of great e-mail advertising, is it even worth it to aim for excellence?

Just think about the volume of e-mail you receive. Then consider all the other advertising your target group is exposed to every day.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists - you know it's bad if they're involved - the average American is exposed to about 3,000 advertising messages a day.

Basically, it's a good idea to create e-mail that doesn't suck. Here's how to do it:

Treat e-mail advertising as…advertising. Stop viewing e-mail simply as a medium for text memos and start treating it like other advertising media. If you want your e-mail to stand out like great print advertising, put a comparable effort into creative development.

Get the input you need. Don't just accept any input you're given. Develop your own set of specific questions to get the background information you need, reach consensus, define your playing field and evolve a creative strategy. If you need to collect different perspectives to do your best work, conduct one-on-one interviews.

Explore a full range of ideas. Never - repeat, never - stop with your first idea. As you go through all the input, collect a lot of ideas. In the beginning, go for idea quantity. Think about the problem from a variety of angles. Engage in free association.

Embrace the hybrid. The best e-mail ads unite unconventional concepts with textbook direct marketing techniques. If your ad contains a concept on par with great print advertising, combined with direct marketing elements that would make the famed late BBDO copywriter John Caples smile from ear to ear, you're all set to succeed.

Play the emotion card. Very often, the most powerful ads connect emotionally with readers. Yet many, if not most, e-mail ads lead with a feature/function approach. Once you understand the psychology of the situation, play into the readers' fears and uncertainties - as well as their hopes and dreams.

Tell me a story. The late, great copywriter Victor Schwab urged copywriters to take the reader from where he is to where you want him to be. The best copy tells a fascinating story with a beginning, middle and end. Remember: The last thing you ever want to do is induce boredom.

Design it properly. Ever wondered why the most profitable companies on Earth spend serious money on first-rate graphic design work? Because it consistently pays. Yes, it isn't easy to make HTML text look beautiful. But virtually all e-mail advertising can incorporate the elements of good graphic design.

Unveil new offers. Great creative that carries a tired old offer is tragic. Very often, the best offers are educational. But also include a component tied to the chosen concept. One busines-to-business e-mail ad suggested readers get the metaphoric monkey off their backs. It offered free King Kong movie tickets to qualified respondents. The ad hit shortly before the debut of the movie, and the results were outstanding.

Leverage multimedia. If most of your prospects have high-speed Internet connections, why limit your e-mail presentations to static images and text. Granted, programs like Microsoft Outlook aren't exactly multimedia friendly. But when recipients of your e-mail advertising click through, why not give them a television-like experience with video - or at the minimum, a radio-like experience using audio?

Integrate it. The best campaigns don't merely maintain consistent type and colors across media; they're connected via a consistent attitude. But today's e-mail advertisers also have opportunities to run integrated campaigns in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Now your e-mail ad can link to a blog or short movie or MySpace page. The only limitation is your imagination.

Lose the excuses. Don't accept statements like, "We're a conservative company" or "Our prospects are no-nonsense types" or "Our e-mail needs to be cost-effective, so we can't afford original photography." There's never a good reason to run boring, trite, uninspired concepts. Advertising that costs less upfront but ultimately fails is very costly, and an approach that costs more initially but succeeds could be your most cost-effective option.

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