How to Steal like an Email Artist

If you’re good at what you do, you don’t start from scratch with every single project.

Great work springs from what has come before it. As Mark Twain put it:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”

Even the best and brightest have their outside sources of inspiration. There’s even that saying: “good artists copy; great artists steal.” Along those lines, writer and artist Austin Kleon recommends that you “[s]ave your thefts for later” by keeping a swipe file.

What’s a swipe file? That’s where copywriters would collect clippings — successful ads, headlines, and copy — to spur creative ideas and insights. Also referred to as a “morgue file,” after the old practice of newspaper reporters of storing information in case a related story resurfaced — being able to stick ideas in storage to reanimate later also saves time.

Whether you see yourself as a creative type or not, and no matter your job or expertise level, collect raw inspirational material to work into fresh ideas fresh down the road.

Ask What Makes It Great?

For all the examples that get tucked away in swipe files, at the end of the day, a mere copy-and- paste job won’t be effective. You also have to understand why something works and then how to rework that into your particular context.

copy and pasting an idea

For entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss, the point of the swipe file is to gain understanding. He explains that copy editors saved ads that had “convinced them to buy something and they would take it, analyze it, and figure out why it got them to buy.” Tim even “swiped” TV infomercials:

I’m a sucker for good infomercials…. The ones that you see all the time [like Bowflex and P90x] are working because they’re expensive…. I would buy these products … I wanted to know the script they used on the phone, the up-sells, the cross sells, when it got to me, who it got shipped by, the follow up, and I would track all that stuff.


“good theft vs. bad theft”

A swipe file is like a collection of mini case studies — how did other people solve a specific problem? How do you take that insight and make it work for you?

Tools for Building an Email Swipe File

Perhaps you already keep a marketing swipe file, but there haven’t been many public resources that zero in on emails. So we thought we’d explore a few sites that have popped up recently, which focus on email marketing in particular.

If you’re interesting in starting or boosting your email marketing research and swipe files, take a look at these tools. (A caveat: these sites are new, so they can be wonky or feel unintuitive — but on the bright side, your feedback will probably make a big difference!)

MailCharts

MailCharts offers a way to “understand how your competitors use email marketing,” focusing on company tracking. Keep tabs on specific companies, research by industry, and dig into information such as email send times and frequency.

mailcharts send time analysis

The robust search function enables you to search a bank of emails by company, date-range, keyword, and combinations (like this year’s Target and Walmart “Cyber Monday” emails).

MailCharts’s best feature is its email viewing options, which load quickly and are easy to toggle. You can examine individual emails in an inbox context, with or without images, in plaintext, or a mobile view.

mailcharts email preview

On a company level, you can see a list of most recent emails, showing the sequence of subject lines and from addresses, or a Pinterest-like gallery view. You’ll also receive a weekly report of the companies you track.

How much? 30-day free trial; 3 pricing tiers $30/month, $99/month, $499/month
Swipe File potential? There are shareable URLs for individual emails but no way to save emails within the site. Pair this with a link or image collection tool.

Email Insights

Email Insights also lets you track competitors’ email, declaring “We subscribe to and analyze thousands of newsletters, so you don’t have to.”

Browsing and following specific companies is more Email Insights’s strong suit, as opposed to search. Also note the focus on newsletters — emails here generally fall into two buckets of deals or content updates and will be most useful if you’re interested in retail or news/media (including lifestyle publications).

email insights tab view

The tab set-up is handy, so you don’t have to click around so much while exploring different views or filtering by various date ranges. Email Insights also shows you send activity as well as subject line analysis. I got a kick out of looking at the shortest subject lines. Here’s Warby Parker’s:

warby parker's short subject lines

One of the coolest features in Email Insights is “infographics,” essentially reports that summarize send details, subject word frequency, and a gallery of sample emails. Here’s a report of top online retailers for September 2014 (click here for the full report):

email insights infographic

How much? 30-day free trial; $47/month
Swipe File potential? You can favorite and save specific emails for your swipe file as well as favorite companies to track.

Emailium

Emailium lacks quite the direction of MailCharts and Email Insights, positioning themselves plainly as a useful database: “Millions of email marketing campaigns at your fingertips.”

emailium homepage

With its Pinterest-like tile layout and bank of emails, Emailium is most useful for marketers at larger companies, designers looking for visual inspiration, and digital agencies. Their range of emails seems indiscriminate or rich, depending on your perspective — sourced from political campaigns to the MOMA Online Store to, somehow, the band, The Decemberists — and there’s no way to see an overall index of what companies (and musical acts) are in the system.

Search is available by industry, company, subject line, body text, color, date, and email service provider (ESP). The email viewing experience is disjointed, with the subject line placed below the content, though there’s a helpful option to view emails by source code.

How much? Free month with the coupon code FreeMonth; 3 plans at $69/month, $249/month, and $499/month.
Swipe File potential? You can only save searches, though there are shareable URLs.

SocialMail

SocialMail is aimed not at email marketers but on consumers who want to reduce inbox clutter.

SocialMail example

Signing up gets you a dedicated email address like name@socialmail.com you can use to subscribe to email lists. These emails will show up in your SocialMail account instead of your inbox. (You can also discover, search, and follow companies from SocialMail itself.)

The SocialMail inbox was rather wonky when I tried it. Still, this is an easy, free tool for finding emails from mostly retail-type companies that doesn’t require you to sign in or subscribe to anything.

How much? Free.
Swipe File potential? Only social share buttons to save, so you could pin individual emails.

Really Good Emails

Really Good Emails is a hand-curated collection of, well, “really good emails.” Combining a Pinterest and Tumblr feel, the site is simple and easy to browse.

Really Good Emails filtered by onboarding tag

The best thing about RGE is the availability of different kinds of email — from announcements to upselling to transactional emails such as receipts. With a focus on product emails, the range of RGE’s emails goes beyond newsletters and you can filter by email function or goal.

For example, if you’re creating or overhauling your lifecycle emails, you could filter by activation, welcome, and onboarding tags for constructive examples. If you’re hoping to increase customer retention, look at emails filed under customer appreciation, engagement, and re-engagement.

How much? Free
Swipe File potential? There’s no way to save emails, though there are Pinterest buttons.

Create Your Own

It might be your best bet to use a mix and match of the tools above. To save emails and subscriptions, create an inbox folder or dedicated email account — or take a look at collection and organization tools like Pinterest, Evernote, Trello, Gimmebar, and Kippt. Here at Customer.io, we’re reviving our Tumblr, Great Email Copy, to collect and feature swipe-worthy emails from around the web.

If you use Gmail, Litmus’s Scope tool is super helpful for capturing, saving, and sharing emails. Scope creates a web-based version of the email, with desktop, mobile, and text views, and also has a code inspector that let you look under the hood.


Curiosity does make you a better marketer, but beware the potential rabbit hole of research and endless searches for inspiration.

Use the resources as a starting point to unravel questions such as:

  • Does subject line length have a noticeable effect on open rates?
  • What’s a good ratio of sales-y to less promotional emails?
  • What seems to be the trend of day, times, and frequency for sending emails? And should you follow the trend or try to buck it?
  • How are people using images vs fancy html vs plaintext? Does it depend on the email’s purpose?
  • What’s the deal with gifs these days?
  • Am I behind the game in mobile optimization?

Brilliance — or at least improvement — will strike more often if you are always curious, curating, repurposing, and learning.

How do you keep track of inspirational or model emails? Share with us in the comments!