12 Steps to Writing Better Email

larger-email-keyboardThe conventional wisdom is email is dead as an outreach tool. You’ve heard the drill: spam filters rule, open rates have dropped, users are suffering email fatigue.

Yet, at a recent gathering of online activists at the April 2008 DC NetRoots Roots Camp, a different view prevails: email is very much alive and well, thank-you. Before you fire off the “send” button, however, these e-Campaigners say there is a right way and a wrong way to write email that matters. Their hard-won lessons offer tips we could all benefit from.


First, let’s review the basics of why email is not dead. Some observers call email the “original social network” and the data shows Americans continue to use it with abandon. The 2008 profile of how Americans use the Internet published by Pew Internet and American Life shows that among the 75 percent of Americans who use the Internet, the top three activities were:

  1. reading or sending email at 92 percent
  2. using a search engine at 91 percent and
  3. using an online map for driving directions at 86 percent

Why do people continue to like email so much? According to the buzz at several huddles to discuss why email is alive and well, among the reasons we can’t turn back are:

  • it’s fast, free and frequent
  • it allows for rapid response
  • we can experience multi-media – pictures, video, words – all in one channel
  • individual targets
  • we can control the use of email
  • it allows for two-way feedback

A survey conducted for shop.org by Forrester Research found when carving up the marketing budget, email is a best bet.

Looking at Internet marketing dollars spent to get an order, researchers found email marketing was by far the most cost-effective options, costing half as much as the next option generate sales.


Online activist Lauren Miller recruited several top email activists to her roundtable at the Netroots camp, including representatives from the defunct Presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Bill Richardson along with those who worked with Obama’s campaign and institutional power-houses like MoveOn.

Lessons learned in the trenches of the 2008 political campaigns are instructive for all of us who want to learn how to write better email. Here are a dozen rules they shared that can help any eMail campaign:

  1. On packaging, in general, short email is “in” and longer one-page models are “out”. The most successful in terms of conversion (i.e. opens and actions etc.) are three paragraphs long. The three paragraphs typically include a short open, a paragraph about what’s going on, and a call to action.
  2. Think carefully about your subject line – There is so much noise in people’s in-box that it is vital to be concise and not ramble. How do you do this beyond a gut-call? You use what the pros call A/B testing. This means if you have a list of 100,000 emails as some of these larger campaigns do, you deploy 20,000 with message A and 20,000 with message B and look at the results – opens and actions. The subject line that performed best goes to the 60,000 left on your list.
  3. Snarky tone is okay, jargon is not. Avoid acronyms or legislative bill numbers because they won’t be meaningful to many readers. Adopt a conversational and casual tone, not high-hat.
  4. Who is the email from? Having a “voice” for your email is an important consideration – and consider a second option for the email “voice” for your organization. For example, the Democratic National Committee uses Chairman Dean as one “from” line for many messages, while the executive director is often the second voice when a “nuts and bolts conversation” is on tap. Your primary voice won’t become stale when you have a backup.
    What people want, these activists say, is the two-way conversation people crave is available from an email campaign. This means, newsletters which more often than not are one-way conversations, can be seen as passé. On a technical note, though you may change the name in the FROM line, the email address shouldn’t change in how you manage the email behind the scenes.
  5. Timing is critical. More important than content, according to one participant.If it takes three days to “vet” and approve the email message because your organization demands many layers of approvals before something goes out the door, you are in a losing position. Lessons from the last campaign cycle about timing, however, aren’t holding. Many in this session seemed to think that 10-11:30AM on Tuesdays is considered the golden hour for having your email open. But more agreed that every list was different and if you test, target and track effective timing for your subscribers you are apt to get better results than relying on some hard and fast “rule”.The time-stamp on your email is also a consideration. A late night-time stamp on your email can be a mistake since that’s when the spam email tends to flood in-boxes. That said, the Edwards campaign would often kick-out a new email late at night when they were using a Federal Election Commission deadline to spark donations. When they saw donation trends from the email falling, they would send the kicker to renew interest in the time-sensitive action often with good results.
  6. Treat your email subscribers differently. Be creative with the second message after they sign up. New members should get a welcome mat and a tutorial on what your site provides before you pummel them to engage in your campaign or buy your product.That said, don’t wait too long to ask for money if your primary purpose of your site is to raise cash. The winning formula, most here agreed, was to introduce the site the first week and send a fund-raising appeal the second week, such as “$5 buys a roll of stickers for our campaign! Donate Now.” The conventional wisdom is that the longer you are on a list, the willingness to part with cash will fade.Another important segment on your list, outside new subscribers, are major donors. Veterans of political campaigns agreed that your donors merit “special messaging”.
  7. How are we doing? People want to give advice to your campaign. That’s why survey emails are so popular. One leading Democratic Senator found the second most successful email campaign was a survey asking email list members to tell him about themselves with demographic information so his team could get a better profile of their subscribers. The MoveOn email list subscribers often get surveys asking them for their input to gain insight on the priorities or near-term agenda of the organization.
  8. Reply emails or Forward emails are interesting. When the Edwards campaign sent a reply email to their list, they called it a “kicker” email. The purpose was to inform the recipients about what happened to the “ask” in the earlier email that they had been successful and ask them to forward it to a friend. A favorite tactic of the Obama campaign uses a reply or forward function to let their subscribers in” on a private conversation.
  9. The lifespan of an email is three days. If people haven’t opened it by then, chances are it will not be read. Your typical open rate is 20 to 30 percent of your list, with the low-end of that rate the more common experience.
  10. Experience emails are popular. Here the time of day must make sense with the story your email is sharing. In this campaign cycle, emails sent from Blackberrys by Chris Dodd to report on his spirits after walking out of a debate got noticed. Likewise, Bill Richardson sent out emails from his road-trip across early primary states sharing his on-the-road musings.
  11. Images should not be used for decoration – Have a reason for including a picture if you want to be effective. Your buttons must have high affordance, meaning it looks clickable. Avoid fancy treatments for plain old-fashioned looking buttons to avoid confusion when you want readers to click to take an action. Realize too that most people set their email boxes so they don’t automatically download images. If your whole email is an image you must include a text alternative or you risk having the email unread or deleted by your readers.For every rule, there are notable exceptions. The DNC sent out a powerful image of a little girl looking sad during its campaign on the State Child Healthcare Initiative Program, known as SCHIP.
  12. If you can afford it, a multi-channel campaign that includes email can be a winner. Timing email appeals with similar messages delivered via radio or television or direct mail is considered a best practice. The conventional wisdom is if you hit your targets across multiple channels with the same message you are more likely to get money or the action you are requesting.

Working America, a labor funded effort will use email to alert subscribers that they will get a direct mail appeal in their mailbox in upcoming days, and asks them to please open it. A follow-up email will ask those who were sent the mailer if it was received.


Meanwhile, if you are on the RECEIVING side of email, there are a number of good ideas to steal from productivity guru David Allen who wrote Getting Things Done. I found his tips for digging out of an over-stuffed email box very helpful.

He says you should create folders at the top of your folder system in the following categories:


This system allows you to do a quick sort on all incoming mail and assign it to one category or another for action. This way you waste less time digging out old emails you need to react to. And because you use the @ sign and the capital letters, these folders sit nicely nested on the top of your folder tree so they are easy to find and use.

Whether you want to be more effective on the receiving or sending side of email, there are rules of the road that can make you more effective if you work them into your way of doing business.