3 tips for writing email copy for campaigns

Tell your story

Writing email copy for email marketing is a little like guiding a plane to an emergency landing (not that I’ve ever done that). Lose the connection with your audience for a second and you’re going to crash and burn. Luckily, I have a bit more experience writing email copy than landing airplanes.

Writing Email Copy Notepad

So in this post, I’m going to show you how personalization, storytelling and a conversational tone of voice can increase the conversion rates of your email marketing. What’s more, I’ll back it up with concrete examples from some successful email campaigns I’ve written email copy for.

Writing email copy tip #1 : Get their attention with the most popular word in the English language

The most popular word in the English language is “me.” Hey, I admire Mother Theresa and Raul Wallenberg as much as the next guy, but the cold, hard truth is that we are selfish creatures.

It’s not our fault. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism, or as psychologist Susan M. Weinschenk puts it in her book, Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click: “It is a fact of nature that if you want to get and hold the attention of humans, and if you want to get them to take action, you need to engage the old brain.”

So, if you want to connect with the old brain, the first step is to use the most popular word in the English language: me. Just don’t forget that when writing in the third person, “me” becomes “you.”

And if you really want to grab and keep your audience’s attention, move beyond the generic “you.” Add the reader’s given name to your email copy. This is really simple to do using personalization tags.

You can take it one step further, though, if your campaign focuses on a small and exclusive group of recipients. In that case, you could include personal information about the person you’re writing to as well.

For example, I recently wrote email copy for a campaign sent to a limited number of top retail executives inviting them to an exclusive roundtable event. I did some research on each recipient and included information that referred to former jobs, leadership styles, and in one case, I even mentioned a quote from one of the recipient’s favorite book. I could see this technique worked (driving the person to take the desired action) by tracking the stats of the email.

Writing email copy tip #2 : Use storytelling to charm the pants off them

When my nephew was little, he used to say to my brother, “Tell me a story with your mouth.” This meant he wanted his dad to make the story up, not read it from a book. There is something universal and compelling about storytelling.

I remember one time I was asked to speak to a group of high school students and read from one of my short stories. I was scared. I thought, how will I hold the attention of a group of ADD-affected, Jersey Shore-watching, rowdy teenagers? I started by relating a very personal story about the death of a close friend, and believe me, I had them eating out of the palm of my hand after that.

We like stories because they give shape to an otherwise seemingly random existence. Or as Frank Rose put it in an article for Wired : “We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.” So, how do you use storytelling techniques in email marketing?

  • First of all, you can start by signaling that you are telling a story. What happens when someone walks into the office and says, “Man, you won’t believe what happened to me at the supermarket yesterday…” Or ,“So, this guy walks into a bar and…” Or, if someone giving a presentation just stops their PowerPoint graphs for a second, and says, “Let me tell you a story.” I’ll tell you what happens. The audience puts down their mobile phones and coffee and sits up and listens.
  • Another storytelling technique is to do what fiction writers do: withhold information. If you watched the first season of Mad Men, one of the things that may have kept you hooked was wanting to find out what the heck Don Draper’s dark secret was. In one email, for example, I wrote: “What if we told you that there is a way to offer your customers ancillary products and services that will actually improve their overall travel experience? Well, there is a way, and I’ll tell you what it is a little bit later, but first…”
  • A third key ingredient in any good story is specificity (try to say that word three times fast). Details enrich your story and give it credibility. “The dog ruined the woman’s dress when it jumped on her” is generic. “The muddy border collie ruined Julie’s crisp, pink prom dress when it jumped on her” paints a picture and makes it seem real.

Include well-told stories in your email copy because they will engage your readers.

Writing email copy tip #3 : Write like a human being

No matter how closely you follow tips 1 and 2, it won’t work if your email sounds like it was manufactured in the corporate, direct-mail machine. (If you don’t know where they keep that machine in your organization, consider yourself lucky and don’t go looking for it.)

An email is not a white paper or an annual report. It is relatively informal and conversational by nature. That doesn’t mean you don’t want it to sound professional and business-like. Yet, even the most formal of documents can assume a conversational tone.

I always like to point to the Declaration of Independence as proof of this. Take this sentence, for example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is from the most formal type of document, yet the incremental repetition (each phrase starting with “that”) gives it a beautiful conversational tone.

So to conclude, focus your email copy on your specific audience to grab their attention, use storytelling techniques to charm the pants off of them, and write like you speak. Read your email out loud, and make sure it sounds warm, personal and friendly.

Because there are many other factors at play, like the strength of the offering itself and the follow-up, for example, success isn’t guaranteed. However, these techniques for writing exceptional email copy will get a good email campaign off to a great start.

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Oren Shafir
Oren Shafir is an American copywriter and author living in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has been writing online and email copy since the 1990s for companies like Microsoft, Epteca and Demandware.