Email marketing guide: Step 6 Creating effective email templates and creative

Q : Have our email templates been reviewed for effectiveness?

Effective email templates should balance the need for visual prominence of:

  • A main text headline.
  • Copy to engage (where relevant, like an editorial on an e-newsletter).
  • Sub-headings.
  • Different blocks of content and offers.
  • The call(s) to action.

Best Practice Tip 26 Employ a flexible and reusable email template
By using email marketing software that allows you to re-use templatesand possibly copy and edit complete emails, a marketer can save a lot of time while keeping brand and design consistent. Some tools will have the option to add or remove pre-designed content block in a drag-and-drop fashion, allowing for more flexibility within one multi-purpose template.

Email marketing template examples

To guide good practice we have created these outlines which you can reference against the information in this section. These show the options of template sections to discuss with your designers, most often not all of these features are required.

Example layout email template

Assess headlines

Q. Have headlines been reviewed for effectiveness?
Since most of the readers of your email will only scan them, it’s important to offer clear
messages in the header and within the sub-headlines or section.

Best Practice Tip 27 Ensure the email is scan-able even when images are blocked
Since images are still blocked by some email software, you will get a better response where the main headlines and headlines of sub-sections or containers are still clear with images off. This is particularly important for e-newsletters and business messages, but including some text or at least alternative text for images will give you a better response for consumer messages also.

Q. Are headings and text clear when images are blocked?
This is an example from a previous non-responsive version of our e-newsletter with images blocked, you can see how we make use of tinted background colours to give focus to the different areas of the email.

non-responsive version of our e-newsletter

This is an example of how not to do it. There are plenty we could have chosen, even in this time when mobile marketing is more important.

Example of bad practice email template

Visual focus or priority on a limited number of areas
Q. Does the email have a clear visual focus?
Although readers can scan quickly, a page will be much more effective if there are clear
visual priorities on a limited number of areas. An e-newsletter offers the option to add a (visual) structure that indicates importance.

Use pyramid style copywriting

Q. Email effective if only first part of email “above-the-fold” displayed?

Sometimes we will only browse the first part of the email above the fold, so you need to make sure the first part of your email engages. It is worth testing if a call to action should be visible above the fold.

What is it? Above-the-fold
A term derived from direct mail where this is the first part of a letter when it is opened. The equivalent in email is the top of the email. Starting with what appears in the preview pane before the user scrolls down.

Clear calls to action
Q. Are our calls to action clear?
Your call to action should describe what happens or which action is needed from the recipient clicks on it. This tells the reader what to expect. The clarity is either made directly (preferred) or because of its context. “Buy now” is an action oriented call to action, but only clear what you should be buying now because of the product description next to it.

Ensure images are effective

Q. Has effective imagery been used and is it consistent with the email?
Some of the image issues to consider are:

  • Relevant to product or offer.
  • Quality effective to support message and offer.
  • Images linked rather than embedded to reduce weight of email.
  • Alt-text tag used to explain message when images are blocked by the email client.

Crafting effective copy

To write successful email copy, you need to start by thinking about how readers interact with email. When running win-back and welcome campaigns consider also the stage of the relationship. For example a more conciliatory tone with softer sell may work better in win-back. If you are familiar with writing copy for print, consider these three important questions you should ask.

Effective subject lines

Q. Are the subject lines effective?

The reality of email subject lines is that your readers aren’t waiting to lavish their eyes on your email, rather their fingers are hovering over the delete button waiting to assign it to trash.

Readers use the subject line to self-qualify the email to themselves. The subject line is not just about getting the email opened by the maximum number of people, it’s about getting the people most fitted to the offer or message to open the email.

Whilst intrigue and ambiguity may increase open rates, it may not always translate to click rate increase. Clarity and specificity in the subject line can often be the most powerful approach to getting good click rates. We all know that subject lines are important, but do you know the part which is most important? For us it’s the first two words. By using a technique called ‘frontloading’, you try and craft subject lines that have the most important or most compelling words at the front of the subject line.

Don’t forget that characters also matter. Comma’s, slashes, lines, stars, capitals can have an impact on open rates. Also appropriate symbols like a heart (♥) can make you stand out in the inbox, so should be tested.

What is it? Pre-header
Email clients like Gmail and and diverse on mobile devices display sender
name, subject and the first line of the email in the inbox. This first line is called the
Pre-header or “snippet” and can also influence your open rates and the user experience. Make sure your template allows you to adjust your pre-header text.

Make copy scannable

Q. Is the copy scannable?
Jakob Nielsen reported on research that shows that in a test 79 percent of test web users scanned, while just 16 percent read word-by-word. Since we tend to read 25 percent slower from a computer screen, this behaviour is likely to be exhibited in all on screen copy, whether web or email.

One implication of this is that we should write less copy when writing for the web or email. Nielsen suggests 50 percent of the original for web copy. We can suggest that for email, which tends to be read in a smaller window, and in a different context, this should be even shorter.

To achieve brevity, Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think! suggests we should:

  • Omit needless words! He says we should remove half our original words and then strive to remove half again.
  • Marketing happy talk must die! Avoid that introductory text intended to make the customer feel comfortable or extol the virtues of a company.
  • Rather than rest on ‘best ever’, ‘market leader’ and other such unsubstantiated claims look to provide evidence. Such as a deal company might talk about
  • How many new deals they have per week.
  • The average saving.
  • How many customers buy more than once.
  • Customer feedback and ratings on deals and service.

3. Instructions must die! This refers to online forms rather than emails, where it is
achieved through making the options clear without extensive text. For email we can argue that instructions are often useful to explain to the reader what they need to do to redeem the offer and to convert them to action. But we can certainly keep instructions succinct.

Of course the other implication of scanning behaviour is that we should make our emails scannable! Nielsen suggests these as approaches to this:

  • Highlighted keywords (we will look at different forms of highlighting for text and HTML emails later in this guide).
  • Meaningful not ‘clever or funny’ sub-headings.
  • Bulleted lists.
  • One idea per paragraph.
  • The inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion.
  • Half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.

Make email style conversational

Q. Has a conversational style of email marketing been used?

Although we receive many unsolicited communications, many of the emails we receive are from work and friends.

So we are used to using email in a conversational, informal way with friends, family and colleagues. It follows that copywriters can be more conversational with email than other media, and this can help us get closer to our prospects and customers.

Some have said we should ‘Write like you talk’ – a good test is to ask whether you would say it to someone face-to-face. If not it is probably the ‘marketing happy talk’ we referred to above.

Other ways to make email conversational is to use simple words and use colloquial

Pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’ are also effective. Some talk about the ‘we-we test’ – reviewing the email to see whether the emphasis is on the sender ‘we’ or the recipient ‘you’. The example below shows an email that passes this test:

‘You already know how easy it is to get instant online insurance cover from Norwich Union. But did you know that Norwich Union can also offer you online access to low-cost life-cover. For example, £ would cost you as little as £Y per day.’

Connecting copy with readers

Q : Does our email language connect with our readers?

Professional email marketers have to work extra hard to establish credibility and prove their benefits to their readers. So, as you write, put yourself in the position of a cynical customer who is fed up with insincere and bogus offers – how are you going to prove that you are a credible supplier?

These are some approaches to overcome cynicism and build credibility through email:

  • Try to achieve ‘connection’ with the reader to show that you understand them by using customer language and their buzzwords.
  • Spell out the benefit the feature gives. For example a bulleted list could use different fonts or formats to emphasise benefits.
  • Backup with facts and numbers.
  • Build testimonial elements into your emails such as customer quotes, number of customers, client names and independent reviews and awards.
  • Customer-centric copy

Q. Is the copy customer-centric?

It is often said that to write good direct mail copy, you need to write for your reader. In other words, to imagine the person who is reading your carefully crafted words. But to do this, we need to remember the different types of position that our readers are in. Write down how their backgrounds vary. These are some of the different aspects you should consider:

  • How well do the recipients know your company? Are they prospects, customers or
    first-time customers?
  • How well do they know your products? Have they bought single products or a range of products?
  • What style of communications will appeal? What will they expect from previous
    interactions with your brand? Do they like a direct approach or do they prefer a
    more involved dialogue? What is their age – they may prefer more or less formal
    communications accordingly.
  • How technologically literate are they? Some may have been using your website and
    certain online tools for years, while others are new to them. Make it obvious for the
    newbies, while avoiding patronising the old hands.
  • Do they scan or do they read? Depending on time available, and their character, some recipients will just scan the email body, others prefer to read more carefully. You need to provide copy and design that works for both.

Through using customer personas and asking these types of questions you can build a
picture of the range of people you are writing for. If it is not practical to write for such a wide range consider separating your mailing, for example into recently acquired customers and established customers.

Effective email copy with CRABS?

Q. Does your email have CRABS copy?

In Emarketing Excellence, PR Smith recommends using the acronym CRABS to summarise effective web page copy. This is even more appropriate to email copy, since we have even less space and time to communicate. CRABS stands for:

  • Chunking – Chunking means that paragraphs must be shorter than in paper copy. Think one or two sentences. Three or four maximum. This helps scannability.
  • Relevance – With limited space, we have no room for fillers. Stick with what matters
    – the details of the offer and how to receive it. Personalise the email where possible. Remove content or offers that do not fit with the recipient.
  • Accuracy – Don’t get carried away with your copy; don’t set expectations so high that you overpromise and can’t deliver what you promised.
  • Brevity – Brevity goes with chunking and scannability. Write your copy, reduce the word count and then reduce it again. Give yourself targets and beat them without sacrificing good English and understanding. This also means that some information is more effective if moved to the landing page and removed from the email.
  • Scannability – This is reading without reading every word, just picking up the sense of each paragraph from the keywords. The eye will pick out words at the start of paragraphs and those emphasised in bold.

The title of Steve Krug’s book on web usability gives a useful guideline for copywriting for email – ‘Don’t make me think’. He also suggests that you should consider the amount of copy you have, halve it and halve it again.

If you have produced copy that follows the CRABS guidelines, you are only a part of the way there, since there are many issues of style to make successful copy.

As with any direct mail piece, the first paragraph of an email must:

  • Engage – when reading this, perhaps in the preview pane, recipients are deciding whether to delete or read (scan) further. So as for any creative, the opening needs to be powerful.
  • Add detail to the subject line or the headline – the recipient will remember the gist of the subject line, and it is always there at the head of the email, so reinforcement is the main objective of the message here.
  • Summarise the whole – the opening of an email is often compared to the opening of a press release which typically uses an ‘inverse pyramid’ structure to summarise the main points of the email message in decreasing order of importance, as briefly as possible.
  • Include a call to action – if the reader likes the offer or wants to know more, we shouldn’t make them scroll down to find an elusive hyperlink – it should be there in the first paragraph

Making copy engaging

Q. Have we developed engaging copy?

Email campaign checklist – Eight key copy questions

Question 1. Does your copy excite?

You have a great offer, but have you supported the offer by writing enthusiastically to appeal to the reader’s emotions?

For the consumer you are offering riches, dreams and experiences – does the copy
effectively communicate how your offer will improve their life?

For the business person you are offering time, knowledge and control – does the copy effectively communicate how your offer can help them ‘work smarter’? The copy also needs to excite from the outset – see Question 7 for tips on headlines.

Question 2. Does your copy convince?

You may believe that your service or your offer sells itself on its features. But the recipient is less likely to be a believer – they don’t have the interest or knowledge you have. Have you backed up your promise with enough detail to convince the reader that the offer is worthwhile? Is the unique selling point clear?

The style of writing also needs to enthuse about these benefits. This may be difficult if
you cannot personally relate to the customer’s needs – sometimes difficult for technology markets for instance. The only way to succeed is to develop empathy with your reader by researching, maybe even living the role like method actors do.

Question 3. Is your copy natural?

We have said that email is a social, conversational medium – we mainly use it to chat to
friends or communicate to colleagues. So we want to avoid our email sounding as if it was written by a machine.

If you can make copy conversational, write at the same level of your audience and make it flow naturally then you will get closer to the reader and predispose them to what you are offering. However don’t overdo the informality – some emails seem as if they are written by someone you have known from ‘back at school’.

Question 4. Is the copy length right

Let’s look at the extremes. Which is best – short copy or long copy?

There can be no right answer because it depends on purpose. Most people answer that
short is best since the reader doesn’t want to read your carefully crafted words, just WIIFM –‘What’s in it for me’?

My view is that you can combine short and long copy in one email.

The short attention respond to short copy you can use the start of the main copy which is above the fold.

The scanners’ who scan through the whole email you may impress with detail, provided that detail stands out.

The readers’ who read every word and want the details you need the long copy, however this can be also pushed back to the landing page or website.

I would argue that the email cannot be too long provided it is relevant and entertaining and another call to action and summary of the total copy are included at the start.

Question 5. Did you repeat yourself?

This is a difficult one.
Direct mail wisdom says repeat to reinforce.
Email wisdom says the reader doesn’t have the time to see information repeated. However, I think some repetition is desirable. Reinforcement of messages is effective in any media. We need to repeat and build on what is available in the subject line in the headline. Then,because the reader has scrolled, repeating the offer in the final call to action makes sense.

Question 6. Which copy stands out?

You have satisfied yourself that you can answer the other questions, but now, looking at the big picture, what will the scanner notice – what techniques have you used to emphasise the key points in your email?

In HTML emails, we have a broad scope for emphasis through mark-up to make copy stand out.

  • The SPACE before and after words and between lines is powerful in highlighting offers or calls to action.
  • CAPITALISATION, but don’t overuse it.
  • Bulleted lists using asterisks or dots.
  • Text formatting – bold and italics. But take care since italics may be difficult to read in small point sizes. Never use an underline which looks like a hyperlink – readers will try to click on it.
  • Font sizes – large font size as headings or separate messages work well for scanners
  • Font colour – using a different copy from body copy using vibrant colours such as red and orange.
  • Graphical animations of copy – but make sure your animation doesn’t prevent the message being viewed by scanners
  • Hyperlinks – blue underlined or other formatted hyperlinks attract the eye online.
  • Whilst HTML does allow rich formatting, colours and images this does not preclude the use of HTML to produce a very simple plain text type of email, with the HTML just used to add simple text format and emphasis.
Question 7. Do we have a powerful headline?

Many emails do not have a title at all – online copywriters seem to think they aren’t necessary because that’s what the subject line is for. Not so! Headlines do help engagement if they build on the subject line to engage the reader.

In his excellent book on Online Copywriting, Bob Bly recommends the following approaches that can be used for email titles:

  • Get a terrific benefit up-front.
  • Appeal to personal self-interest.
  • Get the right sort of attention.
  • Add news.
  • Offer to teach.
  • Ask a provocative question.
  • Use ‘Quotes’.
Question 8. Will our copy achieve action?

We finish our eight questions with the most important question – whether our email will achieve action. Arguably, this should be the first question, since the whole copy should be structured around the outcomes we want to achieve!

Approaches that can help achieve action are:

  • A text-based call to action in first screen (for the impulsive) and last screen (for those with the time to read).
  • A time-limited offer which uses copy to encourage the reader to act NOW!
  • Instructions such as ‘forward to a friend’ or ‘share to social’ can be other useful outcomes.
  • Using hyperlinks to highlight the offer at the right position in the paragraph.

As an example of highlighting the offer through a hyperlink, think of marketing to an IT
manager to download a best practice guide. Which of these approaches do you think would be best?

A. Click below to receive your complimentary guide to reducing Total Cost of Ownership: FREE guide to reducing TCO.

Sign Off

B. Click here to receive your complimentary guide to reducing Total Cost of Ownership.
C. To receive your complimentary guide to reducing Total Cost of Ownership, click here.
D. To help you lower the costs of running your IT infrastructure we have prepared a
complimentary guide to reducing Total Cost of Ownership.

In A, separating out the hyperlink on to a separate line does increase its prominence, but spoils the flow of the copy.

I prefer B rather than C since it is more direct and the eye will be more naturally drawn
towards the underlined hyperlink at the start of the sentence within the copy as a whole.

However, approach C can encourage the scanner to read the copy before the end of the sentence.

Design practice for web pages would favour approach D, which makes the call to action part of the copy. While this may work best for web pages where we are perhaps not seeking the hard-sell. For simplicity and encouraging action approach B is best.

Think carefully about the colour of the hyperlink. It used to be that on the majority of web pages, users were used to seeing a blue hyperlink on a white background. But if other colours are used, high contrast is essential.

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