Step by step: the perfect marketing email

Forget your own business for a moment, and let’s take a look at other people’s. How often has an email popped into your Inbox, and you’ve instantly wanted to delete it? That’s hardly a marketing triumph. And yet, occasionally, you find yourself interested, intrigued, or excited enough to find out more. What’s the magic that separates a brilliant email which encourages new business from a shoddy one that ends up dumped straight in the Recycle bin?

We asked Laurence Blume, an award-winning copywriter with many years at the UK’s top marketing agencies, and founder of Laurence also blogs at, where he regularly addresses the copywriting issues of small businesses. Laurence offers this invaluable advice.

The 'Messaging Hierarchy'

It’s tempting to make everything in an email all-important; after all, your products or services are brilliant. Unfortunately, that also means everything is of equal unimportance: and the reader’s eye doesn’t really know where to go.

Don’t  let the reader wander at will through your email. You want them to go through the email in the very precise order you have decided on; through a hierarchy:

  • You want them to read the subject line and open the email
  • Then you want them to read the headline
  • Thirdly, you want them to read the main text
  • And finally ypou want them to respond to the 'Call to Action'

Furthermore, you don’t want to keep them in the email any longer than necessary. We’re all under competing pressures, so  you want to let them get the message from your email really quickly. If you can get a message across to a reader, and then have them click through to your website in twenty seconds, I would count that as a victory.

That’s a pretty tall order, so here are the key techniques to think about at each stage of the messaging hierarchy.

The Subject Line

The subject line is more important than anything else. Most people write it as an afterthought to the rest of their email, but it’s like the tyres on your car: get the tyres wrong and you won’t get the benefit of anything else that your car can do. Every single one of your readers will decide whether or not to open your email on the basis of the subject line.

Avoid clever subject lines like the plague, because 'clever' is subjective. Keep it clear and simple.

Instead, first of all, plan to make your subject line searchable; because most of us use our mail program like a 'mini CRM'. If I’m looking for a new photocopier, and I recall being sent an email a while back from a company selling photocopiers, the first thing I’ll do is search my email for 'photocopier'. So use keywords in your subject line which make it easily searchable.

Also, keep it short. Not everybody has their mail browser window configured in the same way as you – indeed these days a large proportion of recipients will read their emails on smartphones and all sorts of other devices. They change the layout and width of their columns; so there may only be room to see three or four words of your subject line. If possible, I like to go for between two and four words in my subject line. If you were writing to me about exhibition stands, I would like to see something like ‘Exhibition stands. Save 40%!’ Even if I can only see two words, that first part minimises the risk of my not knowing what you’re banging on about in the first place.

The Headline

“Next, I like to see a headline that sets out the proposition: whatever it is that you’re trying to sell, or that you want the reader to do:

  • The headline should communicate clearly
  • It should have impact
  • It should focus on the benefit of what you have to offer, rather than on a description of its features
  • It should avoid bad jokes
  • It should be written in an active voice, to create as dynamic and energetic a presentation of the offer as possible.

‘Free. In One Hour of Your Time, Discover How To Use Every Hour Better.’ tells the reader clearly that this is likely to be a free event of some kind at which they will learn something about improving personal efficiency.

The body text

Keep your body text short. Use bullet points if they help: they are easy for people to skip down to. If you’ve got a long story to tell, work it into as tight a shape as possible. Break it up with one or two sub-headings, depending on length. Those sub-headings are important because people who skim-read will get the crux of the message from these alone and decide whether the full text needs reading.

Remember the messaging hierarchy? Headlines and sub-headings mean that even without reading the body text, your reader can still get enough information to want to find out more. For example: 'Iceland, last minute breaks, £299', 'The stunning Blue Lagoon', 'Reykjavik by night' will do the job nicely.

To achieve this clarity and brevity, it’s essential that you think through the content of your email before you begin writing it. Your pitch, argument or reasoning must be crystal clear. Think of it as a taut metal zip-wire along which the reader speeds arrow-straight through the email.

If you can’t get your thinking in a straight line, from the headline through to the 'Submit' button, with sub-headers for markers along the way, then your customers certainly can’t be expected to understand your message.

The Call to Action

The Call to Action – what you want people to do next - should be realistic. The easiest thing to get people to do is click. Getting people to make a phone call is less likely. Getting them to go to a shop is less likely still.

Use your email to lead the reader into what’s coming up. Nobody likes surprises, so I like to let people know what will happen when they press that button. The point is, ‘Click now’ is nowhere near as effective as ‘Click now to find out how to cut your mortgage in half.’ I use the analogy of a department store: if the big deal that we are promoting is on the fourth floor, it’s got to be better to build a little display on the ground floor and say to people: 'Find out more about this offer on the fourth floor'. People will let you lead them wherever you want to take them if you’re clear and honest about what you have for them, but most emails lose customers simply by not being consistent in delivering their messaging.

The landing page

Your email may now be perfect, but your messaging doesn’t stop there. If your beautifully crafted email just clicks through to your home page, which doesn’t have a perfectly matched offer meeting  the reader’s expectations, you’ll not convert that hard-won click-thru. Thousands of pounds are wasted on both email campaigns and pay-per-click marketing where businesses carefully woo customers with an ad that is relevant to them and then dump them either at the front door of the website or onto a page without continuity of messaging. So, for a special offer or a product deal, put exactly that special offer or product on its own ‘landing page’, along with the form that needs filling, or the ‘Buy now’ button, in order to meet the reader’s expectations, and to make him or her into your next customer.


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