How to write emails people actually want to read
Even if you’re a good writer, writing great emails isn’t easy. It’s difficult to figure out the perfect subject line, or how to make your emails so compelling you can’t help but stop and read them. But that’s what we have to do each week.
I’m sure many of you reading this are like me:
- You want to get started sending (or maybe keep sending) great emails
- You want to learn how to get your open and click rates to rise
- You want to build an audience of devoted readers and customers
- Your boss will kill you if you don’t get fresh content out every week
Maybe you’ve been thrust into a completely new environment, or maybe you only have some basic emailing experience.
Don’t worry! We’re in the same boat.
Everyone here is trying to write great, compelling emails — each one better than the last. We’re all trying to drive those open and click-through rates. We’re all trying to build a passionate audience using email.
For those of you who have struggled with this, here are five guidelines to get started. They’ve helped me, and I hope they’ll do the same for you.
1. Use analytics to find out which emails and blog posts work…
…and stop doing what doesn’t work!
There’s one proven way to find out which emails work and which don’t.
Use your email performance data
Your data is your most valuable asset when it comes to figuring out what emails people want to read. If you don’t have a system in place to track your email open rates and click through rates, get one.
We use Customer.io (go figure) to track how well each email performs.
Open rates and click rates are good numbers to start with, and a little critical thinking can help us determine why some emails perform better than others. I’ll explain how to do this with keywords in the next section.
A/B test everything
You’ve probably been told that before, but only in the context of your website. But it applies to your emails, too. Test subject lines, design, organization, structure, the placement of visual elements, buttons, and bolded headlines. Test everything, find what works best, and stick with it.
Look at what’s popular on your site
You can use Google analytics to find out what topics get your readers excited. If you want to go through the pain of tracking email segments in Google Analytics, go ahead. But there’s an easier way to find out what works.
Track what pages on your blog and website get the most views. Look for consistencies in the headlines, titles, and content of those pages. That’s what your readers are coming to your website for. That’s what they’re opening your emails for. And that’s what you should be delivering to them.
Takeaway: There are many ways to send successful email. What works best will depend on what your audience wants. Use Google analytics to find topics that get your readers excited, A/B test everything, and critically examine your open and click-through rates.
2. Use proven keywords around topics your readers care about
Keywords are words or phrases that you can use throughout your site to match up with corresponding user search terms and relevant content online. High quality, relevant, and popular keywords give you a higher ranking in Google search, making it more likely for people to find you.
For example, if you’re a SaaS with a focus on developer tools, you should have keywords and phrases like “software”, “agile coding tools”, or “programming” on your homepage, blog, and docs to improve your ranking in search results. You should also include specific keywords related to your topic; if your software is intended for Rubyists, you’d want to include keyword phrases like “Ruby developer”, “Ruby coding tools”, or “Ruby on Rails” You get the idea.
The same keywords that you’ve proven to work on your site should be present in your emails, because they grab readers’ attention. Popular keywords are popular because people keep searching for them. They’re interested in them, they want to know more about them. Tie those words into the emails you send when they relate to content that is interesting, useful, and compelling.
This is evident when we compare the last two emails we sent our subscribers. Our most recent newsletter focused on using color in your emails. It was an interesting piece, but the subject line was crap from a keyword stance: “Here’s why blue is so popular and Contrast drives action.”
The body of the email wasn’t much better. See any words in there that you could imagine searching for in Google? Even though the subject line was (I think) somewhat intriguing, there’s no keyword that stands out. The body of the email used an image and bolded lines to draw in attention, but with no keywords or key terms, it simply wasn’t compelling enough. Our open rate for that one was 19%, and our CTR a mere 6.4%. Not ideal.
The newsletter we sent out prior had a 45% open rate and a 15% CTR. Why the huge difference?
The subject line for this email was “Why are we sending this email on a Thursday?”. We combined with an email body that has some great keywords and phrases: “email”, “schedule”, “boost your open rates”, “the best day to send emails”, you get the picture.
How do you find the keywords to use? Lots of research. Type every relevant search term you can think of into Google, and see what phrases and words the top results are using. Tools like Moz can help you find out what people search for when they’re looking for your site, as well as words where you rank high in search results. Copyblogger has a really helpful post on some tools and strategies to not only find great keywords, but to narrow them down to a select few that work. Use these words in your emails and blog posts.
Takeaway: Keywords aren’t exclusively for web pages. Research what keywords are popular in your content and across the web. Incorporate those words into your emails to peak readers’ curiosity, drive open and click rates, and create consistency with your website.
3. Scannable emails help people easily find content they’re looking for
You may think people don’t have time to read your email, but you’re wrong. People just don’t make the time to read emails that don’t give them valuable information. By making it easy to scan your emails and your blog posts, you’ll immediately give readers value by saving them the trouble of searching through to find the point of what you’re saying.
They can choose to read your article, or just pick out the parts that are useful for them. For example, you may have scanned through this blog post to find this one section, or you may have glanced through the takeaway points before deciding to commit to reading. I didn’t force you to read every line to find useful information. I made it easy for you to find it.
What does an easily scannable email look like? First, you have to have a great subject line that draws readers in and gives them a sense of your topic. It won’t matter how easily they can scan your email if they never bother to open it. But once they do, use visual cues, short paragraphs, and clean design to make it easy for them to scan your email. Here’s a great example:
Next Draft’s emails are fun to receive each day because they not only have really interesting information, they’re super easy to scan. From the headline you know that you’re reading “The Day’s Most Fascinating News.” You read on to see what it’s all about.
Bolded headlines are intriguing, short, and very easy to see. Red links stand out prominently from the rest of the text, which is also super readable in black and white. The sentences are short, crisp, and to the point. Social sharing buttons and lots of space between sections make it easy for you to run through, pick what you want, and get reading.
Takeaway: Using bolded lines, clear buttons, images, and short paragraphs are all great ways to make your emails more scannable. The easier your email is to read, the more likely people are to actually read it (and click through to your site because of it).
4. Telling a story makes it easier for people to get sucked in to your content
Writers are always trying to tell a good story, and your emails are a great place to do it. Think of the classic story structure: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Does your email follow this organization?
Another way to think about the story structure is with the acronym AIDA: attention, interest, desire, and action. Your introduction should attract the attention of your reader, raise their interest, and spark their desire for more. Your climax should encourage people to take action, to click or to sign up.
Thinking about your email in the structure of a story will help you figure out how its pieces fit together. Here’s a useful exercise: think of subject line as your introduction. You want to draw people in, build up to the climax, and be clear from the start. Make the climax the goal of your email, and have the conclusion reinforce that goal.
Where your climax lies depends on the kind of email you’re sending. Some newsletters share the entire full-length post in the body of the email. While there are plenty of benefits to this approach, it does have some drawbacks. Blog posts address those drawbacks, which is why (even with a few complaints) we realized we can create a better experience overall if we send an email update to you and direct you towards our blog to read the full content.
Pick what works for you. Patrick McKenzie sends very long educational emails on SaaS, A/B testing, marketing and lifecycle emails. He’s got plenty of great examples of success with his methods, and he knows how to tell a story that grabs your attention.
If you want to sell a product, maybe your climax is the final sentence in a story about how someone raised their conversion by 100% using your service. If your goal is getting people to click through to a new page, your click-through button is your climax. Make sure your email leads up to it, and make your story so interesting that people just have to find out what comes next.
Here’s an example email from our customer Shopify:
Takeaway: Think about the structure of your email as if it were a story. Doing so will help you organize your message, find out what information is the most important and where you want it to be, and make your email flow. Make your climax the most important part of your email and make sure your content leads up to and falls down from it.
5. Get feedback from people and use that to improve
Feedback is one of the greatest tools you have at your disposal. If you’re trying to write emails people will read, ask them what they’re interested in reading! It really is that simple. Of course, you can use keywords and research to get a sense of where to begin or where to find ideas if you get writer’s block. But your emails are intended for your readers and should serve them as best as they can.
When Customer.io was looking to hire me, I did a guest a post but had no idea that Colin asked all of you for feedback! He shared that feedback with me. Here’s what one person said about my guest post:
My 100ms feedback on this one: I found it too light in content, too much like the “scientific” soundbites about “the latest study that shows that…” that litter modern media.
You can use feedback like that to improve what you do week after week.
Takeaway: Your audience knows better than anyone what they want to read on your blog. Ask them for their feedback on topics, content, and the structure of posts. They can teach you more about your content strategy than any book or article.