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A few years ago, I had a small Internet sportfishing business that did quite well with direct e-mail marketing. Every week, I sent e-mails to customers aggressively selling one of my new products. And every week those e-mails converted into one or two more sales. After some time, I was certain that I had a profitable marketing model that would promote increased growth for some time to come.

But then I noticed something. While my sales increased, my return visits from existing customers decreased. Then it hit me: with every new sale I gained through aggressive direct e-mail tactics, I was turning far more existing customers off. For some reason, my message was repelling far more people than it was attracting.

And there's the rub. When it comes to composing an e-mail solicitation, it's equally important to think about what your tactics mean for those customers who do respond to your emails as it is for those who don't. And in doing that, it helps to think about where the fundamentals of writing and marketing converge.


Most customers decide to open up an e-mail based on the subject heading. So don't waste that precious space with hype; just give them the benefits you're selling. "Prevent Writer's Cramp with Our New Pen," is much more effective than "Our New Pen Is So Easy To Hold You'll Never Type Again!" Keeping it plain, short and simple communicates your message and spares your customer any superfluity.

The same goes for the first line of your letter. Don't start off with some sappy story about how your company understands your customer's busy life, or how today's fast-paced world begs for a new, revolutionary product. Just tell them what benefits you're selling. "Dear customer," the letter should read, "Our new fountain pen prevents writer's cramp and improves your penmanship." That's about as far as 99 percent of your readers get in a letter. Those who are likely to buy will be hooked at that point. Those who won't buy can move on without resentment.


This is a tactic borrowed from journalism. More often than not, people abandon a letter (or an article) midway through reading it. So as an e-mail marketer, you've got to get your message across in the first paragraph. Save the details for later on down the letter. This way, if the customer stops reading halfway through, you know you've gotten your main message across.

For instance, the first two paragraphs of your letter might read like this:

Dear Customer,'s new fountain pen prevents writer's cramp and improves your penmanship, guaranteed. Your hand-written letters will look professional, elegant and classy - without the pain. And if you visit today, we'll give you coupon for five free refill cartridges plus a free penholder.

How do we make such a revolutionary fountain pen? Our team of engineers borrowed technology from NASA to craft an instrument that actually contours to your hand. We call it Edu-Shaftä . Over time, you'll see your handwriting become more elegant. Your writer's cramp will disappear. And writing will become fun again.

As you can see, the second paragraph gives only a marginal amount of new information. This way, you're guaranteed to convey your most important sales points right away, when the reader begins the letter.


Bullet points are a great tool for getting your message across. They are easy on the eyes, they force you to keep your message short, and they give the reader digestible pieces of information. They work to great effect for listing your product's benefits.

In fact, let's continue our letter selling the pen, this time adding bullets.

But our new fountain pen's benefits don't stop there.

    • Reduces hand cramps: special ink makes for smoother writing
    • No mess: Titanium cartridges are guaranteed not to leak
    • Great gift: Five colors and a gold-plated point lend you elegance


Wow! Isn't it AMAZING how some e-mail solicitations can be so INCREDIBLY bombastic, overblown, flowery and redundant? The letter's effort to get us HYPED UP! swallows the e-mail's message. Just tell us what you're selling, for crying out loud, and stop pretending that you can get someone physically revved up by using all caps, some underlining and maybe the occasional italics.

Another common mistake in direct e-mail campaigns is the writer's tendency to show us just how expansive a vocabulary he or she has. Write like you speak. Your audience will appreciate it, and your message will sink in a lot better.

Oh, and by the way . . . Keep you e-mails as short as possible. One page is plenty. Customers are too busy to read much more than that.


Nothing alienates readers more than deception. If you're selling a pen, don't fill your e-mail's subject heading with promises of "SEX! EXCITEMENT! ADVENTURE!"

Unless, of course, it's one hell of a pen.

Continue reading "Taking the Junk out of Junk Mail" ... Read the full article

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image of Dan Lazar

Dan Lazar is founder of Monkeysuit, a market research firm that specializes in video gaming and other entertainment industries.

LinkedIn: Dan Lazar