Email Marketing Course (Day #1): Researching and Planning your Emails

Our first email marketing course lesson begins with research and planning. Before you can write compelling emails, you need to understand your readers. If you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no one.

If You’re Writing for Everyone, You’re Writing for No One

You might have some assumptions about the people who read your emails, but as Raphael Paulin-Daigle of SplitBase explains, that’s simply not enough:

“So many marketers make assumptions about who their customers are, what they want, and what their daily lives are like. They are driven by made-up customer personas that came from internal team meetings – not the customers themselves.

To truly resonate with the reader of the email and get them to take action, we have to walk over our own certainty about who our audience is. We have to actually survey (qualitatively), interview and call our customers. Then, write emails using their voice, their words, their desires.”

Your goal is to use familiar language, comfortable tones and relevant stories. There’s a lot you could say, but what should you say? This is all very contextual, which means you’ll need to dive into some qualitative research.

Here’s the process I use for GetUplift and any email I write:

  • Check external and public sources. What’s frustrating your readers? What’s confusing them? What’s keeping them up at night wondering? Read the reviews on your site, on your competitor’s site and on external review sites. You can also hunt on Quora, Twitter and forums for unanswered questions. Boom! You just found your next subject line.
  • Interview your staff. You can’t be everywhere all the time. Sit down for 20 minutes with everyone who interacts with your customers. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “If our brand was a person, what kind of personality would it have?” Also ask about common questions, frustrations, complaints, words and phrases, etc.
  • Interview your customers (or readers). Sure, send out that survey, but don’t forget to actually get on the phone with your customers (or your email readers, if your email list includes non-customers). Watch for the words they use to describe your solution and the words they use to describe the problem your solution solves. The goal here to is get to know the reader, not to get a testimonial, so get to the heart of who they are, what they value, what they desire, how they speak, how they engage, etc.

Note that I specifically called out non-customer email readers. Despite popular belief, it is not only your customers who make your email list valuable, according to Brian Dean of Backlinko:

“I wish marketers understood the value non-customers have on their email list. In the early days of my list, I’d consider anyone who didn’t buy something a waste of space in my Aweber account.

But I was wrong.

Today, I understand that almost every subscriber can add value to your business. For example, let’s say you just published a new blog post. When you send that post to your email list, non-buyers can amplify your content… which can get your post in front of folks that are actually ready to invest in what you sell.”

When you’re conducting research, don’t overlook insights from non-customers as less valuable. If they’re receiving email from you, their opinion matters and will impact your bottom line.

How to Identify Your Reader’s Intent and Goals

Once you understand who the reader is, you need to understand why they’re subscribed to your emails. What’s their goal? What do they expect you to help them achieve?

Again, you likely have assumptions about this. Ignore them.

You can’t rely on personas or vague descriptors. You have to do the research.
Ry Schwartz explains:

“An ‘avatar’ or ‘buyer persona’ isn’t a real thing. It’s a static placeholder that lives in a Google Doc and maybe features a stock photo of some dude you arbitrarily named John. It’s a useful map/tool — but on each promo or message, try to tap into a more fluid, contextually accurate, ever-evolving, three-dimensional avatar.

  • Who are they in the exact moment they’re reading this?
  • Who do they want to be?
  • Who will they be after reading this?
  • Who could they be if they take the action I’m proposing?

The more you can dimensionalize your ‘avatar’ and bring them to life — the more you can write messages that resonate with real people — not 43-year-old John with 2.5 kids who lives in your G-Drive.”

When your readers succeed, you succeed. That’s what it comes down to. To facilitate that mutual success, you’ll need to really understand both the struggle and the goal, both the problem and the solution.

The only way to do that? You guessed it. You’ll need to conduct some more research.

Here’s my personal process:

  • Ask them. The trick is that most people don’t know or can’t accurately describe the root problem and desired goal. That’s why you certainly can’t trust your assumptions. To combat this, ask “why” again and again and again. Eventually, you’ll get to their true issues, motivations, desires and beliefs. Be sure to focus on what they expect from your product or service (this is a proxy for what they expect from your emails).
  • Review survey responses.
  • Check behavioral patterns using Google Analytics.
  • Go through call logs and chat logs.
  • Talk to sales and support staff.
  • Analyze customer reviews, both submitted to you and posted publicly.

That’s a lot of research, right? Tarzan Kay, email copywriting expert, offers a word of caution:

“All this focus on the customer is sometimes overkill. People want stories. They want personality. They’re maxed out on messaging that starts with ‘Does this sound like you?’ You can’t skip the customer research. It’s critical. But you also can’t edit yourself / your company out of the equation.”

Don’t mistake this early focus on research as permission to remove your personality and values from your emails. Research should be used to close the gap between what you have to say and what your readers need to hear. (Erm, read.)

How to Create a Meaningful Outline

Alright, it’s time to dive into preparing the email.

The three most common mistakes I see being made with email are:

  1. Saying the same thing too often.
  2. Forgetting something super important.
  3. Overlapping messages that clash.

The best way to avoid this without damming your creative juices is by preparing an outline or a brief. Outlines and briefs are especially useful as you send more and more emails, so that you can easily reflect back on the narrative and previous messaging.

Here’s exactly what goes into one of my email outlines:

  1. The primary reason I’m sending the email.
  2. Details of my target audience for this specific email.
  3. The main pain I’m addressing.
  4. How the pain makes the target audience feel.
  5. The benefits of the solution I’m proposing.
  6. Any other key points.
  7. A call to action.
  8. When the email will be sent.

Of course, this process looks different for everyone. Linda Grant from Vero shared her process as well:

“Gathering insights, understanding your audience (including their journey, motivations, barriers, engagement), setting clear objectives, identifying key success metrics, testing strategy, creating key messages and benefits, and planning out the next steps in the journey are all essential for crafting successful emails.”

Transactional Emails vs. Promotional Emails

Last, but certainly not least, you’ll need to consider what type of email to send. Usually, the emails you send will fall into one of two categories: transactional or promotional.

Transactional emails are functional. Think welcome emails, receipts, notifications, reminders, etc. Promotional emails, on the other hand, raise awareness for campaigns and promotions. For example, Father’s Day, Black Friday Cyber Monday, etc.

Neither type is inherently better than the other and, often, you’ll be using both. Though, it’s important to understand how they each perform.

Transactional emails, being more function, set off fewer spam filters in the minds of readers. That makes them a powerful conversion tool. According to one study, transactional emails result in more opens and clicks than promotional emails.

The point here is that when you think of email marketing, I’m willing to bet you think of promotional emails first. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t discount the power of transactional emails amidst the excitement of promotional emails.

More importantly, don’t allow promotional emails to let you lose sight of what email is at its core: a relationship. The moment someone gives you their email, they’re deciding to start a relationship with you.

The moment someone gives you their email, they’re deciding to start a relationship with you.”

It’s easy to fall into the sell, sell, sell, sell trap. Resist the urge, my friend!

As Janet Choi of explains, email is a long-term investment, not a get rich quick scheme:

“The most expensive mistake I see is when businesses lose sight of the power of email as a channel to invest in their brand and long-term relationships with their customers. When that happens, it can be easy to treat email like an ATM or a button to push—for money or information that will make you money — instead of paying attention to the people behind (or in front?) of their inbox.

Of course increasing revenue and growth are marketers’ goals but the approach is what I’m talking about. Losing sight of audiences has created a world of inboxes with a million boring emails that tend to push yet another sale, offer, or request. And that totally wastes the power of email as a channel to nurture, grow, and inform the whole customer experience in interesting, creative, relevant ways.

It’s impossible to build a great customer relationship without paying attention to the customer. And in the end, that affects the bottom line in the long-term.”

In our next email marketing course lesson we’ll start writing those emails.

Next up: Story telling, subject lines, the preview pane and the copy itself –>

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