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.


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.