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GUEST COMMENT Email starts with an F – copywriting and design advice for email marketers

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by Catherine Holt

I’m late! I’m late! We all know how the poor rabbit felt rushing from here to there and having no time to stop. In today’s always-on digital world people seem to have less time than ever to make decisions, fill in a form or even take some time to read something fun – particularly in such a competitive sector as retail. So how do you get your email communications to stand above the deluge of others? And how do you keep people happily opening every time they see it’s from you?

The key, as with so many things in life, is to have a good plan. Breaking down your emails to the basics – such as who are we emailing and why – and then slowly building this into a detailed long term email strategy is the best way to keep your recipients happy bunnies. So where to start? The first thing you need to do is make sure you know your audience. Find out as much as you can about what makes them tick, the content they will be interested in and how they like to receive it. Undertake surveys, monitor social media sites, check what your competitors are doing whether it be right or wrong. Now you have gathered a little more data, we can look at copywriting and style strategy.

Copy: The art of writing for email

Copy is the main element of an email, it’s worth putting as much time and effort into your email copy as you would your website or DM. Ensure you employ the usual best practices of writing, proofing, re-writing and testing. To avoid spam filters, ensure you use compelling subject lines to encourage as many opens as possible and that your message design pushes readers to your website.

An engaging email will be more successful than a flat or spammy message; so be concise and ‘scannable’ with your text and layout – otherwise, unless you are very lucky, people won’t spend long reading your email. Scanning research for emails shows people read messages in an ‘F’ shape. Good email design starts with this shape – beginning at the top and reading all of the way across, a bit in the middle and then trailing off. Arrange your copy so the important parts are at the top then decreasing downwards, normally keeping images to the right.

Don’t rely on images in an email as they won’t always display automatically on arrival. Therefore the importance of topical and engaging copy really is key from the minute your campaign is delivered to an inbox.

Always put your special offer/most exciting news above the fold – the area on view when the email is opened before scrolling down. Capture readers’ attention straight away and give clear instructions on what to do to receive your offer. Also keep it short and punchy – longer emails mean more to scan and recipients lose interest. If people are interested to learn more, they will click to your web site, which you can track.

The tone of voice of your email will dictate engagement levels to some degree. Read it to see if it fits with your audience and your aim; should it seem friendly and from a person, or authoritative and from a brand? Try and build a recognisable, consistent tone for each type of email. Finally, make sure the reason for your email is really clear. If there is a call to action, inspire people to take that action and tell them exactly why they should and what will happen.

Top ten format tips

• Opening paragraph: clearly state what the email is all about.

• Anchor links: can let users flick down to key points in your email, although it may be better to push them to your web site.

• An email isn’t your web site: don’t feel the need to repeat the content of your entire website – otherwise there is no need for them to click through!

• Short paragraphs: Break it up into short paragraphs, it makes it easier to scan

• Bullet points/ numbered lists: space out key points

• Headings: use headings to road sign key points.

• Emphasise: Use Bold, underline and italic to draw the reader’s eye to key details. Don’t forget most people expect underline to be links.

• Links: position them on separate lines so that they stand out and are clear. Don’t forget that text that is underlined in blue is the international format for a link.

• Call to action: use clear call to actions in separate sections, not hidden in text, and link directly to your landing page.

• Images: use images to draw the eye to key points, but repeat key messages from the images within the text. If an image is blocked, at least they’ll still understand your message!

From name and subject line

For your email marketing campaign, it is essential to plan the from name and subject line. Industry research shows that both play an important role in deliverability and engagement, although try not to look at each communication in isolation, but as part of an ongoing dialogue – previous history and recognising sender details play a central role. So make sure that any email you send out is worth reading.

The from name is one of the first things an email recipient will look at and therefore should be recognisable. Consider using:

• your brand (eg Argos, B&Q)

• your product (eg Tesco Clubcard)

• your company (eg BBC Shop, ODEON Cinemas)

• a person’s name – this may seem more personable, however, you want your email to strengthen your brand name, so what happens if that person leaves your company for a competitor?

The recipient needs to simply glance at your subject line to want to open your email. Successful subject lines clearly and concisely explain what the email is about; they grab the reader’s attention :

• “HURRY – 20% OFF ends 8th June…”

• “July ODEONScreen: Free Chipmunk toy for the kids”

• “Research Request: Email Marketing Census”

Length is also important – research from Return Path showed that click-through rates for subject lines with 49 or fewer characters were 75 percent higher than for those with 50 or more. On the other hand, having a longer subject line with more information may also work for you like:

• Shop Alexander Rose Garden Furniture, Luxurious Towels, Scandinavian Furniture, Summertime Accessories, Little Shrimp Kidswear, Farmison Produce & Keri Cook Photography

• O2 Academy Oxford: An Evening with Martin Stephenson and The Daintees, Band Of Skulls, BrokenCYDE plus The Stranglers

The best way to find which subject lines work best is to test, test and test again.

Dialogue: It’s not a one way street

The email channel cannot be seen as a standalone way of contacting your audience, it’s a part of all the communications you send. This means that you can’t expect people not to respond; in fact you should encourage them to, and aim to get the conversations going.

Try and tell people things they don’t already know, be it information or new exclusive products, and give them something to get engaged with and talk about or share with others. You want your audience to perceive you as the thought leaders or trend starters. Conversations with your customers are a key way to achieve this.

We are all aware of the current social boom so widen your audience by getting social. Adding social share links to your emails allows people to share the whole email or certain features with their friends. You’ll get recommendations and a broader reach, but it also identifies the topics that are popular so you can get involved in the social discussions too.

Email is no longer static, using XML content pull you can import the most up-to-date information automatically from your website to your emails. Include blogs or twitter feeds to encourage responses and keep your audience up-to-date and involved without having to create a new email each time. Also consider using SMS to give your customers the chance to start the conversation. Ask them to text their email address and a key word to receive an email containing a link to an exclusive download. This can boost your sign-ups and help you gather more useful information.

Other best practice considerations:

• Personalisation – if you have your customer’s name use it. Let them know you are talking to them, they will feel as if you have written it especially for them. Use appropriate salutations for your customer base.

• Signature – if it follows the convention of a letter, ensure it is signed by someone.

• Add to safe senders – ask the recipients to add you to their safe sender list or address books to ensure your mails are not accidentally filtered into spam folders.

• Web versions – Add links for recipients to click to see the email on a web site (see image).

• How to subscribe/update your details – include a link to a form that allows new contacts to add themselves to your mailing list, or for existing contacts to update the details you hold on them. One simple question is to ask contacts if they’d like to receive html or text versions of your newsletter.

• Forward to a friend – encourage contacts to forward your email on to their colleagues and friends (see image).

In summary

Start with the basics and build up slowly to a workable strategy. Keep emails short, make your offers stand out, always have a call to action and make it personal. Don’t forget that you know your audience better than anyone else, and clever copy will never support a poor, badly targeted offer. Also keep testing; it’s the best way to find out what your customers want. Finally, remember good email design starts with an F!

Catherine Holt is an account manager at Adestra.

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