My SPAM folder contains thousands of emails. I hardly ever delete them and quite frequently even save them for later - to use them as examples or simply share a laugh with fellow copywriters.
My god, look at this monstrosity:
First of all, this was the subject line it came with:
Invest in United Kingdom's Q Students Studio | Only GBP 47,950 | Guaranteed Double-Digit Returns
In the email the first things I see are facts and praises about the company. Then a CTA for a brochure.
And only then some kind of an offer. Which is not personalized, however contains the words "fixed income", "effortless income" and alike.
My point is: most of the spam I receive is similar. I can’t even sense the slightest intention to make it look an appealing offer to me.
This is why they end up in my presentations, videos or articles as laughably bad examples. Sometimes I email back some really good marketing emails to help the poor marketers creating these.
This article is the second piece in our Email Copywriting Basics series. You might want to check out other articles too.
In this article I will share with you the copywriting basics about how not to sound like spam – not only what words and phrases you should avoid but also how to present your offer, how to personalize the body and so on, so you won't end up in one of my lectures as an outsantingly bad example. Let’s get to it.
Focus on what you have to say
Before you start writing: decide what you are going to offer me.
I receive dozens of coupon-filled emails every week (sometimes daily). They offer me not one, but 12, 20 or even 30 coupons in a batch, from stag party programs through LED lamps to hairdryers.
Now I think I may understand the intent. Offer a load of things, and whoever opens the email, something will fit them.
The problem is: this way basically everyone immediately closes the email even if they open it in the first place (they won’t).
Your offer should be very simple and on-the-point. This of course requires some segmentation of your list – know what people are interested in. Why are they on the list in the first place?
Did I buy LED coupons from you? Well then don’t try to sell me stag parties, offer me cables, spotlights or other related stuff. In that I might be interested.
This will serve you well as if you focus on one offer your pitch will be more simple and digestible. You can go on about the benefits and features and give a nice arc to what you have to say.
Words and phrases to avoid
There are comprehensive and up-to-date lists about the most common words that indicate to SPAM filters that a letter might be SPAM.
Now there is basically no way you can avoid all of these while you are writing a marketing email, but you shouldn’t aim at that.
As we have mentioned before in our article about crafting subject lines, it’s more about the natural feel of it. Phrases that sound like they come straight from a commercial or a badly designed billboard are red flags for recipients.
But other than sounding natural, there is another benefit of avoiding SPAM-like language. SPAM filters will be less likely to get you.
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Avoid being marked as SPAM (how SPAM filters work)
The only ones who can answer this question in full detail are the companies running them – their specifics are of course heavily guarded secrets, otherwise spammers would be easily able to go around them.
Studies conducted over the years have shown that there are several hundred words that can trigger a filter. This doesn’t mean that if you include one of them in the copy your mail will be filtered, but as you have more and more of them in the email your chances of being labeled SPAM increase.
Here is an example for a list of words you should avoid:
But what matters much more is the context in which you use these words.
What exactly context is?
In this case this means for example common SPAM-phrases. “Free trial”, "you have been selected", “for instant access” as phrases for example are much more likely to be flagged than the words in different context.
There are a number of other things you should avoid in your copy. These include:
- All-caps. An instant and quite spectacular marker of SPAM mails.
- Too much exclamation marks. Or really, exclamation marks at all – most of the time there is no reason to get that excited about an offer.
- Symbols of basically any kind. While emojis are relatively new to mails, symbols are not. We know that most of them are not welcome in the inbox – the dollar sign for example is a good example for one.
- Strange formatting. It is perfectly OK to use different colors, font sizes, bolding or italicization in your mail to draw and guide attention, to highlight certain messages. But you must use these wisely.
Here you can see how bad these look in the subject line - make no mistake, in the body they are just as bad.
Write a conversation (and don't talk about yourself)
Have another look at your SPAM folder: what are those emails that don’t even reach you talking about?
Mostly about themselves. Their company, their products, their great offers. And they do this by over-exaggerating, flashing percentages and “GREAT DEALS” in your face.
There is nothing natural about this. What you should aim for is an absolutely natural conversation-like tone. You shouldn’t talk about what a great deal you have but instead mention a problem you know your subscriber has. Describe it, write about the details and pay attention to how you write.
Don’t think about a whole segment or a crowd of people, your whole list when writing. Imagine only one people and write your copy to address them personally. (It helps to have definite buyer personas.)
Don't ask, don't demand, but offer value
One of the greatest mistakes you can make is trying to actually sell in your email, and doing nothing else.
If you only show me a product and a price for it, all I am seeing is how great it would be for you if I bought it.
As quoted by Ann Handley, Joanna Wiebe from Copy Hackers puts it this way:
“Don’t amplify the act of proceeding, amplify the value of it. So not ‘free trial’, but rather ‘end scheduling hassles.’”
This way you can not only avoid using words and phrases that will likely set off SPAM filters and sound more natural – you can also strengthen your message. This is because you don't focus on how bad you want to sell something.
You focus on the problem your recipient is having and how they can solve it. And how great that will be for them.
If you want to sell a lawnmower, you won’t succeed because the customer is impressed with all the technical details. Most likely they will buy it because the want to mow their law with less trouble, save time and energy and spend it on something else. In their heads a better lawnmower equals more me-time or family-time or less joint pains.
We will talk about this in detail in a future article. But this leads us to how you should build up your mail.
The best way to write direct marketing copy
One thing most SPAM don’t have is a structure that can lead the reader through the copy and to the CTA in a way that is convincing.
In my first years as a copywriter I just sat down and wrote the ideas that came to my head when it came to writing emails.
Than those ideas, half-sentences and scribbles began to form into something resembling a copy. But I was struggling with crafting an arc, a clear structure.
It was some time before a more experienced colleague took it on himself and trained me in how I should always build my copy.
My best advice: start from the end.
Literally: the first thing to write down is your CTA, which will likely be at the very end of the letter.
The reason for this is that this way you are forced to summarize the entire letter, your offer in just a few words. The essence of what are you trying to accomplish will appear before you. And you can create the path that leads there more easily.
Let’s stick with the lawnmower. I clearly don’t want the recipient to buy it right there in the email – I most likely want them to click on the button and arrive at my product page.
Depending on how direct you want to be your call-to-action can be
I want more free time
I’ll check it out
or something like this. It will likely change during the process, just write down what comes to you.
Now you need an offer. Before this button there will be one or two sentences that will likely have a great effect on whether they click through or not. Write some concrete information here and your most compelling offer.
Be sure that from these few words and the CTA the reader will know what to expect after they click – don’t mislead them.
From here up you can draw up features and benefits, throw in some credibility elements, social proof, and at the very end comes your subject line.
These all build on each other, relaying very similar massages, enforcing one another. And if you start it backwards, with the foundation of it all, you will have a much easier time planning that structure.
Don't be afraid to be original
It’s a fairly great problem with SPAM that they all sound the same – the same words, phrases and everything.
But also standard newsletters tend to be dull. Marketers are afraid to be too original, because they don’t want to lose their subscribers.
But an original tone is something that your subscribers will appreciate as long as it is not offensive or unappealing in some other way. It will help them recognize and even anticipate your mail.
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Sure, you will likely lose some who are not impressed with your tone – but you will gain others who will be much more engaged, who will appreciate the more personal and original way you speak to them.
Don’t dismiss ideas out of hand: instead write down at least 5-6 subject lines per email and send the best out to different segments of your list. Or just divide your list arbitrarily and look at the results of your A/B tests. Open rates, CTR and the number of unsubscribers will help you determine the voice that you are searching for.
If there are more unsubscribers than usual, but otherwise your campaign brings good numbers, it’s a sign that you are probably on the right track.
How to format your copy
If it comes to dissociating yourself from SPAM, you also have to pay attention to how you format your mail.
First of all, the image-text ratio.
This might seem like a design choice, but it is not entirely. As a copywriter, or simply an email marketer you have to be able to express anything with words that you would insert an image for.
A lot of SPAM starts with huge images with ClipArt-like CTAs plastered all over them. Don’t be like this. Write conversation, write interesting copy instead that engages the audience.
As any professional will tell you, the ideal image-text ratio is 40-60. But this only means that you shouldn’t use more images than that. Otherwise even a plain text email can also be extremely effective.
I myself nearly never include any images in my marketing emails. I write the copy in a way to guide the attention of the reader. I ask questions, use easily noticeable subheadlines, bulletpoints for features and benefits. Main messages are highlighted either by a different text size, bolded or italicized.
Bear in mind, I am not saying that you shouldn't use any visuals. Good email design is a great way to guide the attention of your audience for example. What I am saying is: don't use anything in your email that might be unnecessary.
The right words will make the difference
The whole purpose of these articles is to give you the idea about the mindset you need to follow. The difference between sounding like a cheap salesman and a professional who truly wants to help may take years of experience.
But not sounding like SPAM only takes a little care. Care about your audience, guide and help them, and you will not be considered an irritating inconvenience.