Field Notes from My $6 Million Year

Email Marketing Field Notes

Over the past 12 months, I’ve written copy that’s generated over $6 million in sales (that I know of) for my clients. The weapon of choice has been email marketing.

That number is not meant to impress you, but to reassure you that what I’m about to share with you has been proven to work in the real world

I’m not sharing what I’ve heard about, but what I’ve experienced firsthand.

This could probably be a book, but I’ll keep it brief for now and we can dive into some details in the Email Copywriting Corner Facebook group if you’re interested. (You’ll have to request access if you’re not already a member.)

Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned, relearned or doubled down on this year:

1) Don’t assume you know your audience

Ask questions, do surveys, but most importantly, pay attention to the actions they take when interacting with your content.

  • What kind of subject lines do they open?
  • Where do they click?
  • What length seems to work best?
  • What kind of offers do they respond to?
  • What totally bombs?

2) Test a lot of (wildly different) things

This ties to the previous idea. You can’t measure the relative effectiveness of one proposition against another unless they’re different enough to be unmistakable from each other. That’s especially true when you don’t have tens of thousands of people seeing and reacting to the message.

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. You can still test a red button vs. a blue one, but that’s not where breakthroughs are going to happen.

One example from early this year was a ~300 word email pointing to a long sales page vs. a 1500 word email going to an order form. In this particular instance, the long email outperformed the short one by 5X. This one baffled the heck out of me!

On the other hand, some of the highest converting landing pages I’ve seen only have one sentence on them. Different ideas work on different offerings, even with the same audience. That’s why you have to keep testing!

Customers vote with their money - Richard Armstrong
Customers tell you the truth by what they BUY. I stole this slide from Richard Armstrong’s AWAI keynote

3) Quality is better than quantity

Not every company agrees. Even some of the clients I’ve worked with don’t agree. You can treat list building as a pure “numbers game” and bring in the maximum number of people with vague or misleading squeeze pages and hope some of them will eventually become good customers or clients. I believe and have generally found that being “for” a specific audience, with specific promises and a distinct voice will bring in far smaller numbers of far superior readers/prospects.

4) The most important thing is the offer, or more specifically, your Audience-Offer Alignment

Strong copy can only do so much for you. Selling something people want is much more important — and easier than convince them to buy something that doesn’t obviously fit into their plans/priorities.

5) Your reader responds how you train him to respond — starting with how you acquired him

If you bring in subscribers with a fear-based offer or lead magnet, that sets the stage for what they’ll expect in the future. It may be difficult to pivot later. If you offer discounts at the end of every month, they won’t respond to offers early in the month. If you always extend your deadline, they won’t take them (or you) seriously.

Brian Kurtz wrote a great article exploring this point, with a Gary Bencivenga/Boardroom case study.

Clarity and consistency are necessary for building trust and setting appropriate expectations. Variety is critical for maintaining interest and curiosity.

6) People are getting smarter, so response is harder than ever to get

Many marketers are resorting to gimmicks to overcome our instant delete reflexes: bait and switch subject lines and body copy. Using “re:” and one-word subject lines to catch you off guard and get the click.

Those tactics do work — but they’re getting less effective every day because you can only fool someone so many times. Use such techniques sparingly. Rather, strive to be truly valuable, interesting and trustworthy to your readers.

In other words, don’t try to be slick. It’s a bad long-term plan — and it’s not great in the near-term, either.

 7) Stories sell

You’ve heard it a thousand times, and it’s no less true now than it was the first time. Personal stories, historical anecdotes, even fun little facts get people reading, keep them interested and neutralize their resistance, at least temporarily.

I’ve seen the addition of a narrative element double clickthrough rates and triple conversion rates vs. straight product description or marketing talk.

8) Sequences, not single shots

Give yourself more shots by communicating in sequences rather than single blasts. And if you connect one email to the next, you can increase readership and compound the persuasive power of the campaign as a whole.

Just remember to test this. One of the most recent tests I did pitted a single email vs. two email, one-day offer — and the single email outpeformed by about 20%.

9) Urgency works like nothing else

Most people procrastinate as if their sanity depends on it. Deadlines move people to action. Open invitations are often ignored.

10) Customer Lifetime Value is the ultimate metric — not open rates or CTR

As Clayton Makepeace told me, if you’re making money on the front end, you’re doing it wrong!

David Deutsch Parris Lampropoulos Clayton Makepeace copywriting
Sitting on stage with direct response titans Clayton Makepeace, David Deutsch and Parris Lampropoulos at an AWAI event

This isn’t necessarily a set-in-cement rule. The point is to abstain from worrying so much about what it costs to acquire customers. Focus on getting as many of the right people on your files as possible. With the right back end, the cost per acquisition is a relatively small matter.

Many entrepreneurs and marketers are too focused on the front end costs. Clayton’s advice is an attempt to rearrange that thinking.

As I mentioned near the beginning, there’s a conversation about these ideas in the Email Copywriting Corner group. If you’re interested in digging in a little more or sharing your experiences, you can do that in the Facebook group or here in the comments.

You can also get exclusive email training at Emails That Make Sales.


Maybe Hope Really Is a Strategy (Copywriting Tip #10)

Quick Copywriting Tip #10: Make your copy empowering, not condemning or depressing.

If the reader benefits just from reading the marketing message, you’ve made the sale before the sale.

One of the most effective ways to empower your reader…to make it easier for him to take the next step towards his desired outcome…is to add an educational element to your copy.

In campaigns I’ve worked over the past few months, I’ve boosted orders as much as 25 to 40% by providing valuable tips, actionable recommendations, etc. right in the sales message instead of just “selling.”.

Quality educational content proves that

  1. you actually know what you’re talking about — you’re not just a product-pusher and
  2. begins to demonstrate to the reader that HE CAN DO THIS, that this can actually work for him.

When you do it well, a sense of hope may begin to form in the reader’s mind: hope that result he imagines can finally become reality.

When you instill real hope, you win an important victory — and the long-term benefits accrue for both you and your reader.

I got an email a couple weeks ago gets it terribly wrong, I think:

good luck copywriting tip

The “expert” shared some valuable tips, then implied I’d struggle to implement them successfully without his on-going help.


I have no problem with sales pressure and urgency, but if this is a big turn-off. At least for me.

So be careful how you approach this. In the long-run, it pays off to be genuinely helpful.

— —

Read all 13 Quick Copywriting Tips here.


Email Copywriting Masterclass Tonight

Email Copywriting

I wanted to let you know about the a free Email Copywriting Masterclass I’m giving with Conrad Deas, one of the most creative, engaging and prolific writers I know.

Conrad and I will be on Facebook Live TONIGHT (June 22) at 8:00pm Eastern, barring any unforeseen technical difficulties.

We’ll be coming to you live from the Hilton Chicago Indian Lakes Resort, where Conrad is speaking at Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning Mastery event.

You must request access to the Email Copywriting Corner FB group in order to see it live and participate.

During the broadcast, we will reveal:

  – specific ways to generate tons of great ideas

  – 5 proven psychological principles guaranteed to get and keep your readers attention 

  – painful mistakes many people make that suck the life out of their emails and sabotage their customer relationships

  – battle-tested formulas we use to construct compelling emails more easily than you may think possible, and

  – our best tips for getting readers to take action after reading your emails.

We’re going to try to answer viewer questions, too. But you have to be live during the broadcast!

Again, request to join the Email Copywriting Corner on Facebook to get access.

Whether you’re a copywriter an entrepreneur who wants to connect better with your customers (and sell more stuff, without being pushy, greasy or sleazy), you’re not going to want to miss this.

Hope to see you tonight!

**Update** If you know you should be sending more emails to your list, but you have trouble finding ideas to write about, Emails That Make Sales may be just what you’re looking for. You’ll get enough ideas to write an email every day of the month (if you’d like), along with multiple ways to approach each idea. You’ll also receive exclusive training to write better emails faster.

**Update #2 [5/10/17]** We’ve just made the recording of most of this masterclass available to the public. Enjoy!



I Always Listen to My Clients, But…

“I always listen to everything my clients have to tell me. And then I ignore them… I write it the way it’s supposed to be, up to, and including, sometimes changing the offer without their permission.” ~ John Nicksic

So much for permission-based marketing!  …I’m kidding.

Seriously though, there an a few important lessons here. Today, I only want to talk about the most obvious takeaway.

No Disrespect Intended

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Nicksic, let me fill you in. He’s one of the highest-paid old-school direct mail copywriters around. He’s learned a few things about printed persuasion over the years.

When he says he ignores his clients, he’s not being a jerk. He’s simply using his best judgement as an expert in getting stuff sold. He explains it this way:

“I’m a much better direct mail copywriter than they are, so what do I do? I seize control of the message without asking their permission…

“I rely on the power of the copy I hand them for the first draft. I let them read it and see for themselves how much better it is my way than what they had in mind… They quickly see what I’m up to, why it makes more sense, and why it is time for them to readjust their thinking.”

It’s not an issue of hijacking the words that end up on the page. In most cases the copywriter is expected to lead that charge. The thing that needs to be changed is quite often the proposition itself.

Many business owners are sadly mistaken about how boring their offers are. If the product or service you’re selling doesn’t:

  • promise a benefit that gets the ideal prospect’s blood pumping
  • describe a danger hiding just out of sight, waiting to pounce and devour the ideal prospect
  • offer secret knowledge or exclusive access to something the ideal prospect wants to get his hands on

…or some other such exciting result, it will be next to impossible to write sales copy that’ll fix the problem.

Sales copy isn’t designed to make lame products exciting. It’s supposed to

  • extract the interesting and useful elements of a quality product
  • shine a spotlight on them and
  • draw buyers over to take advantage of the newly-exposed value.

A boring offer is a problem that needs to be fixed. Sometimes that means ignoring a client.

I Missed It Bad…

One of my clients had the opportunity to write an email to the subscribers of a well-known personal finance newsletter last week. (I’m excluding names to protect everyone involved, except myself.) The list was 29K strong, all paid subscribers. My client sells a product these subscribers KNOW they need. The tricky part is, a lot of them already own one.

Positioned properly, it could have been a slam dunk.

I spent 3 days writing a 300-word email that would planted doubts about the quality of the product they already owned, insinuated that there is critical information they’ve never been told and gave them access the “hidden truth” in a nonthreatening way.

The marketing director loved it and sent it up the chain for final approval.

The big boss vetoed the free info offer. Instead, he opted to go for the sale immediately with an educational but generic pitch.

The results: 28,987 emails delivered, 14% open rate (which I’m told is over 3 times the average for marketing emails to that list) and 6% click per open.

email marketing client

The number that matters? The email only produced 3 leads. That means only one in about 10,000 people who received the email became leads. When I checked on the results yesterday, none of them purchased the product.

I was bummed out all day.

70% of Copywriting Success Is in the Offer

Denny Hatch estimates that the efficacy of an online marketing promotion depends 70% on the offer, 10% on the list, and 20% on creative (copy and design).

In the case above, I missed it.

I could have taken a more aggressive stance, as Nicksic recommends. I caved without a fight, hoping to keep the client happy. As a result, a pretty massive opportunity slipped through our fingers.

Take note: Even with a great list and a solid product, you have to have an enticing offer.

P.S. I always advise clients and colleagues to make it easy for customers to take the first step. Going directly for the sale isn’t always the best idea.

What are you doing today to make it easy for your “should-be” customers to take the first step toward you?



My Top 5 Email Subject Lines from 2014

Email marketing results are measured in a few different ways: open rate, clickthroughs, revenue, etc. Open rate is one of the most widely-used and probably the one we have the most control over as marketers.

Emails that don’t get opened don’t accomplish much else, so it’s a good place to start.

I wanted to share the best email subject lines I used in 2014, as measured by open rate. These results are from my own email newsletter. Subject lines from my client work went as high as 81%, which is more of a testament to the quality of the client’s relationship with his audience than my copywriting abilities, all the way down into single-digit percentages. I don’t like to talk about that part.

Here are my top five from last year, and why I think they worked so well. There is also a quick summary at the end with key takeaways you can use right away.

#1: Kindle Book Giveaway from Two of My Favorite Marketers – 47.3%

No matter how overused it seems, “free” still works. But in a time when there’s so much information available for no charge, even free stuff needs to be sold.

Because I’ve earned the trust of my subscribers, and they know I won’t put anything in front of them unless it’s valuable (or fun), they listen to my recommendations most of the time. Pointing to a helpful free resource sounded like a good idea to them.

Note: the 3rd highest open rate I achieved in 2013 also pointed to a giveaway, also a Kindle Book. “One of the World’s Most Trusted Email Marketers Wants You to Have This” got a 48.6% open rate.

#2: Why You Should Stop Thinking Big – 45.7%

Taking a position opposite what is popular also gets attention and generates curiosity. Common advice is almost always to think big. Saying that someone thinks too small is an insult.

Bigger isn’t always better, as Volkswagen has proven.

VW think smallSubtly, this subject line also implies that the reader is doing something wrong, something they never even thought to question. Curiosity and self-interest practically force him to open the email to find out if he’s making the mistake of thinking too big, and how he can fix it.

#3: <First Name>, This Is Probably the Main Thing Holding You Back – 44.2%

This subject line also speaks to the reader’s self-interest. If you’ve felt held back at all…if you you haven’t made as much progress as you had hoped…you want to know why. And how to fix it. This wording implies that there’s “insider information” as to what’s preventing you from being as successful as you want to be and offers hope that there’s a solution close at hand.

I believe the body of the email offered some darn good insights that helped my readers move forward.

Adding the recipient’ first name to the subject line may have also had an impact. I rarely do that, so this subject stood out as extra personal.

Taken in isolation, this is the most profitable single email I wrote all year.

#4: How to Be Assertive Without Making People Run at the Sight of You – 44.2%

A lack of assertiveness is a major pain point for me. A good portion of my list share some of my personality traits, so quite a few of them have the same problem.

On the other hand, many entrepreneurs, leaders and people in sales positions (who make up the majority of my audience) have no problem with being assertive, but they may worry about coming on too strong. I wasn’t aiming this email at that crowd, but I’m sure some were drawn in anyway.

In fact, I wrote this email because of how much havoc my passive disposition was causing in the way I managed my time. Because a lot of my readers are a lot like me, I researched and wrote for myself, knowing it would help them as well.

A lot of your readers are a lot like you, too. Or, they’re a lot like the persona you’ve created for your business, brand or spokesperson. That perception of interpersonal similarity and shared values goes a long way. Make the most of that resonance.

#5: Writing Copy to Sell Your “Crazy” Offer – 44.1%

My newsletter supposed to be about copywriting. Most of my readers connect with me for that reason. So it makes sense that subscribers would open an email that explicitly states it’s about writing copy.

Also, everyone on my list would like to get more sales. I’ve made a promise in the subject line to help them out in this area.

This subject also connects this email to the previous one. Anyone who had read the previous newsletter (which was the 7th most-opened email of the year) would see a connection and probably want to follow the “continuing saga.” The tie back to the last email opens a loop that can only be closed by reading the current email.

Speaking of crazy offers, have you heard about this one from Art Van Furniture?

Crazy Offers Marketing Sales

Who wouldn’t like free furniture?

This store is driving action (sales) by making a crazy offer: if it snows more than 3 inches on Super-Sunday, anyone who buys furniture during the promotional period will get a full reimbursement.

Key Takeaways for Writing Subject Lines that Get Emails Opened

Freebies still work. But just because they’re free, doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard to sell them.

Speaking of free, Creating Business Growth, a book I’ve co-authored, is available on Amazon Kindle for no cost until January 5th. It has already reached bestseller status in several countries. Get your copy here.

— “Curiosity is the strongest human incentive.” Claude Hopkins

— Appeal to the self-interest rather than the coolness of the thing you want to talk about. (E.g., this email is about email subject lines that have worked well for me, but I’m writing it because I know you’re looking for ways to continually improve your email marketing results.)

— Solve problems. Offer hope.

— Remember the values you share in common with your subscribers. More than we tend to realize, people are looking to connect with people who are like them. When they see themselves and their values reflected in others, it’s naturally attractive. As C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…'”

Email series work well. Leaving open loops from one message to the next increases readership. Talking about your chosen topic more than once also helps drive the point home.

Make big offers. You can’t bore people into opening your emails.

For exclusive training to help you write better emails, faster than you may think possible, check out Emails That Make Sales.


7 Email Marketing Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

Nowadays, I don’t spend very much time on LinkedIn Answers, but the other day I saw a question that I could help out with.

The questionWhat should never be included in an email marketing campaign?

My (slightly modified) response: 
1) Don’t make claims without proof. Skepticism is at an all time high. Everyone is scared of getting burned. If you make claims that you don’t back up in the body of the email, you’re setting your campaign up to fail.

2) Never use deception.

3) Generic language is a bad idea. Craft your message so that you’re talking to ONE PERSON. Be as specific & vivid as possible.

4) Don’t use untintelligible language. Overly technical terminology can kill a sales message especially in B2C campaigns. Refrain from using jargon unless you know for sure your audience will understand.

Confused customers don’t buy.

Use the language that your readers use in their own conversations.

5) Avoid links to unrelated sites. If the body of the email is about consumer electronics, don’t insert links to a Viagra vendor.

5.1) Don’t use any links or make any reference whatsoever to Viagra.

6) The copy should not focus on YOU (the sender). It really shouldn’t even be about your product or service. Rather, speak about the recipient and his/her needs/wants and how your offering can satisfy those desires.

7) Each email should try to accomplish ONE objective. You lose readership when you go off in too many directions.

Direct mail legend Dick Benson once said that “you cannot sell two things at once.” Choose one thing.

That’s what autoresponder sequences are for. Multiple emails allow you to focus on or sell more than one product or service

P.S. If at all possible, the emails should come from a recognizable sender. Even non-spam messages look like spam if they’re sent from strangers.

If you’re emailing cold, attach/associate yourself with someone your list knows and trusts/


Is Marketing Getting Too Relevant?

Is it possible to be too relevant?

Apparently that is something that Staples fears. Take a look at the Unsubscribe Email page:

Too Relevant

It’s small, so you may have difficulty reading the words in the image. Listed are the different reasons people may want to opt-out of receiving emails from Staples. The circled reason says “Staples emails are too relevant (feel watched).

This inspires a question — is marketing getting to be too targeted?

(By the way, if you’d like to make your email marketing more relevant — without getting creepy — you may want to take a look at Emails That Make Sales.)