January 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Omit needless words

In e-mail marketing, less is more: The fewer words, the more effective the message.

By Mark Brohan

Talk about being direct. An e-mail from ShoeBuy.com this winter advertised discounts on its inventory of 3,000 styles of winter boots and alerted shoppers to ShoeBuy’s standard offers of free shipping, free return shipping and no sales tax-all in 60 words. “We like to say we use a few choice words to deliver a very big message,” says Nick Copley, vice president of marketing for ShoeBuy.

ShoeBuy has learned what many other online retailers are still discovering: Less is more. Its winter e-mail campaign produced a 30% open rate, a 35% click-through rate and a 6.5% sales conversion rate. “That campaign worked because we emphasized winter, reminded customers that it’s cold outside and used several value propositions to motivate customers to click and buy-in a very short message,” Copley says.

With only a second or two to hook the e-mail reader, online retailers can literally win or lose business in the blink of an eye. In catalogs and circulars, retailers and direct marketers have the luxury of using a few extra column inches or lines of text to romance the reader with a new offer or product innovation. But in e-mail, they need copy that’s short, to-the-point and compelling.

“Many retailers still treat e-mail as cheap paper and that’s why they are getting poor campaign results,” says Chris Baggott, co-founder and chief marketing officer of ExactTarget Inc, an e-mail marketing service provider. “They put their weekly circulars or monthly catalog copy into an e-mail and send it out carte blanche.”

ShoeBuy, which produces at least two e-mail marketing campaigns each month for an opt-in list of more than 500,000 subscribers, knows the value of writing effective e-mail copy. In its promotional e-mails, ShoeBuy keeps its subject lines to fewer than 10 words, seldom uses more than 100 words in the body and always uses active language to solicit a response. “A good piece of copy doesn’t need to use a lot of words to deliver an effective value proposition,” Copley says. “A little can go a long way.”

The trigger words

Web retailers are committing major time and money to building highly segmented opt-in lists, designing e-mail messages with sophisticated images and using web analytics and click-stream analysis to track their campaigns. But many marketing managers and copy writers are also producing e-mail content that’s ineffective, ignored by shoppers and blocked by spam filters. “Taking a traditional print approach to e-mail marketing doesn’t produce effective results,” Baggott says. “E-mail promotions need to be very interactive and give the readers numerous chances to click on a link for follow-up information or a conduct a transaction.”

After several years of e-mail marketing, retailers have the technology down pretty well, and understand the importance-and ease-of segmentation, participants say. And generally, they group their e-mail marketing campaigns into three categories: promotional blasts, online newsletters and customer loyalty program updates.

But in their e-mail copy, most web retailers need to do a better job of personalizing their messages and creating content that provokes a reaction. “Good e-mail marketing copy makes excellent use of ‘trigger’ words and phrases that are placed strategically throughout even a short message to prompt a response from the reader,” says Elaine O’Gorman, vice president of strategy for Silverpop, an e-mail services company. “A good message doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too much hype, but it should drive home the point that the best time to act is now.”

From a company

Jones Apparel Group, which operates e-commerce sites for three brands-NineWest.com, EasySpirit.com and Bandolino.com-is one of the retailers that has it down, observers say. It uses a database of multi-channel customer information to develop segmented e-mail lists before developing a new campaign. Then it applies certain best practices across the entire list-for instance, clearly identifying itself in the “from” line-then crafts messages pertinent to each list. Finally, it monitors responses and makes changes on the fly.

“Putting an individual brand such as Nine West or Easy Spirit in the ‘from’ line is important from a copy writing standpoint because it immediately establishes our name in the customer’s mind,” says Dianne Binford, vice president of multi-channel marketing. “We don‘t write ‘From Dianne@EasySpirit.com’ because that could be mistaken for spam.”

The next step in the copy process is creating a personalized subject line that conveys an offer or a promotion that prompts a call to action. In a holiday e-mail campaign to a segment of its Nine West opt-in e-mail list, Jones included each recipient’s first name and the phrase, “your free shipping is calling.” “That e-mail had a pretty good subject line because it was personalized and the use of the word ‘your’ prompted a call to action,” Binford says. “The subject line let our readers and shoppers know at a quick glance at their inbox that we had a special offer just for them.”

Tests within hours

Jones, which averages an open rate of 40% and click-through rate of 18% on most of its e-mail campaigns, usually tests a subject line several times over the first hour of an e-mail blast, measures the results, then broadcasts the remaining messages with a rewritten subject line or the subject line that produced the best initial open rate.

Jones also writes its e-mail marketing copy in a highly individualized style that includes multiple offers and reminders that customers can shop Nine West or Easy Spirit across several channels.

In a recent campaign to certain EasySpirit.com shoppers, Jones created language that made the message very timely for customers who have a difficult time finding shoes in a narrow width. The copy included several references to finding hard-to-find, narrow shoes and promotions that reminded EasySpirit.com shoppers they could qualify for free standard shipping with any purchase of athletic footwear, receive a duffel bag with their purchase or enter a sweepstakes.

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