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Perfect your e-mail pitch with these simple rules

Pity the e-mails that get sent from businesses to customers on a mailing list: They have a daunting task cut out for them. Each one has to run a gauntlet of spam filters, only to end up in a crowded inbox, begging for the attention of a recipient who already has far too much e-mail to read. Given the grace of a few seconds' attention – if that – they have to convince a consumer not just to open them, but to take action on what's inside.

Mission impossible? Not necessarily. E-mail can be an effective tool – but its authors need to write with discipline, and hew to some guiding principles if they want their pitch to hit home.

Capture their interest: The mass e-mail starts with the subject line, which will help determine if the reader so much as opens the message. A generic subject line won't cut it. A business that sends out an e-mail subject-lined "Monthly newsletter" assumes that recipients take a particular joy in reading newsletters; with all respect to newsletter-lovers, this might not always be the case.

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Your subject line needs to give a customer a reason to open the e-mail, be it a valuable offer or an attention-grabbing piece of news. Be concrete, not vague, in your description of what's inside. If an item is on sale, don't lead with fuzzy talk of "Great values on all items." Instead, the subject line should let customers know that they can get "30% off on Acme Widgets this week."

Keep it short: Finding the sweet spot between e-mails that are too long and short to the point of being spartan varies from one context to the next – but by common agreement, less is more.

This is especially true in e-mails pitching a product or special offer to consumers.

"Usually those are really short and sweet e-mails," says Ezra Silverton, president of 9th Sphere, a Richmond Hill web design and marketing firm. "You have less than a minute to get someone's attention."

To that end, keeping the sheer quantity of material in an e-mail to a minimum is important. Optics matter: Watch out for intimidating-looking blocks of text; break them up with bullet points to highlight key points if necessary.

Moreover, keep a grip on how much you're asking your readers to take action on. If an e-mail pitch contains 15 links to 15 different product offerings, the odds go up that readers won't know which one is really worth their while.

"If you take your flyer and convert it to an e-mail, the likelihood is you won't see great success because you're throwing 101 things onto the screen, and asking the recipient to decide what to do," says Jeff Morin, an account supervisor at Cornerstone, a Toronto-based digital marketing consultancy. "It tends to be smaller businesses that do that."

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Instead, he suggests, stick to a single call-to-action. Keep your e-mail simple, and if readers click through to your website, they can be tempted with other options there if need be.

Weigh the graphic equation: Illustrating a mass e-mail is common today – but not actually a necessity. E-mail with graphics and layout embedded, or HTML e-mail, is more visually appealing and can help where a valuable brand is involved. However, it complicates matters on the reading side, introducing technical variables (and risks of mis-delivery that go with them) that just aren't there with plain text. In the interests of keeping things simple and reaching as absolutely many clients as possible, some e-mailers just forego graphics altogether.

If you do want to include an image, the keep-it-simple mantra still applies. Instead of a complicated design working in a patchwork of images, like you'd see on a web page, go for a single image that gets to the point – what marketers might call the "hero image."

"Use one simple key image that really talks to the e-mail," says Mr. Silverton. "It doesn't need to be extravagant."

Mind your p's and q's: A few practical considerations are always worth keeping in mind. First, double-check to make sure that all your hyperlinks and URLs will fit on one line. If the line wraps, the link might break, and only the most dogged of customers will reassemble it. Second, make sure each e-mail has unsubscribe information and links attached. (Your e-mail service provider should be able to look after this.) Third, making sure your company's contact information is on the message can help increase your credibility in the eyes of consumers overwhelmed with unsigned, impersonal e-mail traffic.

Test your work: Internet marketing gives businesses the chance to test out pitches and tactics to see what works; e-mail marketing is no exception. Don't blast messages into the void without finding out how well they worked.

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Depending on the software you're using to manage your e-mail list, you should be able to send one version of your e-mail pitch to one section of your list, while another block of recipients can receive another version. This can be used to see which subject lines lead to the most opened e-mails, and which approaches to pitching lead to the most click-throughs to your website.

A second worthwhile avenue for testing is to check your message's spam score. Spam is a constant presence in the world of e-mail marketing, and making sure your message doesn't get mixed up with peddlers of v-1-a-g-1-r-a is always a concern. To that end, you can run your newsletter through spam score checkers – sites like or – which emulate the kind of filters that your message will have to pass through on its way to recipients' mailboxes.

The series continues next Monday. Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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