Email Copywriting 101: Five Steps to Better Converting Emails

Email Copywriting 101: Five Steps to Better Converting Emails

Email marketing is dead.” That’s what a digital marketer told me while trying to sell me his messenger bot software.

But email isn’t going anywhere. Customers who buy through email spend 138% more than those who don’t sign up for email offers. And email marketing has an ROI of 28.5% compared to 7% for direct mail.

If you’re unpersuaded by statistics, also recall that:

  • If you own your email list, you pay nothing to reach subscribers.
  • You can send tailored messages based on segments.
  • Traffic isn’t subject to the whims of Facebook or Google.

While several factors go into successful email campaigns, great email copywriting is vital. Here are five steps to start writing more emails that convert.

Step 1: Define your goals for email

You won’t have the same goal for every email. You may send out a newsletter to build rapport and educate subscribers. Or you may send out sales emails to increase revenue. Still, other times, you’ll send transactional emails after someone makes a purchase.

For each email, you’ll get the best results by understanding

  • Who’s receiving your emails;
  • What they want to get from you.

Before strategizing or revising your email copy, ask four questions.

4 questions to define your email goals

1. Where are you right now?

If you’re starting a new campaign or selling a new product, you can create a baseline based on your current metrics.

To get an idea of where you are starting out, note metrics like:

  • Open rates
  • Click rates
  • Unsubscribe rates
  • Conversion rates
  • Spam rate

There are tons of things you can measure in email, and not everyone agrees about what’s most important. If you want to understand all the options (pros and cons) look at this article.

As with conversion rates, a “good” open or click-through rate is one that’s better than what you’re getting right now.

2. What action do you want the reader to take?

Once you understand what the purpose of the email is, you can tailor your content to help them take the desired action.

  • Want them to read an educational article? Let them know why the article will help them.
  • Want them to try your app? Show readers how easy it is to log in and what they can do inside the platform.
  • Want them to buy your product? Show users why the product is perfect for them.

3. Who are the recipients of the email?

Trial users of your SaaS product should receive different content than your paid subscribers. Likewise, customers who’ve never bought from you might need different content than repeat customers. If you haven’t worked on email segmentation, start now.

Once you segment your emails, your copy (not to mention your images, email cadence, and everything else) can speak directly small groups of potential buyers rather than everyone in your potential customer base.

4. How will you convince readers to say “yes”?

What do customers need before they’ll hit to hit the buy button? We aren’t selling a product, we’re selling customers the best version of themselves.

Nobody wants to buy a lawnmower—they want a pretty green space in front of their home to impress the neighbors, or a place for their kids to kick around a soccer ball. What does your reader want? What will they feel if they say yes to your offer? What if they say no?

In other words, what are you promising your readers? Once you know, you can craft email copy that helps them achieve that deeper, emotional desire.

After you’ve established your goals, you can dive into audience research.

Step 2: Understand what matters to your audience—and how they talk about it

The goal of Step 1 is to determine:

  • Which features and benefits you will share;
  • When and how often to send out your emails.

Those aspects are important. To you.

What’s important to your prospect? And how can you use what’s important to them to help you attain your goals? David Ogilvy knew this decades before email existed, and the reality—for any marketing medium—hasn’t changed:

You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious, but there is no way around it.”

Basic “customer personas” aren’t enough.

Move beyond one-dimensional customer personas

Customer personas have been used by marketers for ages. Businesses research the average age, gender, income, and organization of potential buyers. They might even name them. Basic customer personas are a good tool, but a limited one.

What really matters is what led prospects to your product. What emotions were they feeling when they searched for a solution?

Writing emails is much easier when, like Lush, you understand your potential customers’ wants, needs, and frustrations—insights you won’t uncover in user tests, heatmaps, or basic demographic personas.

Lush knows their ideal customers care about the environment. Things like cruelty-free testing and sustainable practices matter to them. But so do looking and feeling good.

So it’s no surprise I received this email:

lush email marketing

Lush customers care about saving orangutans, and they might pick up a limited-edition soap because it makes them feel really good. (And they’ll probably pick up a face scrub and some bath bombs while they’re at it.)

To move beyond one-dimensional user personas, ask customers what they really care about—in interviews, surveys, or review/forum mining. What you learn becomes voice-of-customer research, and it’s essential to great email copywriting.

Mine voice-of-customer (VoC) data for email campaigns

In the mid-1990s, Proctor and Gamble (P&G) introduced a new product, one that could decimate pungent smells like cigarette smoke. But Febreze bombed.

The problem? People in foul-smelling houses were desensitized to the stench. So P&G went back to the drawing board, this time conducting VoC research with Febreze users.

As they found out, the ideal Febreze consumers weren’t the ones who needed it most. Rather, loyal users were those who used its scent as a mini-celebration after they finished cleaning. Copy, in turn, reinforced the promise of that scent reward:

febreze ad

The lesson? Knowing what matters to your prospects matters to your company. VoC research helps you:

  • Write better copy more easily;
  • Align product features with customer desires;
  • Draft your hook and headlines.

Here are three key sources of VoC data.

1. Customer interviews.

“Talking to our customers is the only way to talk like our customers talk,” argues Alex Turnbull of Groove HQ. Groove HQ uses customer interviews to discover what SaaS customers like and don’t like.

Turnbull conducted 500 user interviews to discover the exact phrases his customers used to describe Groove HQ. The result: Copy was easier to write and conversions doubled.

To conduct similar research, ask your customers and prospects insightful questions:

  • Think back to when you first heard of [product]. What was going on in your life at the time that led you to buy it?
  • What stood out about [product] in particular that made you interested in buying it?
  • Did anything make you pause and think twice before buying?
  • When you first purchased [product], did anything surprise you about your experience?
  • What one thing do you love about [product]?
  • What benefits have you experienced since buying [product]?

2. Customer surveys

“I will not take any project on without being able to do a customer survey or a visitor survey on my clients’ websites,” notes Talia Wolf. “My goal, when I run surveys, is to go deeper. It’s to identify the reasons behind your customers’ or your clients’ decision-making process.”

If you have to get a ton of information quickly—and you have an existing base of customers or site visitors—surveys are the easiest way to do it. Exit polls (for very short surveys) or email surveys (for longer ones) invite prospects to tell you what matters to them.

3. Forum and review mining

“Let me tell you,” says Joanna Wiebe, “there is more gold hidden in legit customer reviews than in any millionaire marketer’s head.”

If you have a smaller budget, less time, or you’re selling a product that’s difficult to talk about (e.g. drug rehabilitation), forum and review mining will help you get in the head of prospective customers. Social media also offers a cache of market research data.

Once research is complete, you can start shaping it into persuasive email copy.

Step 3: Mold your research into an email copywriting strategy

Emotion sells. To understand the emotions your prospect felt when they found your product and what they want to feel, you need to organize your VoC data.

Transcribe interviews and download survey results into a spreadsheet. Make a spreadsheet of sticky copy that you might use, as well as memorable phrases and emotions that repeat.

Your spreadsheet might look like this:

  1. Memorable phrases;
  2. What people want;
  3. What people are frustrated or stressed or angry about;
  4. Specific words that come up over and over again.
spreadsheet with voice of customer research

Making a spreadsheet is time consuming, but seeing the emotions and desires of your prospects in one place gives you a big picture overview of what your messaging needs to convey.

For email, you’ll need to deliver different messages for different types of emails.

Email copywriting strategies for 3 types of email

Your email copywriting strategy comes down to this: How can you persuade a prospect to move to the next stage of the buyer’s journey without losing them?

When Sleeknote was trying to increase conversions for their onboarding sequence, they realized their strategy was flawed. As Sleeknote’s Rikke Thomsen confessed:

The problem wasn’t our emails on their own, but rather who we were sending them to and why. Our emails were engaging a small segment of our audience, but not our entire list of subscribers.

Sleeknote improved their strategy by focusing on several components of the email copy:

  1. Using language that met the buyer where they were in the buyer’s journey;
  2. Personalizing content;
  3. Crafting benefit-rich content that prospects wanted to read;
  4. Sending content that was specific to reader segments.

There are tons of emails you can send your prospects and customers, but three critical emails relate to onboarding, sales, and transactions.

1. Onboarding emails

Canva’s onboarding emails are designed to show trial users how their product is changing  the graphic design business. Their first email focus on saving users time:

canva email marketing message

Canva understands users don’t want to waste time creating different graphics for each social media channel. They showcase how Canva will save time (and money) before sending sales emails to invite trial users to transition to paying customers.

Or take this email from Focusmate, a virtual co-working software company that matches users with others in 50-minute increments for productivity sprints.

focusmate onboarding email

This onboarding email is effective because it shows readers:

  • What Focusmate is;
  • How it works;
  • How it’s life-changing for other users (social proof);
  • And how to schedule the first session.

2. Sales emails

When Wiebe rewrote the Wistia email funnel, she knew the existing copy was nurturing when it should have been selling: “Wistia’s email copy wasn’t acting like an online salesperson. It wasn’t closing.”

For emails at the middle or end of a sequence, Wiebe writes email copy like a sales letter, not a “standard” email. That shift tries to close prospects by showing them exactly how much better their lives will be.

wistia sales email

3. Transactional emails

The emails with the highest open rates are transactional. According to Experian, transactional emails have an open rate up to 8 times higher than “bulk mailings.”

Thus, transactional emails are a prime opportunity to generate interest and engagement in your products and content.

Shopify’s Shanelle Mullin, a CXL alumna, notes that “transactional emails are more likely to be opened and they’re often opened repeatedly. Obviously, that makes them a great place to cross-promote, upsell, encourage sharing/reviews/referrals, etc.”

This monthly transactional email from Convertkit

  • Says thanks;
  • Show me how much they charged my credit card;
  • Shares a few resources to boost customer success (and retention).
convertkit transactional email

The next step—and the final one prior to the launch of an email campaign—is to turn your strategy into copy.  

Step 4: Write compelling copy

The easiest way to write emails is to list a few product features, suggest their presumed benefits, and add a “buy now” call to action. But easy isn’t effective.

Armed with research about what’s going on in your prospect’s world, you can show them why life is better with your product. “If you want to write copy that really connects with people, so much so that they actually keep reading,” writes Belinda Weaver, “you need to make them the star of the story.”

Or, as Joanna Wiebe says, “You’re not writing copy; you’re feeding your prospect’s words right back to her. We want her to see herself on the page. We’re selling her a better version of herself. So we use her words, not ours.”

In email, that kind of compelling copy has three locations: subject line, body content, and call to action.

Subject lines

Some 35% of subscribers open an email based on the subject line. You can follow email subject line best practices like:

  • Testing and analyzing your subject lines;
  • Being descriptive rather than clever;
  • Keeping your message succinct.

But if you really want to stand out in a sea of emails, you’ll need to “dig deep into your audience’s hopes and dreams,” suggests Sumo’s Nico Moren, “and show them how everything they lust after is just on the other side…of your strategically optimized checkout page.”

Segmentation is a potential path to make that deeper connection, but it requires data you might not get unless you ask for it. One of the easiest ways to acquire it is to invite your subscribers to self-segment in your first email, like Sleeknote does:

sleeknote segmentation email

Then, you can tailor your subject lines to focus on helping each segment.

Well-tailored subject lines blend empathy, relevance, and, as appropriate, humor. Take the one below about CXL Live, which earned not just an open but a Tweet:

For your emails, ask yourself if you think the subject line will resonate with readers. If your answer is a shrug and “I don’t know,” go back to the drawing board.

After you’ve started sending emails, remember that It’s easy to run A/B tests on your subject lines—most email service providers offer it—to validate your intuition. You’ll see how well your research aligns with what email subscribers actually do.

Body content

You have around 4 seconds to convince people to keep reading your email. Grab their attention by detailing a problem that matters to them—and how you’ll solve it.

Lume got my attention with this email:

lume email marketing message

The ecommerce company showed they understood what mattered to subscribers (body odor) by sharing a relatable story in non-corporate language (e.g. “BO”).

Wiebe sent this email to her copywriter subscribers:

jo wiebe email marketing message

It’s effective because it describes her target audience (perhaps with painful accuracy), then challenges them to achieve something greater.

Close.io takes a more direct approach. Their unapologetic sales email that follows a sequence of educational emails. It starts with a recap of what subscribers have learned so far:

close.io sales email

The email continues with background on why they developed their software and adds some social proof prior to the pitch:

close.io sales email

Call to action

The call to action (CTA) is where you find out if your subject line and body copy were persuasive. Still, your CTA shouldn’t be an afterthought. Instead, use your CTA copy to remind readers that you understand what’s important to them, what they’re struggling with, and that clicking the button gets them closer to the solution.

When Casper sent sales emails, they knew that one concern for their target customer was keeping bed sheets clean. So instead of a “Shop now” CTA, as many might do, their button copy was “Stay clean.”

casper bed email cta

The Casper CTA worked because they understood what was important to their customers.

Grammar Girl added an incentive to their CTA in this email:

grammar girl cta in email

The Motley Fool uses their CTA to promote their YouTube channel, which houses much of their top-of-funnel content:

motley fool email cta

And in this Sleeknote email, the CTA sends users to an ROI calculator—a potential need for B2B buyers looking to make the case to a superior:

sleeknote cta in email message

Even with thorough research and an infinite examples of email copywriting done right, you’ll still want to test your changes.

Step 5: If you have the subscribers—and the know-how—test

Even after doing a ton of VoC research and writing (and maybe re-writing) your copy, you still may not get the results you’re looking for. Or, maybe you’ll get great results but want to keep iterating on your copy choices.

Common email tests include:

  • Split test of subject lines;
  • Test plain-text emails vs. emails with rich media;
  • Test different CTAs;
  • Test the number of CTAs;
  • Test different days and times to send your emails.

Testing can be especially valuable if:

  • You’ve used the same onboarding sequence for a while (and metrics start to drop off);
  • You’re launching a new product;
  • You’re shifting focus to a different customer persona.  

That said, you need enough subscribers and a rock-solid process to do statistically valid email testing. All the considerations—and potential pitfalls—of running other A/B tests apply to email.

A/B testing email also has unique challenges:

  • Email has a limited shelf life. If you need a larger sample size, you can’t plan for an email test to “run an extra week” in the same way you can with a landing page test.
  • Controlling for timing is difficult. If you’re testing an email with a weekly (or daily) promotion, you have a short window to send it, and the email may perform differently if it arrives in an inbox on a Monday morning (test email) versus Monday afternoon (winning email).

The potential difficulties don’t stop there. As Chad Sanderson explains, “Very few of the metrics accessible for email testing tell you the full story of how your test is actually performing.”

For example, a “winning” email based on open rate may be a loser when it comes to on-site purchases.

Conclusion

If you understand what’s important to your prospects, you can craft a strategic and effective email marketing campaign. Create email copywriting hooks readers by describing a problem in their terms, then promises a way for your product—or educational resource—to help solve that problem.

Here are the 5 steps:

  1. Define your goals so you can measure progress.
  2. Learn about your customers and the language they use.
  3. Use that research to create an email marketing strategy for each type of email you send.
  4. Turn that strategy into compelling copy that uses consumer language.
  5. Test your email campaigns to continually improve your results.

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Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Wow. Email marketing is a HUGE topic and this article distills some of the best info in a concise way to demystify the whole thing. I might use this as an email copy checklist to show my clients.

    Very impressed!

  2. Simply Wow! You can easily convert this blog post into “Email Copywriting Course” & sell it for thousands of dollars… Thanks for such a goldmine of information!

  3. Excellent post! Everyone who sends emails to their clients needs to read this. It’s such a clear, concise explanation of what goes into great email marketing.

    And I love the Febreze example – proof that even the biggest companies don’t know why their customers are buying unless they do the research.

  4. I do agree with Liz. Great post. Great insights for writing converting emails in some easy steps. I loved the way; you have broke down about the importance of crafting an email campaign in a good idea.

  5. This is a must-read for anyone who uses email to market. And for everyone else? Read THIS and get started — correctly!

  6. The Wiebe example had me cackling. So good!

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Email Copywriting 101: Five Steps to Better Converting Emails