Inbox Insider

Create emails and e-newsletters your customers will read.
by : 

Michelle Jones

May 27, 2014

Crafting effective marketing messages is one of the most challenging aspects of running a business. A Google search for “writing successful marketing emails” returned more than 700 million results, indicating a lot of people are confused and frustrated about where to begin and how to compete. Whether you’re writing a quick email to announce an upcoming sale or compiling a full-fledged e-newsletter, I’ve uncovered a few tips to help you get the results you want.


Before you begin writing a marketing email, you’ll need to do one very important thing: Ask yourself, “What’s my desired result?” Do you want the recipient to come to a sale, join a class, or sign up for an event? Write down your specific, desired result and keep it top-of-mind while you craft your email. This one act of preparation will keep your email focused and organized. It also will help you later when you edit your email—you’ll be able to quickly spot those sentences that are irrelevant to your desired result.

To whom it may concern

The customers on your mailing list receive tens, if not hundreds, of emails every day. A first step in making your message stand out is to have a sense of your customers’ “buyer personas.” A buyer persona is an identifiable group of people who shop at your store, such as die-hard fans or young mothers or Baby Boomers. You probably serve several buyer personas, and chances are they shop for different things at your store.

If you discover your customers represent more than one buyer persona, consider sending targeted emails to each group separately. Are they loyal, longtime fans or new customers? Are they Milliennials or retirees? Are they busy career women and men? Your target customer(s) will influence the way you craft your message and how you address them, so you need to form at least a basic understanding of who they are.

Your audience will ask some basic questions about you when they receive your email: Who are you? What do you want? What are you selling? Why should I care? Before you craft your email, write down your answers to those questions in as few words as possible and refer back to them as you put your message together. Here’s an example for a store that is promoting a sale:

Q: Who are you?
A: Acme Gift Store.
Q: What do you want?
A: I want you to come to our sale.
Q: What are you selling?
A: Home décor and jewelry.
Q: Why should I care?
A: You’ll receive 20 percent off your purchase.

Having these answers before you craft your email will help you stay on point.

Subject Line? No. Headline? Yes!

Stop thinking “subject line” and start thinking “headline.” As with the headlines in a newspaper, your email headline needs to grab a reader’s attention, get to the point, and be relevant to the content of your email. A headline that’s also cute, funny, or catchy is a bonus, but it’s more important to be clear than cute. And whenever possible, include a call to action in your headline. For example: “Shop Acme Gift Store’s Summer Sale This Weekend.” It’s not cute, but it’s direct and informative.

Spam alert

Avoid using words in your headline that scream spam, such as “free,” “limited time,” and “deal.” Exclamation marks, all caps, and symbols are also out. You can find many exhaustive lists online of other words to avoid, but a quick look at your own email spam/junk folder will give you a good overview. “$700 discount,” “Save up to 85%,” and “One week to go!” are a few headlines languishing in my junk folder right now. Whatever you decide, never leave your headline blank; that is a sure way to have your message flagged as spam.

If you’re sending out an email to a list you purchased or rented, it’s especially important to avoid “spammy” language. Hopefully, your audience has opted in to your emails. If so, you can be a bit more lenient on spam words. And, if your headline includes your store name, readers will be much more likely to trust it’s not spam and open it. Above all, always be sure your headline relates to your message. It’s frustrating to open an email with a great headline and realize you’ve been duped.

It’s not what you say—it’s how you say it

Emails generally require a less formal tone than a written letter. Write your emails in conversational English, meaning write them more the way you talk. Remember, though, you are writing your email for your business. Avoid Internet slang (OMG! LOL!), which can make you seem lazy or amateurish.

When crafting your email, remember the questions recipients will ask: Who are you? What do you want? What are you selling? Why should I care? And, don’t forget your all-important desired result. You don’t want your customers to try to guess why you’re writing to them, so address the purpose of your email immediately, at the start of the very first paragraph. Include a call to action specifying what you want them to do. Then, talk about the benefits to them rather than simply listing the features of your store and your campaign. Finally, create a sense of urgency by setting a deadline for response or action.

Just the facts

When writing emails, we often feel a need to include a lot of information and list every detail, but truthfully, your recipients either don’t have the time to read your long emails or they just don’t care to. Stick to the facts and leave out the long narrative. Keep your paragraphs short and use bullets to emphasize important points, both of which help recipients quickly grasp the purpose of your message and take action.

Avoid attaching files to your emails whenever possible. You want to make it as easy as possible for your audience to respond to your message, and if they must open a potentially unsafe attachment to get your information, your response rate could be negatively affected. If your attachment is a PDF of your monthly newsletter, reformat it as an e-newsletter instead.

Images within your emails are okay as long as they don’t constitute the whole message. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened an email to see nothing but an alert asking me to download the images in the message. Unless I absolutely trust who is emailing me, I delete those messages right away—I’m not going to download an image from a person or company I don’t know. Also, spam filters could block your image-only messages before your recipients even see them, because spam filters can’t read images, and they often assume such messages are spam.

Trim and proof

Once you’ve written the main body of your email, read it and ask yourself, “Would I act on this email?” Better yet, ask a trusted friend for honest feedback. If the answer is no, you need to do some rewriting. Look for anything that doesn’t relate to your desired result and either rewrite or remove it.

Make sure your email is about one point and one point only. If you try to cover too many topics in a single email, you will lose your readers. Look for anything that sounds disorganized, unclear, or complex and rewrite for easier reading. Use a spell checker and triple check all dates, times, addresses, and phone numbers. Nothing is more discouraging than sending out an email only to realize later it went out with a major typo front and center.

If you need to ask questions in your email, keep it to one or two on-point questions that require a very short response. Avoid open-ended questions that readers will need to carefully consider before they can respond.

Once you have edited for length and clarity, go back through your message and count how many “I” and “we” statements it contains versus the number of “you” and “your” statements. It’s important to keep your message focused on your recipients and the benefits you’re offering them, rather than wax eloquent about you and your store. Remember, everybody will want to know what’s in it for them.

Finally, at the bottom of your email include your name and your store’s name, address, phone number, and website. Make it as easy as possible for someone to reach you. Also, you need to provide a means for recipients to unsubscribe from your emails. Last, keep in mind you are legally responsible for anything within your emails, so triple-check the details!


E-newsletters are an effective way to convey many small bits of information in a quick and easy read without the hassle and cost of printing, collating, and snail-mail postage. Effective e-newsletters share many similarities with marketing emails, but with several key differences.

Breaking news

E-newsletters are essentially mini-newspapers. Unlike an email, where your focus is on only one point, e-newsletters typically contain a variety of content that appeals to a wide audience. The e-newsletter format also requires a more formal writing style than emails. Consistency is key, so decide how much content you can produce or gather from others on a regular basis. Is it enough to warrant sending out e-newsletters every week, every month, or every quarter? Whichever timeframe you decide is best, you need to stick to your schedule, so make sure your choice is sustainable.

As with emails, it’s important to know and understand your target audience well, so you can connect with them on a personal level. However, because an e-newsletter is longer and more involved than a marketing email, it’s even more critical to understand the topics your audience is interested in if you are to maintain their attention. A good place to start is by thinking about what news items interest you and why. Just make sure your news items are relevant to the products you sell. This is not the venue to express personal rants.

Break it up

As with emails, make sure your e-newsletter is short and concise, using brief paragraphs and bulleted lists. The key is in the acronym KISS, which I think of as “keep it simple, silly.”

Your e-newsletter will be broken up into small blocks of content, so in addition to a good headline in the subject line of your e-newsletter email, you’ll also need to craft good headlines for each piece of content within the e-newsletter. The primary piece of your content should contain the most important or interesting text in the e-newsletter, followed by other lead stories, short news items, and a message from the owner or manager of the store. Break up blocks of content with short quotes, reviews, or tips.

If you want to outsource the writing, offer the feature writers a byline and author’s note to help them gain recognition, but make sure you read and approve whatever is written before you send it out. If you write the content yourself and gather any information from the Internet, a magazine, or a book, make sure to cite your sources, including the relevant copyright information. Give credit where it’s due, and never plagiarize.

The images in your e-newsletters need to relate to the content. An image completely unrelated to your information just causes confusion. Also, keep in mind content is more important than images. However, if you do choose to include images, only use those you have either purchased the rights to use or you personally own.

Finally, as with emails, proofread your content, run a spell checker, and triple check all dates and numbers before you send out your newsletter.


An email or e-newsletter sent directly from your email account to a large group has a greater chance of being marked as spam. I recommend using a qualified third-party provider. The following email marketing services are set up to optimize your email and e-newsletter efforts:

Many of these providers have very reasonable monthly charges based either on how many emails you plan to send per month or how many people you have on your email list. They offer the added benefit of keeping you in compliance with CAN-SPAM by looking for spam vocabulary in the body of your email. They also provide easy-to-use email and e-newsletter templates, technical support when you need it, and downloadable reports that tell you how many recipients opened your email and how many clicked on the links.


The CAN-SPAM Act helps protect us from spammers and provides guidelines to keep you from being labeled a spammer, a sure way to get blacklisted by your Internet provider. Here is a rundown of some basic rules to follow to make sure your email is in compliance:

Your subject line must accurately reflect the content of your email.
You must tell recipients where you’re located.
You must provide a clear and easy-to-find way for people to opt out of receiving your emails.
You must honor opt-out requests promptly.

You can find more details about the provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act here:

More quick tips for emails:

  • Fonts matter. Choose one that is easy to read, rather than something that looks fancy or cool.
  • All caps and no caps. It’s generally understood in email etiquette that all caps means you are shouting, while no caps makes you look lazy, even if that isn’t your intention.
  • Use punctuation prudently. Don’t dilute your message by overuse of unnecessary punctuation.
  • Avoid emoticons. Emoticons—aka “smileys”—are a distraction to your message.
  • Underlining no-no. Don’t underline anything in your email unless it’s a link you want the readers to click.
  • Use bold and italics sparingly. These are major distractions to reading your message when overused. Instead use bullets, headlines, or hyperlinks to emphasis your important points.

Michelle Jones is the Webmaster for Retailing Insight.