20 tips that are guaranteed to take your mailings (and other writing) to a whole new level

I’d love to say that I know how to write the perfect mailing. It would be like having the goose that lays the golden eggs hidden away in your closet and the Holy Grail in your attic.

The truth is, that there never will be a perfect way to write a mailing, as things are fluid. What constitutes a great marketing message today will change over time. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some golden rules that have stood the test of time for decades, and it is these I want to share with you.

I’ve learned these rules in five different ways.

  1. Studying anything I could get my hands on

  2. Learning from direct marketing experts

  3. Advice from copywriting experts I know or have used

  4. Establishing what works and doesn't through a great many split tests

  5. Through making lots (and lots) of mistakes

In the early 1990s I spent a short time working for a wonderful woman called Judith Donovan. At the time she was one of the most in-demand names in the world of direct marketing and won numerous awards and honors including Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), which is an incredible mark of distinction.

Few people warrant the title of genius, but I’m not alone in thinking Judith was one of those people. What Judith taught me, was that you should never stop learning, and I’ve followed that advice for the last two decades.

One of the first lessons I learned in direct marketing was to continually test, which means you didn’t just send out one mailing and hope for the best, you’d split-test it to the n'th degree.

After testing a mailing you’d analyze the results and figure out what worked and what didn’t. This not only helped when rolling out that particular marketing campaign, but it also meant your future mailings would keep getting better and better ... life long learning in practice.

This continuous learning meant that you picked up quite a few must-know tips along the way and I’d like to share some of the most important ones with you. Once I got to thinking about it I ended up with quite a long list, so rather than overwhelm you I have narrowed it down to what I would consider to be the most important twenty.

My suggestion would be to go through this list every time you are about to send out a mailing, or even write a social media post. You’ll be amazed as to how much it will improve your writing, and I speak from experience as I go through this list myself on a very regular basis.

Let’s dive in shall we.

Tip #1 - Write in plain English

The education system seems to reward people for writing complex sentences using big words. Alas, in the real world you can throw all of that out of the window.

Few people want to receive a mail that reads like Dickensian novella so try to keep your words as short and simple as possible for maximum readability.

Tip #2 - Keep your sentences short

Most people don’t read a mailing in the same way as they read a novel - they skim.

Keeping your sentences to an average of 12 words or less, and no more than 20, will ensure your mailings are easy to read by the vast majority of the population.

Tip #3 - Keep paragraphs short

Once again you need to throw what you learned at school out of the window and break some rules. It is very rare in a mailing when a paragraph should be anything more than three, or at the very most four lines long.

This might mean you need to split some perfectly good paragraphs into two, but trust me, it will make your mailings a lot more readable - and the more people who read it, the better response you’ll get!

Tip #4 - Write to John, Sarah, Mo or Juan

Always write a mail with a real person in mind. It might be a friend, a relative, or a customer who you know. Writing specifically with that person in mind will weave a magic spell that truly brings your mailings to life.

Your mails might be received by thousands of people, but by writing with one person in mind means they are far more genuine and personal and that is important.

Don’t start your first draft with:

Dear {FirstName}

Instead use

‘Dear John’, ‘Hi Juan’ or whatever the name of your special person is.

Tip #5 - Spell Checking is FREE … use it!

We all make mistakes - that’s why some clever person invented spell checkers.

Make it a golden rule that you will never, ever, ever send a mail that hasn’t been thoroughly checked.

Always check your work!

Tip #6 - Get someone to check your mails for you

It is a rare occasion when I send a mail out that hasn’t been proof read by at least one other person.

The reason I do this isn’t because English is my second language. Contrary to what some people might think, we do actually speak English in the North of England ☺

I ask someone to proof read my emails because I know that I do make mistakes, and no matter how many times I check something, I’m often blind to my own little typos.

Tip #7 - Try long, medium and short

Different audiences prefer different sized mailings and sometimes it is nice just to mix things up to add a little spice.

Sometimes a lengthy email is perfect for the job, but other times people will be nodding off after the first few paragraphs, unless you have something earth shattering to say.

There is no golden rule when it comes to length, so my suggestion is to just try out different lengths and see what works best for your lists.

Tip #8 - The first paragraph is crucial

Hit them with your best shot in that first paragraph otherwise you’ll have lost half your readership before they even get to the meat of your mailing.

So many people waffle on with pleasantries in that crucial first paragraph. Don’t! Hit the ground running … always.

A trick I find works well is to write your initial draft and then take a serious look at your first one or two paragraphs and ask yourself if deleting those paragraphs would detract from the mailing. You will almost always find you can lose them and it won’t make a blind bit of difference.

Tip #9 - Use offensive words and phrases with care

Some people think it is okay to use foul language in mailings. Maybe your audience expects that kind of thing, but you’d be surprised how many people - even in this modern day and age - are offended by the f-word and the like.

If you do feel such bad language will improve the impact of your mailing then go-for-it, but do realize that a lot of people, myself included, could delete the mail in a heartbeat and often unsubscribe from your list at the same time.

Tip #10 - Don’t assume people will read your whole mailing

It is sad, but true, that most people don’t read the whole of your carefully crafted mailing.

Even the best copywriters in the world realize that many people won’t read every well-chosen word they write.

So, it’s crucial that you repeat the key points, just in case someone missed them the first time.

This can often be done by recapping on the key points at the end of the mail, or using a PS to restate the most important thing you want to get across.

Tip #11 - Stick to the point

A mailing isn’t your chance to get on your soap box and waffle on for thousands of words about anything and everything. Try to stay laser-focused on the points you want to communicate and stop when you have got those points across.

Tip #12 - Plan your mailings

Always plan what you want to say before you start writing and then make sure to stick to the plan.
 Your plan doesn’t need to be a 10 page copywriting brief. Just a few bullet points will usually suffice and ensure your writing stays on track.

Tip #13 - Have a clear objective

Before you write a single word always be 100% clear as to what your objective is for your mailing.

  • Are you trying to sell something to the reader?
  • Are you sharing some important news with them?
  • Are you trying to benefit them in some way?

A mailing can have more than a single objective, but usually, when you think it through, you will find that there is one over-riding objective.

Ask yourself what the ideal outcome is and write your mail with that ideal outcome in mind.

Tip #14 - Be yourself

The best mailings ooze with the writers personality.

From the Dear John to the Best regards your personality should ooze out from every word you choose. This might sounder hard, but it is easy if you just write as though you were speaking to a good friend.
 You can always go back and tidy things up later, but especially for that first draft just let your wonderful personality shine through.

Tip #15 - Sleep on it

Try not to write and send a mailing the same day. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but if you can try to write it one day and then do your final edits the next day.

After a good nights sleep it is amazing how that perfect mailing turns out not to be quite as perfect as it was the previous day.

Follow this tip and you’ll surprise yourself how you always manage to make even a brilliant mailing even better still when you’ve had a night to sleep on it.

Tip #16 - The Subject of the Mail is Your Headline

The first thing you learn at journalism school is that the headline is the most important part of any piece of writing. Without a great headline nobody will even get to the first paragraph let alone the last one.

When you are writing marketing emails you need to treat the subject line with the same reverence as a journalist would treat their headline.
 Many beginners will settle for the first headline they think off. This is a big mistake.
 There are two tricks you can use when it comes to writing brilliant email subjects. 
 First, is to write the subject field after you’ve written the mail and not the other way round (which is how most beginners do it). 
 Secondly, don’t think of one subject, aim to come up with at least a dozen and write all of them down. Trust me, you’ll be amazed at the results. The best one is often the last one you think of, for the simple reason that you usually have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find that prince.

Tip #17 - Use HTML, but sparingly

Most email software can read HTML formatted email just perfectly, but what’s displayed on screen can vary hugely depending on which device the mail is being read on. So many people send emails that look amazing if received on a desktop computer, but look terrible on a smart phone or tablet simply because of the smaller real estate.

Luckily, there are many ways of getting round these HTML formatting issues these days, so you really have no excuse to sent emails that don’t look perfect on all devices.
 However, I still think that emails look and work better if they are kept simple and clean. There’s nothing wrong with a well chosen graphic or two, but anything more can easily tip it over the edge. Ideally, your email should succeed because of the words you use and not the pretty pictures you stuff into it, unless of course you are selling something like fashion or jewelry where a photo really can be worth a thousand words.

Tip #18 - Split Test

If your mailing system can handle it then you should definitely run split tests on every mailing you send out. You can split test anything from how you address your reader (Hi Jim, Dear Mr Smith, Hiya, etc) through to things like the length of the mail and the writing style (easy-sell versus hard-sell, etc).

Make sure to keep a close eye on the results so that each time you send a mailing you can learn something new. Try to work out what you need to do to maximize open rates (i.e. the recipient actually opens the mail), click through rates (i.e. the recipient clicks on a link in the email) and conversion rates (e.g. the recipient ends up placing an order).

Over a period of time you will slowly gain an in-depth knowledge of the people on your list and this will result in constant incremental improvements in the mailings you send out.

Tip #19 - Mail Part of Your List

If your mailing system can handle it mail just part of your list before doing a full roll-out. This partial mailing will allow you to test the mailing out on a small segment of your list before it is send to everyone on your list.
 A few years ago Jake, a rapidly rising star in the Internet marketing fraternity, sent a mailing out promoting an ebook he’d written. The price was supposed to be $10, but in the mailing it clearly listed the prices as being $0.10.
 The problem this caused wasn’t so much the loss of revenues resulting from the incorrect price, but was the support backlash that kept Jake up all night. No sooner had he hit the send button than he was inundated with messages from people who had clicked on the ‘Buy Now’ link only to find that the order form listed the price as $10 and not ten cents.
 Had Jake send a test mail to a small segment of his list the problem would not have been too bad at all, but when you send a mailing to 70,000 people at one go you can rest assured that if there is anything wrong you will be bombarded with replies, many of which might not be as polite as the messages Jake received.
 I’m pleased to say Jake managed to turn things round beautifully. He honored the ten cents price and in so doing won the loyalty and respect of all his customers, but I’m sure that going forward he will be testing every mailing on a small segment of his list before he rolls it out.

Tip #20 - Never stop learning

In the introduction to this article I mentioned how my old mentor, Judith Donovan, had drilled home the life-long-learning message. This is most definitely true when it comes to writing mailings that really work. The more mailings you write the more you will learn, as long as you keep a close eye out for what works and what doesn't.

As well as learning from your own successes and failures keep an eye out for what other people are doing. Learning from your own mistakes is wonderful, but learning from other people's mistakes is always more enjoyable.

In Conclusion

I do hope you have learned something from the above tips. I am sure some of them will be familiar to you, but hopefully there were a few that with either new to you or reminded you of what is important when it comes to writing great mailings.

If you make sure to mentally go through the above tips each time you write a mail I am absolutely certain that you will see constant improvements in the success of your mailings.

Some times you'll see huge improvements for the most minor change, which is terrific, but the most important thing is to keep seeing regular incremental improvements that take all your mailings to a new level. That's life-long learning in practice.

Do let me know your thoughts by submitting a comment below, and if you'd like me to put together a single-sheeted checklist that you can print out and use each time you write a mailing, let me know and I shall get going on that.

What do you think?

  • What advice would you give when it comes to writing great mailings?
  • What has worked for you?
  • What lessons have you learned?
  • Do any of the above tips strike a chord with you?
20 Tips for Writing Mailings
Judith Donovan
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