Explore our Email Marketing and Marketing Automation Toolkit

Get out of your own head and build email campaigns for people

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 06 Jul, 2016
Essential Essential topic

Make sure you remember your target audience aren't always like you. Write emails for them, not you.

I collect first names on my newsletter sign-up form, but I never use them.

[Cue embarrassed silence and nervous shuffling among the experts out there.]

Yes, it’s an email marketing no-no. The extra form field hurts sign-up rates and it raises expectations that subsequent emails will be personalized more than they are. The survival of my “first name” field is partly down to the delusion that I’ll bite the personalization bullet “sometime soon”.

Call me a database coward. But it also survives because seeing those first names acts as a necessary reminder that my emails go to, um, human beings. As in many online industries, the idea that the audience actually includes sentient beings is often trampled into oblivion by our technology focus and the words that go with it:

Targets, segments, cells, addresses, clusters, groups, samples, lists, databases, records…

So where can we win with a little reorientation to “real” readers?

1. Adapt to recipient skills

Anyone who works in online marketing for any length of time knows a link when they see one, can handle a mouse well, is likely a skilled smartphone user and knows what a website wants you to do, even when it’s not clear.

Your readers probably don’t match that profile.

Website usability is not a niche topic anymore, but when was the last time you saw anything about email usability?

Consider subscription processes.

Most of us check to make sure they work in the physical sense – if I take the required steps, is my address added/removed from the list?

Do you also check to make sure they work in a psychological sense? Do people know what the “right steps” are?

What’s intuitive and obvious to the people who design emails and list management processes isn’t intuitive and obvious to those who just read them and use them.

It’s not rare, for example, to click on an unsubscribe link and find a page like this:

So do you uncheck the box or leave it as it is?

Good question.

Another example is designing for touchscreens.

Most readers are not concert pianists, brain surgeons or needlework experts. We are clumsy…prodding and poking in roughly the right place to try and hit the link on the screen.

So we need more white space around links to avoid what Chad White calls:

“fat-finger frustrations”

[See Anna Yeaman's advice on designing emails for touch.]

There are many other examples.

Are the linked parts of your email clearly clickable? And are the things that seem clickable – like images and headlines – actually links? Are your fonts big enough for those without the bright eyes of a young, dynamic marketer?

2. Design and create for your readers, not yourself and not your peers

The online marketing world is in love with what we might call “attention metrics”, like pageviews, likes, retweets and open rates.

This love grows, the harder it is to measure the more pragmatic business success metrics associated with what we do.

So bloggers and newsletter publishers tend to focus more on attention than do those pushing out email coupons.

There’s nothing wrong with attention metrics per se, provided you don’t lose sight of the connection to those metrics that truly matter…those metrics that reflect whether your customers or prospects are doing what you ultimately want them to do.

Trouble is, they don’t always connect like that.

More attention doesn’t always mean more sales, particularly if attention is coming from the wrong source.

You can end up writing, publishing or promoting to a crowd, where that crowd is not your customers or audience.

It’s a particular danger for content producers, who can fall into a whirlpool of mutual admiration writing for the benefit of other content producers in a shared community.

So email marketing bloggers like me can end up writing content that other email marketing bloggers like to promote.

But am I writing for other bloggers or for email marketers? The two groups don’t value the same things.

J-P De Clerck wrote a fascinating article about content commoditization. He says, for example…

“The increasing attention for content is very often resulting in “me too” content and as such, commoditizing content, with lots of pieces that repeat what other pieces elsewhere contained.”

This attention focus places popularity above influence, reach above impact and, in many cases, familiarity above originality.

You can end up dedicating a disproportionate amount of space to the wrong topics or promotions: topics and promotions that are more relevant to the sender and their community than the recipient.

3. Adapt your language

From the instructions to my DVD recorder:

“You cannot connect this unit to DVI devices that are incompatible with HDCP”

The writer and everyone in their team knows what a DVI device is and what HDCP is.

I don’t.

Like instruction booklets, marketing emails and other content are trying to communicate concepts and get the right response.

That demands clarity. Not something we in the marketing world have a great reputation for.

Clarity means writing for the language, understanding and perceptions of your readers, not your colleagues.

That has wide implications. For example:

Language – jargon

Unless you’re sending email to email marketers, your readers are unfamiliar with the inside language of email marketing.

Check, particularly, your administrative list messages (like subscription confirmations, unsubscribe forms, thank you pages and preference centers), preheaders and email footers to see if any jargon crept in.

Do would-be subscribers get to choose between plain text and HTML email? Do they know what “HTML email” is?

Does your email footer link to a preference center? Do they know what a “preference center” is or why they might want to visit one?

Does someone fresh to the Internet even know what “unsubscribe” means?

Language – the implications of words

We know what we send, what the email says and what happens when you click on an email link.

We know it so well that we can forget to communicate those three things clearly to those who don’t.

How, for example, do you describe the messages you send to would-be readers? Are your messages newsletters, alerts or promotions? Do your new subscribers join a list, club, group or loyalty program?

All these words have different connotations and set different expectations, impacting on how those messages are then received.

This concept also takes us into copywriting and calls to action.

If you want someone to clickthrough to an article, it does matter whether the relevant link describes this action as “read more”, “learn more” or “discover more”.

If you want someone to continue down the path to a purchase, it does matter whether the relevant link says “shop now”, “buy now” or “learn more”.

Language – how you present concepts

As (email) marketers, we often think in terms of confrontation.

We talk (mea culpa) about fighting for attention and grabbing sales, as if we’re flogging cheap replica watches to reluctant tourists in a Casablancan bazaar.

Readers don’t look at it like that.

They don’t sign up against their will (hopefully), they sign-up because they want what you promise. They want good deals, they want good content…they want to be helped.

What we consider as driving sales is actually considered good service by the reader.

So should we perhaps take a more service tone to email offers and content?

Language – pride versus privacy

You’re proud of your new email marketing tools. The reader doesn’t care. But they do care about privacy.

The proud marketer writes:

“We noticed you didn’t open the last email, so here’s another chance…”
“As someone who recently browsed our laptop section, you’ll enjoy our list of bestsellers”

The reader-oriented marketer writes:

“If you missed our last email, here’s another chance…”
“Looking for a new laptop? Check out our bestsellers…”

It’s the difference between stalking and service.

4. Understand consumer inboxes, habits and preferences

We’ve already talked about the martial tones employed in the marketing world, as we seek to stand out in a flood of email scouring its way through reader inboxes.

Are inboxes really like that?

For some audiences, yes. But for other audiences? For your readers? Maybe not.

We take a narrow view of consumer email habits, dominated by a few truisms that resonate with our own (unrepresentative) experiences:

  • People get loads of email
  • People want discounts only
  • People have tiny attention spans
  • People using mobile devices have even tinier attention spans

All of the above is true. All of the above is false.

You don’t have to go far, for example, to find people talking about keeping mobile content short and sweet. It’s a fair concept.

But if you think there’s no room for longer content for mobile devices, then hand back your Kindle.

One estimate puts sales of the Kindle in 2010 at 8 million. My smartphone says the Kindle app for Android devices was downloaded over 250,000 times.

A Kindle is a mobile device. A smartphone is a mobile device. What do people use the Kindle and Kindle apps for?

Reading books.

So at least some people (like me) are using mobile for deeper content.

When you see survey results on consumer habits, don’t just look at the top result (which may only be top by a percentage point or two): that’s what the media does.

We should look at the bigger picture, not a mirror. We’re all different.

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.

Recommended Blog Posts