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You’ve got mail (that you’ll actually want to read)

Diana Malinovska

Despite the rise of social media and instant messaging, email remains the most effective form of communication between businesses and their various audiences. It generates the highest return on investment (ROI) of the communication tools available to marketers – and it provides the largest reach. The total number of worldwide email users is projected to surpass 5.2 billion by the end of 2018 – leagues above Facebook’s two billion monthly users.

Emails matter. But only when they're done right. Chad White, an email marketing researcher, outlines a number of fundamental criteria for designing emails that ensure effective communication:

  • Emails should grab attention at first glance as users process their mailboxes quickly
  • They should be clearly branded for easy recognition and to establish trust
  • The core message should be placed at the top of the email – don’t beat around the bush

Frequency is important. According to industry specialist Ian Brodie, the key to successfully engaging those email accounts is frequency – “little and often” almost always beats “big and infrequent”. But totally bombarding your customers isn’t the right approach either (“often” doesn’t mean every five minutes). And when it comes to content, simply lumping masses of copy in an email and expecting people to read it is a sure-fire way to alienate potential customers.

Content is consumed very differently online than in print, so it’s vital that marketers ensure the structure and design of their emails deliver information in the right way. Research shows that rather than reading left to right and word for word, people scan online content in a far less “structured” way, often glossing over whole sections and only focusing on points that pique their interest. This reading pattern, and the short window of time available to capture a reader’s attention (51 seconds on average), makes crafting the perfect email a tough task.

Below are some top tips on how to strike that balance.

The subject matters

The subject line is arguably the most important part of your email. It determines whether your email gets opened or trashed. You need to grab your reader’s attention upfront. Get personal. Subject lines that include the recipient’s first name have higher click-through rates than those that don’t.

According to behavioural psychologist Susan M. Weinschenk, using the pronoun “you” in the subject line, combined with rhetorical questions, grabs attention and generates more clicks (for example, “Have you seen our special deals?”).

Clearly, words matter. Sales emails with “free” or “tomorrow” in the subject line are 10% more likely to be opened than those without. And including the word “alert” can drive click-through rates up by more than 60% as it creates urgency. By selecting right language in your subject line, your reader will know what to expect from your email’s contents – and they will be more likely to open it.

Don’t neglect the pre-header

Email inboxes typically show the email’s subject line and the first few words of copy from the body of the email. For most HTML-designed emails, this will be the standard line directing the recipient to view the web-based version of the email. You can customise this line to include your own message. Pre-headers are extremely important if a user browses emails on their mobile device, as they are shown directly after the subject line in the inbox list view. Given that 75% of Gmail users access their accounts on a mobile device, you need to get this right. Use this valuable real estate to add detail to the subject line and further encourage the reader to open the email.

Turn heads with the header

If you include a headline banner in your email, make sure it is well designed and that it immediately conveys the email’s key message and benefits. Typically, it should include a logo and an enticing, punchy headline. You can often then include a short supporting paragraph for more detail.

Starbucks spices up its marketing emails with ice-cool headers.

Ensure the rest is the best

Putting your most important message first is fundamental – the serial position effect explains why. Let your reader know early on exactly why you’re emailing. Secondary messages can then follow.

Body copy should be brief. Go for 100 to 200 words. Use short sentences. Use paragraphs and bullet points to chunk things up. And make sure you include a powerful call to action (CTA).

Your email could also incorporate a footer with contact details and social media widgets if you want to engage further with your audience. Footers should include key functionality such as an “unsubscribe” button as well as accessibility links including the option to view the email in a browser and to contact support.

Balancing all these elements might seem like a tall order, but if you get it right, the rewards can be significant. As with any marketing material, there are no hard and fast rules. But with experimentation, it will soon become clear what content works best to complement your brand’s personality and what will ultimately generate leads and sales.

Testing these ideas is crucial. Nearly half of marketers (47%) say that they test alternative subject lines to optimise email performance. By carrying out A/B tests (on more than just your subject line) you can monitor what methods work best to initiate sales or opens. By alternating content, design and format across a variety of tests you will soon learn how to consistently reap the best results from marketing emails.

Below are some great examples of marketing emails from my own inbox that made me sit up and take notice.

1. Headspace: Calmly initiating a relationship

When starting a relationship with your audience, it’s best practice to send a welcome message and request that they confirm their email address, so you can verify its authenticity. This opening email can also include links to the support page and explain how exactly a user’s data will be used. This example from Headspace is friendly and conversational, very much on-brand for the stress-relieving mobile app. These opening emails could also offer a pay-off for the reader. Having asked them to perform an action from which they receive no tangible benefit (confirming their email address), providing an introductory offer or something similar can redress the balance.

Headspace relieves stress with its registration confirmation.

2. Whittard: nailing straight-up sales

Sales emails are unashamedly designed to generate business. Typically, personalised deals can make your subscribers feel special and provide a clear exchange of value – the customer’s contact information in return for discounts. Whether that’s a reduced price for a product, one-off invitations to events, conferences and webinars or even exclusive materials, offers help – they generate clicks and ultimately revenue. This example from Whittard of Chelsea offers the consumer a “limited edition” gift in return for their subscription to its email newsletter. These types of emails could also mention the number of users who have already benefitted from the offer as a powerful source of social proof.

Whittard of Chelsea sweetens the deal with a promotion.

3. AirBaltic: asking favours

Once your audience has engaged with your emails (and the offers, messages or CTAs within them), follow-up messages requesting favours, such as providing feedback or sharing the service, are valuable to brands and help continue the relationship. AirBaltic tends to request feedback after you have flown with the company. The approach is casual, polite and explains how the user’s answers will benefit the services the brand provides. This email could also include more offers to incentivise feedback.

AirBaltic hopes to land good reviews with this marketing email.

Many companies have their marketing emails to thank for a lot of their customers, business and success. So, whatever you do, don’t neglect the humble email. It’s still one of your most powerful marketing tools.