Email Copywriting – the Overlooked Art and Asset

By Kath Pay

Whenever I ask people for examples of emails they love, most are quick to show messages from brands with gorgeous images, great design, amazing personalisation or cutting-edge technology. Hardly anyone says, “I love the copywriting in [Brand X’s] emails!” Unless, of course, I’m talking to a copywriter. This is a shame because copywriting is as essential to an email’s success as images, design and technology.

Some brands are absolutely brilliant at copywriting. More often, though, the email content relies on a strong image to persuade readers to click to the website and buy. And you know what image-blocking does to emails that are long on pictures and short on supporting copy.

Copywriting – the overlooked art

Over my years in email marketing, I’ve come to see copywriting as an often overlooked art. Many of the email teams I’ve worked with don’t have the budget either to keep a designated copywriter on staff or to hire the work out to a professional.

That economy can end up costing you money! If your campaigns underperform, one reason could be that your copy just doesn’t appeal to your customers.

We all know that email as a channel is often under-budgeted and under-resourced, and when you don’t have a skilled email copywriter on staff or on call, it means everyone has to pitch in on the email copy – even people who aren’t writers or don’t know how to write for your audience.

So, what’s the big deal? Everybody knows how to write a subject line. And how creative do you have to be to write “Buy now” on a call-to-action button? (Answer: Pretty creative. An experienced copywriter will tell you that “Buy now” likely isn’t always the best copy within an email.)

But even someone who’s a great content writer and web writer, might not be the most effective email copywriter. That’s because writing for email is not the same as writing for a website. The difference can be huge as email is a push channel and web is a pull channel.

Why copywriting for email is different

Email and web marketing play different roles in your marketing strategy, based on both the attributes of the channels themselves and the mindsets of the people who are in them.

The conversion you want – the sale, account registration, download, contest entry, payment or whatever’s on offer the sale – doesn’t happen in your email. Your email’s job is to persuade readers to click to your website, where the conversion will happen.

You don’t have to put your entire sales brochure in the email. Instead, you want to intrigue your readers, to tantalize them into going to your website to find out more.

Your website, on the other hand, must persuade the customers who come to your landing page from your email or your other myriad other sources to stay around long enough to convert. That requires a different persuasion formula.

Email readers also are at a different stage in the journey to conversion. More likely than not, they’re at least one step farther away from a decision than your web visitors are. (More on this in the next section.)

3 rules for conversion-driving copywriting

Most marketers think of “conversion” as the goal of an email-marketing campaign. But a conversion is actually the product of three micro-conversions, two of which must happen in the email before your customers ever get to your landing page where the actual conversion happens.

These three rules can help you achieve more of the micro-conversions you need to reach your campaign objectives:

1. Craft copy to attract.

Getting attention in the inbox and persuading your customers to open your email is the first step. That’s what the combination of a trusted and readily identifiable sender name, strong, clear and persuasive subject line and supporting preheader can achieve.

It’s like the Power Rangers – each has its strengths, but when they come together, they’re invincible.

2. Craft copy to click.

This is where your powers of persuasion go into overdrive.

I mentioned earlier that your email readers are farther away from a conversion decision than your web visitors. You have to awaken their interest in conversion, show them how they will benefit by converting and tell them clearly what next steps they need to take. This is not the place to clutter up your message by listing every feature or attribute of your product.

Your call-to-action copy comes into play here. Remember, your customers might need more information before converting.

Aggressive language like “Book your cruise package now!” could turn off someone who’s interested but not ready to venture into the post-COVID world of travel just yet. Whereas “Explore your risk-free cruise options ” is a softer, more encouraging approach that can be compelling enough to push your prospects to your landing page, where the next phase of the conversion process takes over.

3. Craft copy to convert.

Your landing page gives you the luxury of time and space to close the deal. While keeping the benefits front and center, you can also list the competitive features of your product. Your headers, copy blocks and calls to action will reflect this different approach.

Many marketers spend generous amounts of time on their landing pages, and well they should, because this is usually your best shot at getting your conversion. However, I see many brands take the copy they use on the landing page and paste it into the email message.

Again, that’s a mistake. Remember that your email readers are farther back in the decision-making process. Language that assumes they’re ready to buy can turn them off to further consideration.

Good copywriting helps you create a better customer experience by positioning the email, so it focuses on benefits rather than features. Features have their place on the website, but you need to show customers what’s in it for them to persuade them to click to the website and complete the transaction.

10 tips for better copywriting

1. Know your objective and audience.

Your copy must be tied inextricably to your email objectives and strategy. Every word should have some connection to the results you want to achieve and align with your brand voice, tone, identity or audience expectations.

2. Write a gripping headline.

Like the headline on a newspaper or magazine story, your email headline tells your reader exactly what the email is all about. It can play off your subject line or take a totally different tack. Do you want to shock? Entertain? Amuse? Alarm? Whatever your email purpose, your headline can reflect it, whether in a single word or a complete sentence.

3. Write informally.

Email is an intimate medium, more given to conversations instead of lectures. Your powers of persuasion will shine in this relaxed environment. No matter how strait-laced your brand image might be, write your copy as if you were speaking face to face, and save the fine print for your landing page.

4. Use active language that includes power words.

Yes, there’s room in your email for evocative writing that helps your customers see for themselves how they could benefit from buying your products or using your services. But don’t let a quest for lyrical language overwhelm your primary goal: moving your customers to your website to convert.

Power words like these can move your email readers to action. Many of them, like “improve,” “succeed,” “ensure” and even “prevent,” also convey the benefit of acting.

Choose, Improve, Increase, Avoid, Act, Boost, Build, Capture, Explore, Ensure, Learn, Prevent, Gather, Keep, Maximise, Overcome, Simplify, Solve, Stop, Succeed, Manage, Save, Conquer, Win, Unleash, Discover

5. Break up copy with white space.

Your subject line entices your customer to open the email. And what do they see? If it’s a long gray river of type, they might swipe right to the next email in the inbox. Using white space to break up copy helps you isolate and highlight your key points and make it more consumable for the reader.

6. Match your tone to your email purpose and audience.

There’s no such thing as “one size fits all” email copywriting. The tone of your words should reflect the reason you’re sending the email, whether it’s to let customers know you’re changing your privacy policy, alerting them to a flash sale or wishing them a happy birthday.

Imagine you’re writing a personal note to the customers you’re targeting with your email, whether it’s a persona, a segment, or a general audience.

7. Be both brand- and customer-centric.

This is a delicate balancing act, and it speaks to the points I’ve already made about tailoring your message, tone and other elements to your email audience and purpose.

Customer-centricity is a hallmark of helpful marketing: When your emails help your customers achieve their goals, they will, by patronizing your brand, help you achieve yours. Customer-centric emails focus on benefits, on helping them buy from you easily and successfully.

But your emails also must help your brand. That happens when you continually pay attention to copy that reinforces your brand’s value proposition, uses your updated brand identifiers like logos and custom colors and positions your brand effectively.

8. Write like a journalist: Be clear and concise and stick to the facts.

Good journalism is rooted in the truth, in not deliberately misstating or omitting facts to persuade customers to click through and convert. Writing informally and using action-oriented words and phrases will help you achieve this.

9. Use the Rule of Three.

Things in threes have a natural cadence and rhythm. They’re memorable, they flow easily in our minds, and they’re sticky. (See what I did there?)

That’s what we want to write: content that sticks in readers’ minds. Linking three concepts together forms a pattern that’s easy for people to remember and absorb.

10. Target copy to the shopper’s position in the funnel.

This extends the concept of matching your tone to your audience that I referred to earlier. With email readers generally farther away from a conversion decision, your copy should focus on where they are with your brand.

Emailing a broad audience made up of people who have never purchased, one- or two-time buyers, high-value repeat shoppers and former customers requires a different approach from sending to loyal customers who already know your brand and products. (That’s an excellent argument for segmenting your audience.)

An idea to test: Incorporate your high-value search keywords to see if they can help increase conversions.

Conclusion

Everybody writes, as copywriting guru Ann Handley says in her best-selling book on content and copy. But not everybody who writes can produce the kind of copy that persuades customers to act.

I’ll be honest – writing an effective copy block for an email isn’t easy, and it can be a creative struggle. But leaving it to the end of the process forces you into taking shortcuts that can end up undermining your entire campaign. That’s not fair to your audience or your brand.

I hope my ideas here help you understand how email copywriting is different and why investing in good copywriting can pay off with more conversions and higher email engagement. As the saying goes, it doesn’t cost money to hire a good copywriter – it pays!

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