Getting to the guts of great e-mail

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George Le Pera
George Le Pera

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.

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