I began my career as a journalist – before I was a copywriter I worked for online news sites and wrote dozens of news articles in a day.
In school, they taught me that a good headline and lead should provide all the important information to the reader. I’m sure you heard the term “five Ws” before. This is what it stands for:
Who, What, Why, When, Where?
instead of telling you what the problem with this theory is, I will give you an example.
I opened BuzzSumo and ran a search for “Trump”. Aside from the obvious fake news and clickbaits, the most successful article’s title reads
History tells us what may happen next with Brexit & Trump
In the era of social networks and emails, the title is all you read before deciding to commit your time to reading something. And this title answers one of the five Ws. And is still catchy as hell.
I soon found out that what works best is a little mystery: it’s not about what you include, it’s more about what you leave out.
Grabbing the attention of your audience is no easy task. Especially in the email because rest assured, you have dozens of other emails in the inbox of your subscriber you have to compete with for their time.
You can’t be successful without strong copywriting skills with which you can grab and guide their attention. Because you don’t have more than a few seconds…
Will people even read you copy?
Most of them won’t. It’s not you, it’s the internet.
According to several studies, mainly by the Nielsen Norman Group, most of your audience will never read all the words you write down for them.
Most users scan your copy instead of reading it. This article by Jakob Nielsen summarizes it well, and it may have been published in 1997, but the trend did not change since.
This means that you have to craft it in a way that skimmers also get the big picture. Because this is also true for email.
It really matters how you design your email template and how much white space you use in your email layouts. Both play an important role in guiding the eyes of your readers.
If you think someone who already opened your email will spend much time reading it, you are wrong. MarketingSherpa a decade ago found that the average read time after an open is no more than 15-20 seconds. In some cases it may be even less. Adobe has probably one of the most recent datasets and they say average read time is 12.3 seconds. Litmus says that average read time increased to 11.1 seconds in the past 5 years.
There are a few positive tendencies too. Engagement increased in the past years, and skimmers make up a much smaller segment of email readers than those who actually read them (if we can call a reading time of more than 8 seconds reading.
Also, mobile users spend more time on emails, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they read them.
So the question is: how to communicate your message when you have an attention span of 10-11 seconds to work with, not to mention the first impression, for which you have less than a second to work with?
Not only the email content matters but subject line too. So if you haven’t seen our previous articles on email copywriting, the time has come to check them.
Forget what they taught you about writing
If you still think that a good copy is made up of a beginning, a middle and an end part, this is the moment you should forget that forever.
I proofread hundreds of articles, landing pages, emails in a month, and I have to tell writers way too often: I don’t care how it looks.
I only care if it works.
I don’t need the email to fit into any predetermined structure or category or format (as long as it is not in the brief the client gave us). I want them to hand me a copy that will sell, that will genuinely interest them and motivate them to click on the CTA.
Now if I wanted to bore you to death, I would describe the AIDA model for you and be done with this article. But I want to give more than that to you.
Just in case you are not familiar with AIDA (and if that is the case, I advise you to go and watch Alec Baldwin’s great performance in Glengarry Glen Ross), here is what it looks like.
As you can see, for writing a great sales copy, you have to be able to write great headlines, great CTAs, use storytelling and so on – this is the reason we have dealt with these in separate articles.
As we have already covered these in detail, here I will give you some further advice and some tricks on guiding the attention of your reader. Let us start with some simple stuff.
Formatting and placing – from headlines to paragraphs
Using bullet points and numbered lists is a great way to conquer the short attention span, there is a reason why one of the most popular content marketing formats today is the listicle. But don’t overuse them: people rarely read a list that contains more than 3-5 items.
This is an example of an email from VideoFruit – I personally find that the list here is too long. If I skim the email, and most of the time I do that, I will only look at 2-3 of those items.
You, of course, can make longer lists, but include the most important information in the first few items, and make sure to emphasize it by bolding for example.
Bullet point lists are the most useful when you want to tell your customers about features or benefits (see our articles about how to tell them from each other). Numbered lists may be great for explaining how a service will work or what the reader has to do after clicking the CTA at the end.
When making a list of benefits or explaining what should they do, try to word each item like a mini-headline. In the first case, all of those items should be able to serve as a headline of an article. In the latter, they should be more CTA-like.
Write short paragraphs. When I train new copywriters I always tell them to hit Enter after 3-4 rows if they haven’t already. Long paragraphs bear bad readability.
Source: Coding Dude
In the email, this is even truer than it is when you are writing a blog post. This is how my most successful newsletter yet (with 49% open rate and 20% CTR) looked like:
Keep it short and focused so you can maximize readability.
While we are speaking about length: how long should your email be?
According to HubSpot and Boomerang, the ideal length of a sales email is between 50 and 125 words.
If it is shorter, most of the time you won’t be able to tell your prospects everything you would like, you can’t build your story effectively. And if it is longer, it may intimidate them.
If you pay attention to formatting, however, a longer email can also be effective: just keep the skimmers in mind.
If you use e-mail templates for your newsletter and also include images, particular images of people, pay attention to the “eye gaze theory”. Design, images complement your copy: if you write a great headline, you have to direct attention to it to get noticed.
In April I was visiting the Digital Marketing World Forum in Amsterdam, where Paul Poels, Director of Digital Analytics at Philips talked about how they A/B tested a banner where a baby was looking to the right, away from the text (A) and to the right, at the headline (B). See the results for yourself:
Source: Paul Poels
I won’t go on about how you should format the copy regarding font sizes and colors, because that is basic stuff. Keep in mind that you have the opportunity to use a vast array of different formatting solutions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Stick to 2-3 fonts, font sizes, and colors: don’t confuse the readers and use what fits your brand, because regarding brand recognition it is crucial.
I advise you to only use one column unless you are absolutely certain that the diversion, multiple columns create, will not hurt your main message. Provide a straight path for your reader to follow.
Pay attention to the complexity of your copy. Be sure that your audience will easily understand everything you write down: if you write for professionals, technical jargon or academic language may be easy reading, while a broader audience may have some trouble understanding much easier copy.
The numbers show that 3rd grade reading level emails are optimal for most audiences.
There are many ways how you can check the reading level of the copy you wrote. The most easy may be of course to give it to some of your colleagues, friends or family, or even send out test versions to a control group, a very small segment of your list.
If you prefer automated solutions, you can look to the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests. Readable.io is one, WebPageFX, also has a free test where you can provide an URL, and Online-Utility has a site where you can simply paste your text and get the results.
Ask questions, provide answers, feed curiosity
Do you know what makes people read on?
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If we are asked a question, like the one above, we know the answer is there, and we tend to like satisfying our need for answers.
A question like that may be called a bucket brigade. A bucket brigade is one of the most basic copywriting techniques and it works exactly as you imagine it: passing on the reader from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph like people passing on a bucket.
It’s not just question: anything with an open and might serve as one. Backlinko has some great examples, like this one:
Or this one:
Now, these are said to be SEO copywriting techniques, but I simply view them as great storytelling tools. (I don’t even believe “SEO copywriting” is a thing, at least not anymore, but this is for another time.)
It is also a great thing to have your emails not only expected but to be awaited. If you are sending a sequence of emails, include some kind of question at the end and tell your customers you will answer it in the next email. Or, if you don’t want it to be a question, simply give them a peek about the content they can expect next time.
I also recommend you to write the copy of your emails fast. You must be enthusiastic about what you write, you must be invested, interested in the topic yourself, and it is in your best interest to make your readers feel that.
Write like you are writing a personal letter to someone and not emailing a list of thousands. You will have plenty of time to edit the copy later.
And write as if you are addressing one person. Everyone is alone when they open and read your email, so they like it more when they are talked to in a more personal manner.
Write in the second person, use “you” and “your”, let them feel that it is completely about them. And when talking about yourself (keep that to a minimum), use the first person, instead of “we” use “I” to make it more personal.
“But my product/service/company is different…”
I assure you, that it is possible to write engaging email copy, whatever it is that you want to sell.
Follow the advice in this article and the ones before, and come back for the next one, because I will teach you how to write about boring or special topics.
For the time being, take a look at your existing copy, your newsletters and examine them: do you have the arc that upholds the attention of the reader? Are they formatted well, to keep them on the path? Is your storytelling engaging, your text easily readable?
And most importantly: do you have any other tips or tricks how we can maintain the attention of a subscriber while reading a sales email? Share it in the comments!