If you told me at age twenty that some day I would enjoy writing direct marketing emails, I would have laughed, cried, or bought you another round. I loved language, and my intention was to write a great novel or book of poems. Oddly, writing marketing emails has deepened my love of language. It’s a scenario where every word counts, and sometimes just four or five words will make a difference. It’s more difficult than you think until you have a process. Here’s mine.

1) Define your audience. This is a huge cliché, but the truth of it should never get old. If you can afford to conduct real research and create personas, do it. If you can’t, do your best to seek out first-hand, credited, academic sources that challenge your assumptions about who your audience is and what they need.

2) Create purpose. Why am I getting these emails? Along with the standard unsubscribe, include a short explanation about how your recipient got on the list and what you hope they’ll get out of it. This is even more important if you’ve bought a list of people who don’t know you (see number 1). People get way too many emails. Make yours valuable, and honest.

3) Don’t bomb my inbox. Here are some tips from Constant Contact on how often to send emails. On this subject, I have a personal pet peeve about sites that make me register for something, send me a confirmation before I get the thing, but then also send me the thing. Do what you can to streamline the signup process in general. Remember to think like the customer: they don’t care if you have one system for registration, another for enrollment, and yet another for marketing automation. But that’s kind of off the topic. Be mindful of how often you send your regularly scheduled emails. Frequency is directly dependent on value. If you’re working hard at 1 and 2, you don’t have to worry quite as much about sending too many, but it’s still a concern. Example: I signed up for BookBub a while ago. I got an email every day offering me super-cheap and sometimes free books. Many of them are good books. But every day was too often. I canceled it because I couldn’t keep up.

4) Use a preheader, and make it a good one. Some email apps look for the very first line in an email and include it as a preview, called a preheader. The following is not a good preheader: “To view an HTML version of this email click here.” “Dear Martin,” is also not a good preheader. Control the language that fits in this space to make sure it encapsulates or entices.

5) Write irresistible but not annoying subject lines. There are differing opinions on length here; I’ve seen 65 characters or less mentioned in a few places. I always send a test email to my iPhone and someone’s Android and see how it looks. Here is one of several sites that will test your email subject lines for you. (Don’t be put off by the 1999 look and feel. This site actually spits out some very useful information about your proposed subject line). The most important thing is to make your subject line impossible to ignore, but not misleading, and make sure it doesn’t trigger spam filters. Also just make sure the email itself is not spam. See number 1 and 2 again.

6) Study the masters. Sign up to get emails from Buzzfeed and from the Hubspot Blog. When you start getting them,  set up a special folder so you can look at the emails at once in a big group. You’ll see what kinds of techniques are trending. You’ll also notice which subject lines your eye is naturally drawn to. No big surprise, a lot of them are going to be listicles. The overtaxed modern brain likes lists because they are easy to digest and easy to remember, qualities that will make it choose one email to read over another almost subconsciously.

7) Keep it short and include a prominent call to action. Again, why am I getting this email? Give me a call to action to help explain that, one that also serves your business purpose, which is to deliver something of value that gets you conversions. I like to include a text CTA in the first line or so if I can, because it’s easy for the recipient to find it again later. I like to make the text descriptive of what the recipient is going to receive. (Never say “click here.”) If possible, it’s also nice to have the CTA reinforced visually somewhere. Definitely repeat the CTA a couple times (two or three, max) but don’t include too many CTAs to different things (e.g., download a whitepaper, get our app, sign up for a newsletter). Some experts insist on having only one action per email.

I’m still working on that novel. Until it’s done I’ll do my best to honor my twenty-year-old self, which leads to the unofficial number 8: If you’re going to write direct mail, at least don’t make it junk mail. Do this by following rules 1 and 2.

– Eric