How to ignore marketing tips and write emails people actually read
Updated: Mar 30
Open rate is highest when companies send two emails per month. Database Marketing Institute Sending four emails in a month instead of one significantly increases the number of consumers opening more than one email – WhoIsHostingThis “Email Deliverability 101. 61% of consumers enjoy receiving promotional emails weekly, and 28% would like emails to come even more frequently. (MarketingSherpa) 86% of consumers would like to receive promotional emails from companies they do business with at least monthly, and 15% would like to get them daily. (Statista, 2015) (Source: https://www.hubspot.com/marketing-statistics) 78% of consumers have unsubscribed from emails because a brand was sending too many emails. (HubSpot, 2016) (Source: https://www.hubspot.com/marketing-statistics) Ever get the feeling that some marketing tips just appear out of thin air?
Statistics can prove anything. The interweb is full of dubious advice based on third hand facts. But here at A Thousand Monkeys, we don’t see the world in terms of black and white. We like blue too. So we created a non-prescriptive guide to writing sales emails. We’ve packed it full of tips based on real science or established practice. They might not be the best or even the right solution for you. Because the truth is, there is no right or wrong way to write a sales email. Try a few ideas out and see how it goes. And remember to test, test, test! Your mission We can’t put it better than Gary Halbert:
Everybody in the world divides his mail into two piles which I call the A-Pile and the B-Pile. The A-Pile contains letters that are, (or appear to be), personal. The B-Pile contains everything else: Bills, catalogs, brochures, printed announcements, envelopes that obviously contain a sales message, and so on. Now listen up: The most important thing you can ever do when creating a direct mail promotion is to make sure your letter gets in the A-Pile! Here’s why. Everybody always opens all of their A-Pile mail and only some of their B-Pile mail.
Although he’s talking about direct response writing, it isn’t much different from email. You’ll always get better results if your copy seems personal. So. We need to do everything in our power to get your email in the A-Pile. No biggy. Let’s get started.
We’ve seen a lot of advice around what works for a subject line. And, just like sending frequency, it’s all contradictory. Subject line length Too long is unnecessary. No-one will ever see the whole subject line. But sometimes too short doesn’t give people a sense of what’s inside. Adestra say that subject lines over 70 characters have the highest Click-Through Rates, while those under 49 have the highest open rate. So external research can’t help us with a definitive answer. Whether you try something along the lines of Obama campaign’s “hey”, or you’re heading towards War and Peace territory, the key is to test what works for your audience. Subject line content Here are just a few ideas to get you going:
Ask a question
Say how the reader will benefit
Highlight some news
Be unexpected or contrary
Say something funny
Use just one word
Use just an exclamation mark or an emoji
Use the reader’s name/company name
Talk directly to the reader (“you”)
Mention a mutual connection/interest
Use a pop culture reference
Remember, you want the email to go in the reader’s A-pile. So you’ll probably need to avoid anything that sounds too salesy. The more personal you can make it to the reader, the better.
What’s the purpose of your email? Your tone should reflect what you need to say, and what the reader needs from you. That doesn’t mean you can’t try something new. Like humour. A study in 1981 found that artworks sold for more if the sales people said “and I’ll throw in a pet frog” at the end of their pitch. Or how about vulnerability? Maxwell Sackheim was another master of direct response writing. He emphasised the importance of turning yourself into a character in a story – it helps the reader relate to you as a person. And as we all know, people buy from people.
You can probably guess our answer to the perfect email length: it depends. Who are you talking to? What do they want to know? A quick informative email about an order update shouldn’t be as long as a newsletter for committed members and subscribers. Generally we recommend keeping sales emails short when your prospect is at the beginning of the pipeline. A cold contact is unlikely to read a long email unless you’ve got some clever tricks up your sleeve.
Design and layout
We’ve seen an increasing amount of emails moving towards plain formatting. Marketers seems to be getting bored of the heavily designed look. We haven’t seen any evidence of which is better, but we think Gary Halbert would choose the simpler option. An email from a friend or colleague wouldn’t use a Mailchimp template. From a copy point of view, whatever the design looks like, make it easy to read. So use short sentence length, short paragraphs, and breaks in the text, like subheadings or bullet points. A well laid out email is much more likely to get read than an impenetrable block of text.
Call to action
How many? Research often shows that more links correlate with higher CTRs and lower unsubscribes. Regardless of the facts, it’s important to include plenty of links and repeat the Call to Action to make life easy for your reader. Show them what you want them to do, and keep repeating it so they get the point, even if they’re not paying much attention. What to ask Don’t confuse your reader by asking different things. If you want someone to click through to your blog post, don’t ask them to download an ebook as well. One CTA per email (repeated a few times of course) is plenty. What to say The CTA is a great place to experiment to see what grabs your audience’s attention. Here are just a few general hints:
Use strong verbs
Highlight a benefit to the reader
Try different lengths
Play around with the design – different colours, font sizes, layout
The dreaded S word. You’ve probably seen a lot of advice about avoiding words like “free” or “sale”. But there isn’t any evidence behind these claims. Email providers don’t just hand out details of their algorithms. But they’re a lot cleverer than most blog posts give them credit for. Google, for example, might mark a message as spam for any number of reasons, like including links to blacklisted websites, or not getting enough opens from other gmail users. You can be fairly certain that if you provide content that’s useful to people that it won’t get marked as spam.
The greeting and sign off
We’re fans of keeping it simple and personal. But your tone will vary depending on the style of your email and who it’s going to. Going casual and friendly? Try an hola, hiya, ’sup, ciao, see ya, or even laters potaters. But it’s hard to go wrong with hi. Need something a bit more formal? It’s hard to find fault with the accepted standards like “all the best” or “kind regards”. You could capture your reader’s attention by rushing straight into things: “You won’t believe what I’ve just discovered…” Or cutting the email off short: “grab your chance, quick!” Of course, you might not even need a greeting or sign off. If the email is a heavily designed marketing communication coming from the organisation, not an individual, it would be a bit strange to have “kind regards” at the end.
Sales techniques to try
Cold contacts are the hardest nut to crack. So that’s what we’ll concentrate on. There are plenty of techniques you can try but here are just a few ideas: A Western Illinois University study showed that you should give your prospect a way to say no to you. Ironically, this can actually increase the chances of them saying yes. Tim Ferriss uses the same idea in his referral trick. You ask, “do you know someone who might be interested in this?” You’re hoping the reader is interested, but instead of asking them directly, you give them a way out by asking for a referral. A famous study by Ellen Langer at Harvard University shows how important it is to use the word “because”. 94% of people said yes to a request with an explanation using the word “because” compared to only 60% when the word wasn’t used. And the result was still 93% of people saying yes when the reason didn’t even make sense. Gary Bencivenga shows us how powerful the “if…then” construction is. People are sceptical of bold claims that aren’t backed up, but these two words seem to bypass our internal spam filters:
“Lose 5 stone in just 1 month” – spam
“If you’ve got 20 minutes a month, I guarantee a thinner, healthier you” – not spam
The P.S. Most direct response copywriters would never dream of wasting the P.S. section, so why not see if it works in email too? Our eyes are naturally drawn to it, so it’s a great opportunity to say something a bit different and add another CTA. Above all, nailing the perfect sales email takes time. Time to understand your audience. Time to research what works. Time to test different ideas. Hopefully these tips will give you the confidence to jump straight in and get started. Remember, there’s no absolute right or wrong way to write a good sales email, there’s only right or wrong for you and your situation.