Sunday, September 14, 2008

Melford's Proposal, or how to write a successful email

Hello dear friend:

I am Melford from Africa. I have a mutually beneficial Financial Transaction for you, I can assure you that it is not an Internet related scam or any type of scam. I am not into identity theft or anything related to that as well.

The internet has become a medium for all sort and i cannot blame you if you have your reservation about what i am about to offer you, but amongst all these internet criminal activity we must not forget that the internet is a global meeting place. I want you to know that all correspondence maybe via the internet and telephone but all original paperwork will be sent via POST to your residence.

I cannot say much at this time but be rest assured that you have nothing to worry about, if you are interested in helping out and making money for yourself please feel free to contact me by email with the above email address and i will tell you more.


Ahh, isn't that nice? Some stranger - or maybe just a friend I haven't met yet ;o) - from Africa wants my address to send me information about a financial scheme. I'd be worried except for his assurances. And the fact it went straight to my spam folder. And the fact it is spam.

I have a fascination with spammers and spam artists. Someone sits down to write these emails in the hope that people will click on them - and, seemingly, they do. With almost nine year's experience writing commercial emails myself - always subscribed to, rarely "spammy", I like seeing what works - what words to use, what gets past spam filters, what language style reads well and proves its authenticity, and particularly what gets results.

Ignoring the fact it's spam, Melford's email is actually quite good in that it ticks quite a few boxes of what a good email should be. It's simple, engaging and direct. That's a great start.

Creating successful emails - those with high open, read and click through rates is an art form, but relatively simple as well, if you know what you're doing and you think about how it will be received. So many companies out there seem to invest time and money into emails that could be far more successful by following some simple rules. Here are some:
  1. The basic and most important things:

    Get it right
    . Don't spam. Don't send repeat emails. If someone asks to be removed from a list, remove them.

    Don't put everyone's email in the 'To' field. Please stop doing this, no matter who you are and what the email is about!

    Invite people to sign up for an email, but if they don't , don't email them. Sounds simple, but apparently is quite difficult for companies to understand. I wish someone would tell me why!

  2. Your email address

    Have your 'from' address the same as your 'reply-to' address and make sure that it's a live email address, preferably going to your customer care team (or someone) who have been told about the email so can answer any queries you may have.

  3. Your customer's name

    Personalise it, but not to the point of overload (So Darragh, if you'd like to take our offer, Darragh and tell all your friends, Darragh, just...) I've seen it happen. It's not pretty.

    If you can't be sure the personalisation works, don't do it! Simply instead of "Hi first_name", put in Hi there or just Hello. Nothing worse than having to send out an apology, like the one I got this week. It just makes your company look stupid.

    From TrustedPlaces -
    date 10 September 2008 19:55
    subject Little gremlins messing with your name

    ...oops. That little Gremlin in one of our servers decided to have a go and change your name to Niamh in the previous email. How naughty! We apologise profusely.

    Gremlins in your server eh? Nice idea to put in my head, with my personal details in there...

    Do not get someone's name wrong or spell their name incorrectly
    , if you can help it. I know this will seem difficult, but with small mail merges it happens far too often.

  4. Links and format

    Don't send out an email that's just one big graphic. It rarely works. Honestly.

    If I click on a link telling me it will take me somewhere, make sure that's where I go.

    Depending on your email format, don't overload with links and don't assume your email appears like you sent it either. Keep it simple. With spam and content filters on most email systems now, it can be difficult to predict how (and even if) your links will appear. Depending on your email format, here's what I suggest:

    • Plaintext: Have your links as*/email/offer/what_offer_is so it's clear to me where I'm going, and take me there.

    • HTML: If your sentence is Click here to find out more, then hyperlink the entire action point. Hyperlinking just one word is risky and seems a bit pointless. The links are free and won't affect the trees, promise.

  5. Style and tone.

    Use nice language. Remember there's a person looking at a screen reading it, and you can make them smile. Doing this in a genuine way is important, no matter what the subject of your email. There's nothing wrong with being friendly - not overly or falsely familiar, but friendly in your approach.

  6. Saying thank you

    Sign off with two things - a thanks for reading the email and a realistic sign-off.

    There's nothing wrong with signing "The Customer Care team". Personally I have a deep distrust of the commercial emails signed by the CEO of a company - any company I wish to do business should be able to afford a copywriter, not have the CEO writing it - basically because, I know if I have a query or problem, it probably won't be the CEO replying.

  7. The essentials at the end:

    • A link to view the email as a web page, especially if your email is HTML/graphic dependent

    • Who you are and how I can contact you and how I can unsubscribe - legal requirements as much as anything, but sadly omitted from so many emails.

    • How I can subscribe, especially if I've been forwarded the email by a friend (the nirvana result for any email campaign).

I get a lot of emails daily, mostly because I like seeing the way they're written. The top 10 I tend to open, read and click through on are as follows:
  • Innocent drinks newsletters - a masterclass in communicating, in relevant and fun content, in blogging, in tone and style. Inspirational.

  • - their operation seems to be built on the same inspiring classes as Innocent Drinks - even their automated emails are quality:
    Dear Darragh Doyle,

    Thank you for contacting the MOO Print Team. I've sent this mail to let you know that your enquiry is in our customer service queue and that a real live MOO Service Agent will get back to you by the end of the next business day (Mon-Fri).

    Thank you,

    Little MOO
    Tireless Robot
  • Dailycandy - Dear Dailycandy, come to Dublin, love, me - I'm not living in any of the cities they advertise for, nor even their target audience, but their copy is intelligent and sharp, their graphics beautiful and their content unique.

  • Poetry Ireland** - Though extremely long (almost unavoidably so) this email is well structured to give its content the maximum exposure. Because of my personal interest in the content I read it, but value the way they write it with the reader in mind, highlighting important names and events to make it easy to scan.

  • Silicon Republic's eMonday - Always a must-read to see what I missed during the week, it's simple, scannable and links directly to where it says it will.

  • Gerry McGovern's New Thinking - a weekly email about web 2.0, Gerry's email is always a must-read. Almost as valuable as the content - something he teaches worldwide - are the links, the feedback methods and the disclaimers. Another great format using

  • First30days - They have the right idea of short relevant content and how people read and how they're likely to react.

  • Popbitch, b3ta and Holy Moly - great examples of content built around community, with consistent design/format, relevant content and easy-to-click links. Always controversial but also a welcome addition at the end of the week, when a smile - however inappropriate - is needed.

  • The Dublin Event Guide 2 - possibly Ireland's best example of how tone and personality can make so much content readable and welcomed. I'll blog about this one again...
There are many great email services out there. - "Beautifully simple email newsletters" is getting rave reviews, seems to get results and I've also used Vertical Response.

More-so though, there are communications experts - copywriters (and more) who know what works, what doesn't and how a newsletter is not the be all and end all, it's just a part of a chain that should be marketing led from beginning to end. Ask for help. Get advice. It's out there.

What emails do you like? What ones do you make time for and what ones just annoy you?

Asterisks included for: * or whatever your domain is, and ** - The guy who writes the Poetry Ireland ones is a pal, but I like them too. Not just cos he buys me pints. Honestly.


  1. I'm constantly getting emails like that one you highlighted at the start and I find it an insult to my intelligence that I'd fall for it in the first place no matter how well they're written.

    I guess people do though, or they'd stop sending them out.

  2. i signed up to do online surveys for canadians (thinking it would give me a chance to have my say) and the one works well - the other.. not so well. Their emails are always weirdly formatted, the links you're supposed to click to start the survey never work and the emails from their support team never address what you've asked. i hate it.

    ebay customer service sends out good emails. clear, concise, easy to do even for a novice and always address the issue i've brought up.

    i hate the spam emails from SP+T news. I've unsubscribed once. Just got more. I"ve tried to block it over and over, but its sent from different IP addresses so its just like a virus.

    and i hate the spam emails that tailor themselves to my interests and try to trick me - using my friends names or subjects like Make poverty history etc... tracking cookies i presume.

    love your advice on how to write a good one though! wished i would have had this advice when i was in business for myself.

  3. @maxi - don't take it personally, spam ones are generally not directed at you. The ones to be insulted by are the ones from companies who claim to be experts, who you give money to (or they get revenue from having you as a member), who you've given your details to and THEY get it wrong. That's beyond insulting, it's stupid!

    People do click through, through ignorance more so than anything else. Well, ignorance and greed.

    @Donna_m - See I'd have no patience for that sort of crap. It's not worth the hassle.

    eBay on the other hand are successful because they'll help someone do what they want to do.

    Thanks for the compliment. I'm not saying it's easy and I don't profess to be an expert, but I can make a fair ould stab at it all the same!

  4. Darragh,
    Great suggestions and thanks for the constructive criticism. We always welcome it and do our best to act on it.


  5. Thanks for the note! (You're right it is faaaar too long but I always hope the shortcut links help with that...)

    How many pints do I owe you for that?? ;)