16 Rules to Make Your Email Rock

by Scott Martin

Last updated on October 30th, 2017

Email is a lot like the fax machine. Antiquated. Totally annoying. Ugly. Taking up space. But ultimately indispensable—even in the age of Twitter.

Email remains a potent and powerful marketing weapon in spite of the daily deluge of spam emails in our inboxes.

The beauty of email marketing? You can test like crazy so you find that all-important sweet spot where you maximize conversion. And sending email is inexpensive when compared to most other forms of marketing.

Here’s a confession. Several years ago, because I especially enjoy writing copy for long-form sales pages, I viewed writing marketing emails as a chore. And I would release a mild “hooray” when I finished a series of autoresponders or other forms of email.

But then I remembered that emails are simply another form of direct response copywriting—and must be treated seriously. So in today’s blog, I give you 16 copywriting guidelines to maximize your email response.

16 Copywriting Rules for Better Emails

ONE. Pay close attention to subject lines

Your subject line is exactly like the copy on a piece of direct mail. Serious direct mail copywriters pay extremely close attention to the copy on the envelope—and they test this copy.

If you really want to know what works, then make sure you find a copy of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s superb book about envelope copy, Open Me Now.

The subject line, like the copy on an envelope, must persuade the reader to open the email.

I like to mix up standard direct response headlines with some “off the wall” subject lines that arouse curiosity. But be careful with the latter because your subscribers might think you’re spamming them and will quickly unsubscribe.

TWO. Be entertaining and valuable

While there’s definitely a place in the world for emails directly advertising huge offers and discounts, I rarely receive emails that even try to provide amusing and/or valuable content.

One of my clients is a restaurant and bar with a strong, loyal following. It’s very much a local’s spot that’s in many ways more like a club. And it’s a fun spot. So the emails I send to the list are brief but usually take a somewhat bizarre take on current events. The open rates are north of 30%.

Here’s an example of a “typical” email.

sir edmond halley's

This email followed the “royal birth” last summer. In fact, the restaurant organized a special menu for this event.

Well-known writer Bob Bly provides a regular email about direct response marketing and copywriting. He provides short nuggets of information in a quickly digestible format.

get noticed on linkedin

The copy in the email is valuable—if you’re into direct response marketing.

THREE. Remind people why you’re there

In the valuable space right above the fold, Bob Bly reminds his subscribers why they’re receiving the email. “You’re receiving this email because…”

You can also remind people—right up front—that they can opt out at any time. This tells your reader, I’m not spamming you.

FOUR. Test your format

Some emails I receive are super-short and simply want me to click through to a landing page. Some emails are purely informational. Some clients like long-form emails with tons of copy. Testing will let you know which format works most successfully.

Here’s an example of a shorter email that always gets me clicking through to Ted Mahon’s excellent blog about skiing, climbing, and running in central Colorado.

ted mahon email

Now let’s take a look at an email from The Motley Fool, which provides information about investing.

motley fool options

You’re seeing just a fraction of the email, which provides over 1,700 words of copy. However, more recent emails from The Motley Fool are much, much shorter—this shows they’re using their testing data.

FIVE. Keep your content focused

You know exactly why your clients and customers signed up for your email database. Keep providing information based on what your readers really want to read.

SIX. Try different media

Some emails are text only. One company in the golf space provides a daily golf instructional video. One company provides an MP3. Some use lots of photos.

Test to see which media complements and augments your copy—and improves conversion.

SEVEN. Test the tease

One way to encourage readers to take the next step in the sales process is to promise something of value in the email—without giving anything away.

Your local radio station provides a perfect example: The DJ or announcer will say, “After the break, I’m going to reveal 3 surprising and easy ways to find a date this holiday season.”

Test the “tease” technique in your email but only when you …

EIGHT. Align your copy

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email promising me a big discount on a product. I clicked through to a page giving me information about the product, but no discount.

It may sound basic, but the emails must be aligned with the landing page and the marketing strategy.

NINE. Invest in templates

One extremely successful client has extensively tested email copy. So they gave me three email templates. Another client has an autoresponder template that performs consistently well.

Search the Internet for email templates and you’ll find high quality ones—or check out these templates from Crazy Egg writer Jeremy Reeves.

TEN. Use subheads, captions, and headlines

Many, if not most, of the emails I receive often forget the basics of compelling copy. One of these fundamentals is to include clear subheads, captions, and headlines—to encourage me to read the body copy.

I routinely see emails that are just big blobs of dense copy. I’m deleting that type of email immediately.

ELEVEN. Remember the key motivators

Write copy based on emotional triggers. Here are just a few…

Have fun. Save money. Make money. Look younger. Meet your perfect partner. Look beautiful. Solve my problem.

TWELVE. Make a bold offer

Yes, I can see through the intentions of the spammer from Ghana who offers me $19 million if I will send $500 to the Ministry of the Interior in Accra. But I also see emails with tepid offers and deals.

Excite and even shock me with a truly special and creative offer. And 90% off everything is not creative—that’s crazy and not believable. One company I like wanted to harvest Amazon reviews. So they gave me 31% off my next order if I wrote a review.

THIRTEEN. Include many ways to respond

One extremely successful client insists on a link above the fold. Their template also includes several different ways to click to the landing page—with clear instructions like: CLICK HERE NOW.

FOURTEEN. Write clearly, elegantly, and simply

There’s no reason to write long and complicated sentences in email copy. Think 8th grade reading level and you will likely boost conversion.

FIFTEEN. Swipe away

Take a close look at the emails that keep you reading and persuade you to click through to a link. Study these emails closely, then emulate them. Do not plagiarize, but you can use the same general themes and approaches.

SIXTEEN. Remember the golden rule of powerful copy…

Focus on the customer/client and their needs and desires.

Aim for quality direct response

If you’re like me, your primary email has ended up on various dodgy email lists. I receive emails from people selling everything from “prescription” medications to a guaranteed cure for acne… though I have no need for any of these products (I promise) and I never opted in for their lists.

So email has a terrible reputation. That’s just one reason it’s so vital to pay close attention to the quality of the copy in your emails.

But the main reason? Use direct response copywriting techniques in your emails, test like crazy, and you can significantly increase conversion and revenue.

Check out other Crazy Egg articles by Scott Martin.



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Scott Martin

Scott Martin is a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also written or edited 18 books including The Book of Caddyshack: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Greatest Movie Ever Made. Scott provides free resources for marketers including direct response checklists.


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  1. Scott Martin says:
    January 29, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Correct, Ray, about the DR principles. And thank you, Vinay, for the kind comments. Start testing!

  2. Vinay kakumani says:
    January 29, 2014 at 3:26 am

    Hi Martin,
    First of i thank you for your valuable priceless blog content, most of the doubts about email marketing is cleared now. All the 15 points are awesome..

  3. Ray says:
    January 27, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    Thanks for this Scott. The principles of DR carry over to email, even if everyone doesn’t agree this is the case. Right now is an exciting time for copywriting. The cost of entry is low and the opportunities are massive.

  4. Ashley says:
    January 27, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Scott
    Very informative. Email copy is seeming to kill me at the moment with 30-40% open rates (not bad I think) but only 10+% click throughs. I think we can always improve, and I am always trying different kinds of subject lines, knowing that is crucial (open rate)
    Your info is invaluable

    • Scott says:
      January 27, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks, Ashley, for the comment. The open rates look good — depending on the industry. Experiment with different copy to improve click throughs. Make sure you have plenty of links, including one above the fold.

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