Getting to the guts of great e-mail

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Have you ever done an autopsy on an e-mail? Taken a digital solicitation and spread it out on a table, cut it open and looked at what lay inside?

I did just such a thing not long ago. A client wanted to know why some of her solicitations were thriving, while others flopped. So I printed a bunch of her e-mails and put them side by side. After looking at more than 20, and their corresponding response rates, a consistent pattern started to emerge: It seemed that the best performing e-mails didn't look or read very much like e-mails at all.

While the losing e-mails seemed to be piled high with gizmos and gimmicks, flash and animation or elaborate designs and clipped, nearly unintelligible copy, the winners looked and read like good old-fashioned direct mail.

My first instinct was to scream heresy, to recite the conventional wisdom that says e-mail and direct mail are two different media with nothing in common but the word “mail.” But upon further examination, winning e-mail and winning direct mail turned out to be a lot more similar than I would have thought.

Here are just a few of the characteristics they share:

A good subject line is a good OE teaser Both need to be clear and concise, designed to entice and edify without being deceptive, written to draw readers in, to get the solicitation opened and read.

A good headline is a well-written Johnson box Both put the offer front and center, tells readers how to respond and gives you a sense of urgency. They let you understand in five seconds or less what you're getting yourself into — and if you're into it.

A good link is a good call to action The early-and-often rule applies in both instances. Allowing people to respond right away, to self-select with little more than one good reason, is a key component of great response rates and high conversion.

A good wire frame is a good layout Much to the chagrin of Web and traditional art directors alike, simple, straightforward designs always win out over elaborate, even beautiful, art direction. People don't want pretty, they want easy.

A good copy deck is a good copy deck A well-stated claim that grabs attention, gets interest, spurs decision and drives action is all you need. A great offer, clearly written, supported by valid proof points is a nearly unbeatable formula for success.

While it's true that e-mail and direct mail are different media that require technical differences in approach — I don't know of any “spam filters” to combat traditional mail — some things are consistent any time you're sending written communication to a customer. You need: a clear concise message, a desirable offer with high perceived value, a design that naturally and effortlessly guides the reader and, of course, that most elusive of all characteristics — well written copy that begs to be read.

George Le Pera is creative director at Scuderia 02. He can be reached at GeorgeL@scuderiaO2.com .

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