Interview with a Pro:
Lisa Sparks on Writing Email Copy

Lisa Sparks, a professional copywriter for 13 years, credits e-mail marketing with completely revolutionizing her business. In addition to writing copy, Lisa consults with national and international companies on starting and sustaining profitable e-mail marketing campaigns. She has also written an e-book, "Power Words," ( http://tinyurl.com/p1nd ) a step-by-step guide for writing e-mail promotions that get results. In today's interview, Lisa talks about the key elements of successful e-mail promotions.

TGTE: Lisa, your monthly e-mail newsletter "Copywriting Secrets" helped you more than double your income within a two-month period. Tell us more about that.

LS: For the first few months of my business, I published a fax newsletter that was costly, ineffective, and time consuming. I knew the newsletter format worked – after all, I'd been an editor at one of the largest business-to-business newsletter publishing companies. While I was there, I edited a newsletter on e-business – and I wrote profiles of small-business owners successfully using e-mail marketing to increase sales.

So when my fax newsletter was unsuccessful, I switched to e-mail marketing, using one of the vendors I frequently heard about during my time as an editor. And I've never looked back. After publishing my first few issues, I received two lucrative copywriting contracts and one deal for a monthly project that has consistently grown into more work – every copywriter's dream!

TGTE: In your e-book, you go into the nuts and bolts of creating persuasive e-mail promotions. Can you give us a quick summary of what you think it takes to make a great e-mail effort?

LS: Good headlines and subject lines are key to a solid campaign. And I always include links for more information relatively soon in the promotion. That way, if readers want to read more – or just go ahead and order – it's their choice. Giving choices and options is great for e-mail marketing. It shows you respect the reader and you know they can make their own choices. That kind of respect will be rewarded many times over.

You also need to place some kind of time limit in the promotion. That will make the difference between instant clicks and people putting your e-mail on the backburner for later. We know "later" rarely ever comes, so you'll lose your chance to make the sale if you don't place some kind of urgency in the campaign.

TGTE: It's interesting that you say you need a good subject line as well as a good headline. What's the difference between them?

LS: Headlines and subject lines have one very important element in common: They spur the reader to action. The headline prompts them to read on; the subject line gets them to open up your e-mail and then read on. Since the subject line has to do double-duty, it has to work harder with a shorter number of words. I look at headlines as coffee and subject lines as espresso – especially subject lines for promotional e-mails that you send out between issues of your e-zine. Why are those so important? Well, you don't have the option of using your masthead in the subject line as you do with your e-zine.

Here's a sample e-zine subject line: Painting the Right Picture

Here's a subject line for a promotional e-mail: Power Up Your E-zine Today!

To get readers to take action, both headlines and subject lines have to convey the benefits of whatever you're offering – otherwise, response rates could be disappointing.

TGTE: That's great advice. Are there any other techniques or formatting changes that we should be aware of?

LS: Some people say that HTML e-mails (the ones with all the graphics) are better for sending out communications. I've found that it's more about the copy than anything else. No matter the format, HTML or text, you still have to make a compelling sales proposition to your audience. Specifically, be sure to convey benefits and keep your copy squarely focused on the reader. Features are always nice to have, but benefits are must-haves, throughout the copy. And that never changes whether you're writing for print or e-mail communications.

TGTE: What initial steps should a copywriter take when he or she is hired to write e-mail or website copy for a client?

LS: You'll need to ask the same questions as with a print project: Who's the audience? What are you selling? What tone of voice do they respond to? The copy will be shorter and will have less "wind-up." You'll have to get right to the point whether you're writing article teasers or the actual article itself for an e-zine. If you're writing an e-mail promotion, it'll be more aggressive than a direct-mail piece – less storytelling and more straight information.

I know what you're thinking, "No painting the picture?!" Use testimonials to substitute the impact of a great story in your e-mail promotions. Space and the reader's attention are both very limited, so you'll need every inch to directly sell to the audience. There are other differences between e-mail and direct mail. The main one is the space/attention issue. You only have one quick shot to get their attention, so you have to make each and every word work harder for you. The transition from print to e-mail can be easier when you think in terms of newsletter writing. In that genre, you also have to write for space, so the tone is much more reader-focused. That's the key to writing short, high-impact copy: Keep every word about the reader and it's tough not to get high response rates.

TGTE: Although it can be highly profitable, e-mail marketing also seems a little mysterious. What advice would you give novice copywriters who are nervous about using e-mail marketing campaigns to build their own freelance businesses?

LS: Start small and build your way up to bigger things. But definitely start now.

Also, read everything you can get your hands on about e-mail marketing, especially e-zines. I made many mistakes in the beginning, because I wasn't willing to get off a dime and learn from others' mistakes. The money I invested was well worth it, because it stopped me from using disreputable vendors and following e-mail marketing scams.

Once I began to educate myself, my e-mail marketing business grew by even larger leaps and bounds. And the investments I made almost instantly paid for themselves many times over.

[If you're interested in starting your own e-mail newsletter or using e-letters to market yourself, Lisa's e-book, "Power Words," is available at http://tinyurl.com/p1nd ]

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: September 29, 2003

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