Email list building is incredibly important. 

I rarely get through an episode of How I Built It without a guest mentioning the importance of growing your list. But… once you’ve got a decent list — what the heck do you do with it!? How can you create emails people actually like? And how can you create email copy that turns readers into customers? 

Copywriter Matt DeFeo has some ideas. 

Matt describes himself as a storyteller, and it’s this trait that convinced him to focus on email. In Episode 223 of How I Built It, we talk all things email marketing. Some golden nuggets from the conversation:

  • Great email requires two key elements: an enticing subject line and copy that tells a story.
  • Dodge your recipient’s spam folder by setting up your Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM). And if it’s a cold email, avoid links and GIFs.
  • Be funny! People get multiple emails and newsletters every day. Humor is one way to make yours stand out so they want to keep reading.

The business benefits of email are clear too. According to HubSpot, email marketing has a return on investment (ROI) of $42 for every $1 spent. Matt says that some of his clients see an ROI as high as $55 for every $1 they spend on email campaigns.

Read on to learn how to avoid the dreaded spam folder, craft a subject line people won’t be able to resist, and what and how to A/B test.

Email marketing 101: Make sure you don’t get sent to spam

You could craft the greatest email ever written and it will have no impact at all if it goes straight to everyone’s spam. Here’s how to avoid that.

  1. Set up your SPF and DKIM

No, we’re not talking about sun lotion. In this case, SPF stands for Sender Policy Framework, and DKIM means DomainKeys Identified Mail. In short, setting these on your personal website proves to email providers that the email you’re sending is linked to your domain, which means you’re less likely to be labeled as spam. Here’s a quick tutorial.

  1. Don’t send GIFs in cold emails

Resist the temptation to pepper cold emails with hilariously spot-on gifs. Gmail, in particular, tends to relegate GIF-containing emails from non-contacts to the spam folder.

  1. Stick to one link in cold emails

Similar to the GIF embargo, Gmail is more likely to interpret emails from non-contacts as spam if they contain more than one link. So keep it link-lite until they’ve subscribed.

  1. Warm up subscribers’ emails

If your email account is brand new or very old, with little recent activity, email providers will suspect that it’s a bot account set up to spam. Warm-up services like Lemlist send automated emails back and forth between their users, so you can build up communications that prove you’re a real human — and get you past the email providers.

The opening act: craft an irresistible email subject line

Your email has skirted your recipient’s spam folder and landed in their inbox. Now you have to convince them to open it — which is where subject line craftsmanship comes into play.

People get a lot of emails, and they decide which ones to read by the subject line. This is your opportunity to entice them in.

Matt starts with a subject line generator. Different generators use different components. For example, Automizy generates subject lines based on the content of your email, whereas ActiveCampaign asks for keywords and a category.

Once Matt’s got his automatically generated subject line, he tweaks it to make it more offbeat. 

The most impactful feature of a subject line is its ability to stand out. Spelling out exactly what your email is about is fine. But if you put something a little bit weird, you’ll stir up people’s curiosity. They’ll click just to find out what you’re talking about.

Matt also advises against using people’s names, because at this point it feels phony. We all know you sent this email to 10,000 other people: automatically adding my name in the subject line feels like an inauthentic and lazy shot at personalization, not the real thing.

Tell a story

If the subject line is the trailer, the main body of your email is the feature presentation. And like a movie, it needs a strong story to be a hit.

Getting wrapped up in a story is human nature, and brands need to play to that. Being informative isn’t enough: you have to keep your readers entertained right to the end of the email.

Everyone has stories other people will be interested in. When you’re with your friends, talking and laughing, what’s the story you tell? What’s your go-to anecdote? You can also borrow stories from other people: comedians do this all the time.

Speaking of comedians, humor is another great way to get your readers engaged. You don’t have to be a wannabe stand-up, either. If you don’t know how to be funny in writing, for emails you’re sending to your subscribers, you can let GIFs do the talking.

Your emails should be valuable to your readers, yes. But to provide that information, you need to get them past the first sentence, and storytelling and humor are the most effective ways to do that.

How to get people to talk to you

Some email newsletters include interviews with customers, about how they use the product or service, why they like it, etc. If you’re struggling to find people who are willing to talk to you, here’s how to convince them.

🤑 Pay them. Pay interviewees a small financial reimbursement. People will be more willing to put in the time and effort to talk to you if they feel like they’re getting paid for it.

🎁 Give them a small gift. Alternatively, offer interviewees a free product or service. For example, make a short video for them, or give them a personalized eBook based on a template you can reproduce with a few modifications. 

🔎 Focus on them. People don’t want to spend 30 minutes talking about how amazing your company is — but most people will be happy to wax lyrical about their own successes, including your supporting role in them.

Test what works 

Most email software allows you to A/B test different subject lines and email content. This will help you finetune your email campaign to get as many opens and click-throughs as possible.

Matt recommends starting with subject lines. For example, pit the offbeat version against something more straightforward, and see which has a higher open rate. Try different jokes to gauge your audience’s sense of humor.

Once you’ve tested that, you can move on to tweaking the body of your emails. Change the sentence that includes the link, to see if you can get more people to click on it. Change the first few lines to see if more people make it all the way through to the call to action at the bottom.

Writing emails people are excited to open and engage with is as much an art as it is a science. But if you follow Matt’s advice, you give yourself a better chance of finding out what your readers want, and convincing them that of all the emails they receive, yours are worth reading.

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