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Four guidelines and 18 tips for email content

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 12 Jul, 2011
Essential Essential topic

How to approach content production for your emails

Last time out, I suggested four reasons why you might add content elements to your traditional, "promotional" (retail) emails.

The trouble with this kind of advice is it sounds great in theory, but what about the "how" part, where can we find this content is the challenge for most?

How do you produce content that is useful, engaging and/or entertaining? And how do you do that when budgets are tight and your time is limited?

Let's start with four general guidelines, before looking at some specific ideas.

Producing content: four broad guidelines

1. Recycle

Many people are intimidated by the prospect of producing copious quantities of new content...but you don't have to.

First, you can start small. A camera retailer might, for example, simply link to a .pdf of a camera's user handbook in a shipping confirmation email.

Second, audit your existing content resources. Not got any? Think again and think laterally: organizations produce a heap of content. Can you repurpose that into content for marketing emails?

Do you have photos from your last ad shoot that would make a behind-the-scenes photo gallery? What product-related links do your employees use - would customers like them, too? Have customers submitted reviews or testimonials you can use in email?

And what about content produced for other channels?

What's already on your website? Can you turn your Tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, forum contributions, FAQs, help section etc. into useful email content, or even just link to that content from your email?

2. Look for low-maintenance content

We all have enough time sucks as it is. So all things being equal, look for content (and content approaches) that are timeless and easily managed.

That camera retailer might develop articles on photography techniques or highlight digital camera news.

But...digital camera news loses its value quickly and can't be produced in advance. Articles on technique have long-term value and can be written or collated well in advance of publication.

3. Think shareability

When it comes to people sharing your content, the big priority is giving people something worth sharing (surprise!).

But, like any task, the easier it is to share, the more likely they will do so. Use “share with your network” widgets, tools and links in emails and/or on landing pages. And ensure these tools are accompanied by an appropriate call to action.

4. Never forget the relevance of content to your goals

As with email, much emphasis goes on the idea of "valuable" content. By valuable, we inevitably (and rightly) focus on what recipients would find valuable. But don't forget that content also needs to contribute to business success.

Valuable content offers:

  • value to the recipient (to gain attention and response)
  • value to the recipient's community (to encourage sharing and gain subsequent attention and response from that community)
  • value to the sender (the attention and response makes a difference to business goals).

Much of the insight from broader content marketing applies here and I can recommend Danyl Bosomworth's article on making the business case for content marketing.

With those general concepts in mind, how about some specific thoughts on actually producing content?

Eight content production tips

1. Think content: keep a resource folder

Coming up with content ideas is a creative task. I've outlined 14 tips for increasing creativity elsewhere, but the most useful is simply "awareness".


Always keep your content needs in mind. Then you'll find materials, memos, messages, photos, situations, conversations, etc. triggering a "that gives me an idea for content" response. Which also means retaining somewhere to record ideas: a notebook, text file, mobile app or other digital tool...whatever works best for you.

If you can communicate this awareness to others in your organization, so much the better.

2. Watch the numbers

Use your email campaign reports, website analytics, customer profiles, Twitter interactions, Facebook comments and search engine keyword tools to pick up on product, service and topic areas of likely interest to your readership.

What email content gets the best response? What are most people searching for in your "help" section? What questions about your products are popular at Google? What problem keeps coming up on Twitter?

Alchemy Worx go into more detail on planning an email content strategy based on results feedback here.

4. Monitor competitors' communication channels

Draw inspiration from others in your sector: sign-up for their emails, get on their Twitter feed, check their customer forums...extend competitive analysis to content.

5. Reader research

Like many aspects of a business, content development also benefits from a deeper understanding of the recipient.

Draw on your existing market research and review relevant forums, discussion lists, social networking sites, media sites, blogs etc. to pick up on topics, issues, needs, problems, themes and memes that engage your audience.

You can also simply ask: conduct new market research with a content focus.

6. Talk to customer-facing staff

Who better than customer service staff to tell you about pressing customer issues, questions and interests in the context of your products and services? Those employees can also make a great source of stories, advice, tips, etc.

7. Let readers self-select

Consider collecting data on interests during the email sign-up process or in subscriber preference centers.

8. Outsource

One obvious option is simply to pay a qualified third-party to create content for you.

But also consider approaching independent publishers, bloggers, photographers and influencers in your field. Perhaps you can licence their existing content or get free content in return for providing an email platform for their work.

Be aware, though, that those who know the worth of their content will need appropriate recompense.

OK, but what about some ideas on the content itself?

Ten content ideas

1. Showcase your employees

What are their favorite products and why? What shopping tips do they have? What tips do they have for getting more out of your products or services?

e.g. What camera does our CFO use?

2. Showcase readers

How are other customers using your products? What stories do they have to share?

e.g. On the road with the Nikon D7000.

3. Showcase resources

What third-party sites, tools, books or other resources would readers find useful?

e.g. Link to a free online photo-editing tool, review a new digital photography book.

4. How-tos, tips, solutions

Offer tips and advice that relate to:

  • the shopping or post-purchase experience

e.g. Should I buy a second battery? How do I decide which camera is right for me? When is it time to upgrade?

  • using the product or service:

e.g. How to take great photos at night.

  • wider issues in the market:

e.g. Reducing your environmental footprint as a photographer.

5. Predict

Speculate on how things might change for customers in the future.

e.g. Digital photography in 2020.

6. Tell a story

Relate amusing or insightful product-related stories, anecdotes or quotes

e.g. How not to photograph an elephant. Our photography quote of the week! How we sold our first camera.

7. Reviews and ratings

Both yours and reviews submitted by customers (make sure you have the right permission to use them in emails).

e.g. How our customers rate the new Canon PowerShot A490.

8. Educate

Explain a product-related concept or insider term.

e.g. Our sales assistant Jane explains how the macro setting works.

9. Polls, surveys, feedback, quizzes, competitions

Get people involved in polls or surveys. Consider an incentive for participation. And use the results as content for another email, for example, by answering popular reader questions.

e.g. Canon vs Nikon: what do YOU think?

In fact, why not get customers to submit photos, digital photography tips, product reviews, website reviews, software reviews etc. and use these as content. Anyone whose content gets used wins a gift certificate.

You can also encourage interaction with quizzes and competitions:

e.g. Submit your summer photos and win a weekend in Vegas. How well do you know your photography history? Take our quiz!

10. Online events

Maybe you can hold an interactive online event with someone behind the scenes, like the live Facebook Q&A organized by Bed, Bath & Beyond featuring a Dyson engineer.

e.g. Join our live chat with Samsung's head of R&D

Need more ideas? Here are some helpful articles...and do let me know of any other useful links on creating email content that works.

Author's avatar

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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