eBooks

The Essential Email Copywriting Handbook

A Marketer's Guide to Writing Killer Email Copy That Sells

Introduction

Let’s be honest: writing is hard, and staring at a blank page sucks.

Arguably the biggest challenge of email marketing doesn’t have to do with optimization or the technical side of your campaigns.

The reality?

Consistently coming up with the right words to reach your target audience is the real hurdle.

That’s why mastering the art of email copywriting should be a top priority for all marketers.

Through effective copywriting, you can put together more creative and consistent campaigns while also scoring more sales and clicks.

And given that businesses are expected to regularly put out messages week after week, email marketers can’t afford to be afraid of writing.

The good news is that you don’t have to be some sort of creative genius or marketing wizard to write solid email copy. In fact, all you really need to do is understand the principles of persuasion and tackle your emails piece by piece.

And that’s exactly what we’ll cover in this eBook! With the help of the rapid-fire lessons and copywriting inspiration below, you’ll be well on your way to writing email copy that converts no matter what you’re selling.

Part I: The basics of email copywriting

To kick things off, we’ll break down the basics of persuasion to help you get into a copywriter’s mindset.

What is email copywriting?

Copywriting represents writing for the purpose of advertising or sales.

Simply put, copywriting is intended to persuade readers and encourage them to take action. Email copywriting covers any written part of an email, including subject lines, headlines, body copy, and calls-to-action (CTAs).

Whether we realize it or not, we engage with copywriting hundreds of times daily.

Billboards. Social media ads. Pre-roll ads on YouTube. The list goes on.

Unlike blog writing or content writing, copywriting is centered around persuasion and sales versus conveying information. Copywriters focus on generating excitement, anticipation, and empathy from readers rather than educating them.

As a result, copywriting requires you to be extremely economical with your words. This is especially true for email copywriting: our real estate is limited in any given message, and our readers’ attention spans are practically microscopic.

And so copywriting means choosing your language carefully. Nitpicking between two words and agonizing over single sentences is common practice for expert email copywriters.

If you’re responsible for writing emails and coming up with messaging to reach your audience, congratulations: you’re a copywriter!

Don’t think that you’re worthy of the title? Think again.

Writing email copy might seem daunting, but it’s probably a lot easier than you’d think once you learn the art of persuasion.

//[inject:ad-demo]

The principles of persuasion and email marketing copy

The sooner you understand what makes your customers tick, the easier it is to write emails.

So much of email copywriting involves understanding basic psychology on a big-picture level.

Despite popular belief, persuasion isn’t magic. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of copywriting is just how tested and timeless it is.

Consider that marketers and advertisers have been using the same principles of persuasion for over a century now to push people to make purchases. What worked in 1921 still works in 2021.

Inspired by Robert Cialdini’s 1984 classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, let’s look at some of the most popular psychological triggers that copywriters still use today to encourage customers to take action.

Urgency (AKA “You need to act now”)

This might be the most effective persuasion principle, absolutely perfect for email marketing copy.

Through urgency, you stress to readers that time is running out. FOMO (fear of missing out) is an incredibly powerful motivator, proven to light a fire under consumers and convince them to act sooner rather than later.

There’s no denying the popularity of time-sensitive deals and marketing messages. Because of this, urgency-related messages should be a cornerstone of your email marketing strategy.

Leveraging language like “ending soon” and “time’s running out” helps spell out in plain English that buyers need to act ASAP. Below is an excellent example from Packlane, with an urgency-centric email subject line (“⏰ 72 hours left to save 20%”) and the claim that “you won’t see prices this low again.”

Reciprocity (AKA “Here’s what you get in return”)

The relationship between brands and customers is all about exchanges (think: attention, loyalty, money).

Through reciprocity, you tap into the human desire to return a favor by offering readers something of value for free.

Think about the popularity of free gifts and resources in email marketing. From coupons and freebies to exclusive information, reciprocity encourages readers to take action because you’re giving them something completely unprompted, and they feel the need to respond.

This welcome message from Grove highlights how reciprocity works with a free offer featuring various hand-picked products. The overwhelmingly positive tone of the message keeps it from feeling salesy or aggressive, prompting readers to act out of responsibility and kindness.

Scarcity (AKA “While supplies last”)

Scarcity is the sister of urgency and likewise one of the most effective and popular persuasion principles to master.

Through scarcity, you stress the notion that supply is limited or running out on a specific product or offer.

“While supplies last” is one of the oldest lines in the marketing playbook and still works brilliantly today. Limited quantities not only tap into folks’ sense of FOMO but also exclusivity.

Think about the popularity of Supreme’s limited drops or limited-edition Jordans that result in overnight, wraparound lines at brick-and-mortar retailers. Getting your hands on a scarce product represents a feel-good moment and gives buyers some serious bragging rights, too.

Below is a superb scarcity message from Taylor Stitch (subject line “Limited to 100 of Each”) that spells out clearly that buyers need to act now (“they won’t last long”).

Social proof (AKA “Here’s why our customers love us”)

It’s no secret that the bandwagon effect is strong, especially given how buyers today rely on reviews and recommendations to make purchases.

Through social proof, you highlight your existing satisfied customers to show prospects that you’re worth buying from.

As far as email copywriting goes, this is your chance to let your past buyers do the heavy lifting by simply introducing your customer stories. Anything you can do to emphasize just how many satisfied customers you have is also a plus.

Here’s a brilliant example of social proof from Prose, showcasing a slew of positive comments prefaced by “Over +177K 5-star product reviews.”

Liking (AKA “We’re just like you”)

Breaking news: your customers should like you and your brand.

Through liking, you highlight your human side and personality to make yourself more relatable to your customers.

A positive tone and conversational language can instantly make you seem more human and likable to your customers. Ideally, people should look forward to your messages. Leveraging likeability can do the trick.

For example, this promotional email from Jeni’s doesn’t feel like a promo at all: the sense of humor and personal tone remove any sense of sales pitch.

Prioritize benefits and feelings over products and features

Now that you know the fundamental psychology behind persuasion, let’s talk about writing.

If you’re stuck on writing sales messages to your audience, we get it. You need those precious clicks, but you don’t want to be pushy or aggressive about it.

One of the easiest ways to make your email copy seem less salesy? Talk about benefits and feelings before features.

We see this all the time with tech and software companies. Hitting customers over the head with a laundry list of specifications will only confuse them or put them to sleep. Instead, phrases like “stop stressing about download speed forever” or “designed to help you get more work done” are much more compelling.

Happiness. Saved time and money. Less stress. Comfort. Convenience.

In short, you need to focus on feelings and outcomes associated with your products. Doing so is a delicate balancing act that requires some practice, so let’s look at some examples.

This message from Peloton opens with “Achieve the best shape of your life without even leaving the house,” emphasizing positive outcomes and convenience before delving into their products’ features.

This email from Casper is a solid example of finding a balance between feelings and features. They lead by hyping up “Your dream bed,” then clarifying that they can meet the needs of shoppers no matter what sort of mattress they prefer (“Rest easy, whatever you choose”). Then, the message lists the specifics of each model. This message quite literally puts feelings first.

See how that works?

The takeaway here is that people are wired to respond to feelings and emotions. Likewise, crafting emails this way makes your messages instantly more customer-centric, which actually leads us to our next lesson.

Put customers first in your marketing copy

Piggybacking on the previous two points, being an effective copywriter means stepping into your readers’ shoes and looking at your messages from their perspective.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

//[class:ebook-quote-top]

― Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

//[class:ebook-quote-bottom]

For example, what keeps your readers up at night? What are their biggest pain points and desires? Based on these factors, what should they want to hear from you?

The challenge of email marketing is that even with segmentation and personalization, you’re still sending out emails en masse. The key is to make your messages feel like they’re tailor-made for your readers, speaking directly to them.

Achieving customer-centric messaging means sticking to a few quick writing tips:

Frequent use of “you,” “yours,” or your customers’ names in messages. On the flip side, be conscious of talking about yourself or your products too much (“I,” “we,” and “our”).

Always open with benefit-driven language before prices, features, and so on.

Mention pain points and desires (think: fears and goals) while framing yourself as the solution, staying positive with each line of copy.

Write your email marketing copy like a human, not a robot

Consider that your subscribers’ inboxes are absolutely flooded with emails.

And let’s be honest: a lot of them are low-effort and spammy.

You don’t want to be part of that pack. Doing so means talking to your customers like a friend rather than a marketer. Here are some basic, straightforward writing tips to help you get your message across in a natural, personable way:

Use shorter sentences.

Most people don’t speak in paragraphs, after all; this likewise helps make the most of the space available in any given email.

Simplify your language.

No jargon, no bonus points for big words. Conventional wisdom says that marketing language should be about at the eight great level (you can use a readability checker like the Hemingway Editor to see how complex your writing is).

Speak each and every line of your email out loud.

If anything sounds awkward or unnatural, scrap it. This tip is a game-changer for writing more conversationally.

//[inject:ad-demo]

Leverage power words (and avoid spammy, salesy language)

If you’re struggling with finding the right words in any given email, we suggest starting with terms that are proven to put readers at ease.

Below are some terms that marketers rely on all the time in emails and advertisements at large. Each of these phrases (and their synonyms) represents “power words” (or “action words”) that are perfect for sprinkling throughout your subject lines, headlines, and body content alike.

Simple

Implying ease of use and helpfulness, this power word reassures that what you’re offering won’t require much effort.

  • “The simple way to program your 🧠 to win” [Brian.fm]
  • “Build your website in a few simple steps” [Namecheap]

Quick

Similar to simplicity, this term implies a painless, seamless experience and results that your customer can enjoy ASAP.

  • “Quick heads up…” [Beardbrand]
  • "Close deals faster with these quick tips” [PandaDoc]

Limited

Related directly to urgency and scarcity, this term is sure to tap into your customers’ FOMO.

  • "Our Most Limited Release of the year - Plus Save 20% [Taylor Stitch]
  • “Revive your walls! Limited edition art from $25 🙌 [Mammoth]

Proven/Tested

This term gives your readers peace of mind, reassuring them that you’re legit and have been around the block.

  • “The Forever Sneaker - Tested” [Everlane]
  • “Period Trusted 🤞 Period Proven 🏆” [Aisle]

Invitation

Related to the principle of “liking,” this term presents your message as something positive and tailored exclusively for your subscribers.

  • “Your exclusive invitation to preorder” [Sonos]
  • “[Name], you’ve been invited” [Tekspace]

Keep in mind that these aren’t the only power words out there. Terms such as free, soon, easy, fresh, and thanks are similarly fair game and can easily be coupled with the phrases above. You don’t need to exclusively use these terms as a crutch, but they definitely come in handy when you need inspiration or are brainstorming headlines.

And much like there are positive power words, keep in mind that there are spammy terms that you should avoid. Phrases like deal, cheap, or obligation (pretty much anything a sleazy, stereotypical used car salesman would say) can send the wrong message and likewise land you in the spam folder.

Whew! Coming out of our primer on persuasion and psychology, you’re ready to actually get down to the nitty-gritty and start writing.

Part II: How to write an effective marketing email

Again, blank pages are terrifying.

That’s why we recommend approaching your emails piece by piece.

Doing so not only keeps you from getting overwhelmed but also ensures that you’re giving each individual section of your emails the attention they deserve. If nothing else, the process of writing an email is much less daunting when it’s broken up.

We’ve split the email copywriting process into three parts, starting from top to bottom. Below you’ll learn what it takes to grab your reader’s attention and write in such a way that folks make it all the way through your messages.

Email subject lines: how to hook your subscribers from the word “go”

There’s no denying that the subject line is the most important part of a marketing email.

Assuming that 50% of people decide to read through messages based on subject line copy alone, they’re a make-or-break moment for any campaign. It’s especially true when you’re competing with dozens of other messages in someone’s inbox on any given day.

Thankfully, marketers have a ton of creative freedom in terms of what they can write.

But before we get into the creative side of things, let’s review a few quick pointers:

  • The ideal email subject line is (~45 characters long, give or take. Shorter subject lines are less likely to be cut off via mobile and are easier for people to read and understand at a glance.
  • Don’t rely on a single style or format of subject lines. Variety will keep your messages from growing stale or feeling too copy-and-pasted.
  • Incorporate power words and attention-grabbing copy in your subject lines, including names, numbers, and questions.

Which sort of subject line will grab your reader’s attention, though? Here are some headline examples for inspiration, showing that you don’t have to stick to a single formula to write subject lines (nor should you, anyway).

“You” and name-based subject lines

Inherently customer-centric, these headlines work well by addressing your readers directly (or by name with personalization tags).

  • “😱 Expiring soon, [name]: Your 10% Discount” [Afterpay]
  • “Here are the Earpods you were looking for” [AiSmartBuy]\
  • “You need a beach day. You need NEW arrivals.” [Anthropologie]

Number-based subject lines

Fact: our brains can process numbers faster than words. Big savings, price points, percentages, and dollar-off amounts are great for appealing to people with short attention spans.

  • “Just 52 Spots Left” [Wildist]
  • “Our #1 Most-Asked Question” [Supergood]
  • “100 Days and Counting…” [Pulptown]

Question-based subject lines

Questions naturally pique readers’ interest as a sort of call-and-response, inclining them to click through to learn the answer.

  • “Have a lot of gifts to send?” [Jeni’s]
  • “Question for your doc? We have an app for that” [hims]
  • “How much do you know about sleep?” [Casper]

Conversational subject lines

These types of subject lines feel like they were written by a person first and a brand second, ideal for showing off your brand’s personality.

  • “Our new lens just passed $100k in pre-orders! 🔥10 days left⏲️” [Tens]
  • “Before we completely Block Out 2020…” [Honey]
  • “Hey New Bae on the Block 🖤” [Public Desire]

//[inject:ad-demo]

Email body copy: how to make subscribers stick to the screen

Marketers rightfully spend a ton of time obsessing over every subject line.

That said, you can’t afford to neglect your body copy. It’s the meat of your message and an opportunity to start selling to people once they’re hooked.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to make it happen, but there are some key principles you can stick to that make sure your subscribers move through your message toward your call-to-action.

Be economical with your words

When in doubt, adopt a “less is more” mentality when it comes to your marketing emails.

Consider that the optimal length for a business message sits somewhere between 50 and 150 words. For reference, that’s about half the character limit of Tweets today.

Although there are plenty of longer-term storytelling emails out there, conventional wisdom says that we should keep our copy as brief as possible. You don’t want to require your readers to slog through paragraphs if they don’t have to, particularly on mobile.

This is where simple language and short sentences can really save the day. When writing around your email copy, every word and sentence needs to go under the microscope.

Write sentences that make subscribers nod (or say “yes”)

Piggybacking on the point above, ideally, you should write your emails in such a way where each sentence makes your readers nod or say “yes.”

Notice that many marketing emails these days stick to a familiar (but proven) format that looks something like this:

Headline

Image

CTA

Subheader

Sentence

Image


Subheader

Sentence

Image

Subheader

Sentence

Image

CTA

And so on. Using brief sentences, questions, and statements makes it easier for people to flow through your messages without getting overwhelmed.

Let your headlines and subheaders guide people through your copy

Spoiler alert: not everyone is going to read your messages word-for-word.

Bolded headers, copy, and calls-to-action should work to naturally catch your readers’ eyes to clue them in on the most important parts of your message.

Making your messages scan-friendly is a balancing act between easy-to-read copy and formatting. Simple, punchy sentences ensure that nobody gets lost when reading through your messages.

Much like your subject line, you have a ton of creative freedom when it comes to email content in the body of your message. Most brands tend to mix things up with longer-form, storytelling-style messages alongside brief, bite-sized emails.

For example, this email from Trade is extremely scan-friendly thanks to its headlines, list-style format, and short sentences. Readers move seamlessly from point to point with two CTAs to choose from.

This cart abandonment message from Rudy’s is to the point with a humorous headline to hook readers. These types of messages lend themselves to be on the shorter side.

Meanwhile, this message from Hydro Flask follows the headline → sentence → CTA format, which cleanly organizes the email and enables your recipient to focus on each piece of it.

Calls-to-Action (CTAs): how to seal the deal and drive clicks

The last piece of any given marketing email is your call-to-action.

It’s yet another aspect of email marketing that’s easy to overlook.

However, this is the moment where people take action. Like, literally.

Your CTAs and their effectiveness ultimately decide whether all of your email copywriting chops up to this point pay off.

Although there’s plenty of debate over how many CTAs to include in a marketing email, that’s moreso a question of optimization and formatting. For the sake of this guide, let’s talk briefly about call-to-action phrases themselves.

Using “Click Here” isn’t necessarily going to tank your click-through rate, but it doesn’t do much to get the average recipient excited. “Shop Now” might seem more actionable, but this CTA also feels generic and almost treats your customers as a transaction first and a person second.

Coming up with a CTA doesn’t have to be rocket science. Ideally, your call-to-action phrases should tick the following boxes:

Highlight a specific action (think: “Complete your order”).

Remain on the shorter side (two to four words, short enough to reasonably fit in a CTA button).

Be relevant to the offer presented in your message (think: you wouldn’t use “Learn More” in a discount email).

For inspiration, here are some examples of effective CTA phrases in the wild.

Keds’ “Treat yourself” is a playful twist on “Shop now,” highlighting how you can ask people to make purchases without being too in-your-face about it.

Grove’s “Complete your order” highlights a specific action that’s relevant to cart abandonment, all the while reminding the recipient why they’ve received the message in the first place.

Poolside FM’s  “Reserve yours” is a transactional CTA that feels customer-centric, as if the product is already (or should be) in the recipient’s hands.

GrubHub’s “Get your $7 perk” is specific, to the point, and direct.

Meanwhile, Stitch Fix’s “Schedule your first Fix” is an example of how you can incorporate your brand into your CTA.

//[inject:ad-event]

Bonus: 4 Awesome Email Copywriting Examples (and Why They Work)

Improving as a copywriter means drawing inspiration from proven brands and marketing messages. Old-school copywriters would literally keep copies of ads in a “swipe file” to reference whenever they needed ideas for a new campaign.

So far, we’ve covered a ton of top-tier email copywriting examples, but we wanted to hook you up with a few more. Here are some prime examples of email copy that apply the principles of persuasion and the writing tips covered above.

Willo

Why the Copywriting Works

It combines both urgency (“The countdown has started…”) and scarcity (“making 1,000 units available”); this message does double duty of driving readers to take action while being brief about it. Headers and highlighting help readers zero in on the message’s key points, too.

Gymshark

Why the Copywriting Works

Sticking to headers and simple sentences, readers can navigate this message easily and get a good sense of Gymshark as a brand at a glance.

Birchbox

Why the Copywriting Works

A bold headline (that literally mentions FOMO) coupled with simple, bolded statements throughout makes for a reader-friendly message. Birchbox front-loads the email with its most pressing message and CTA above the fold, meaning that readers are invited to click through without having to scroll.

Nuggs

Why the Copywriting Works

This email message feels like a human wrote it with conversational copy and a sense of humor. The brevity only works to make the message more impactful, providing that being a good email copywriter doesn’t mean drowning your readers in words.

Part III: Becoming a Better Email Copywriter

To wrap things up, let’s discuss some quick best practices to level up as an email copywriter.

Use templates to avoid starting your marketing emails from scratch

As you can probably tell by our examples, many marketing emails follow similar templates and formulas.

Well, that’s no accident. Once you’ve sent a variety of emails and have a better sense of what sort of length, formatting, and styles make sense, you can save your top-performing templates and plug in your copy accordingly.

Using templates and approaching messages piece-by-piece, you never have to feel like you’re writing something totally from scratch.

Pay close attention to your email performance metrics

Open-rates. Click-through-rates. Conversions.

Tracking your engagement metrics will let you know how effective any given email marketing campaign is and where you can improve. You might learn that longer-form messages perform better, or a specific CTA has a higher conversion rate.

Either way, you need to assess your data consistently.

Regularly read marketing emails (and make notes of what you like)

Remember what we said earlier about putting together a swipe file? From competitors to brands you admire and beyond, saving your favorite emails is a smart move so you can stay on top of trends and have a constant source of inspiration.

Practice!

It might sound cliche, but practice makes perfect.

Getting better at writing marketing emails is no different than improving in any other creative field. The more emails you write, the easier the process becomes. Sticking to the email copywriting tips above, using templates, and refining your messages based on data will ensure that you improve faster.

Ready to reel in more customers with your email copy?

Listen: becoming a better copywriter goes hand in hand with becoming a top-tier email marketer.

Because improving your writing chops only means you have to outsource less of your campaigns, it encourages you to get to know your customers and pay attention to your email data.

So much of email copywriting is understanding persuasion, psychology, and the anatomy of a straightforward message. Hopefully, the guide above clued you in on each of these aspects.

And of course, email automation and analytics are both keys to becoming a better email copywriter. By understanding which emails score clicks and which headlines and calls-to-action resonate, you can consistently craft emails that people want to read. We invite you to check out the tools and features baked into Sendlane that can help!

Thank you for downloading this eBook. Here’s to crafting killer emails in the future.

Until next time,

The Sendlane Team

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