Email content

Estimated reading time: 23 minutes

The success or failure of your email marketing efforts ultimately comes down to the content of your emails. “Content” includes every element in your emails, from the headline on top to the footer on the bottom and all the copy and photos in between. And, obviously, the more effective your content, the better your emails will convert.

In this lesson, we look at the overarching philosophy that drives effective email content—keeping it anticipated, personal, and relevant. We also break down how your content is shaped by the sales funnel—creating awareness, building interest, pushing toward a decision, and, finally, leading to action—and how elements like headlines, pictures, copy, and the call-to-action fit into the funnel.

“Anticipated, personal, relevant”

In our lesson on incentivizing people to join an email list, we opened by discussing the notion of, “What’s in it for me?” We did that because that’s the overarching principle of email list building—whether you put a signup form on your sidebar, promote your list on Facebook with paid ads, or run a Super Bowl commercial, none of it matters if you’re not constantly putting yourself in a potential subscriber or customer’s shoes and asking, “What do I get from subscribing?”

For that same reason, we’re starting this lesson on email content with another all-encompassing mantra: “Anticipated, personal, relevant.” It comes from the book Permission Marketing by Seth Godin and sums up exactly what you need to think about to guide every email content decision.

Anticipated

Anticipated refers to two things. One, getting permission to send emails to people. And two, making sure your subscribers are receptive to your emails. That involves setting expectations on frequency, the types of content you’ll send, and fulfilling the promises you made about what you’d be sending when they subscribed. 

This Lowe’s email features their weekly deals and even reminds me why I’m getting it in the subject line: “Say Hello to Your Weekly Savings!” With that subject, even if I wasn’t actively sitting at my computer anticipating the arrival of my weekly Lowe’s email, when it does come in, it feels anticipated because I remember I signed up for weekly deals.

An example of an anticipated email.

When it comes to the content of your email, “anticipated” means taking a step back and asking yourself if the subscriber will be happy to open your email, to read it, and to read the next one. The next two items, personal and relevant, help make that happen.

Personal

We’ll cover personalization in the next lesson, but even if your email isn’t personalized by including a person’s name or other dossier info, it still needs to feel like you’re sending the email to each and every subscriber with their specific needs in mind. You can’t customize every email for every subscriber—but with segmentation (which allows for personalization at scale), you can come close.

In an idealized email marketing world, every email you sent would be personalized and/or segmented. In practice, that’s probably too tough to pull off—not even the giant retailers with their giant email marketing budgets customize every email. However, the more you can personalize and segment, the more personally relevant the emails you send will be—and the more effective they will be.

In an idealized email marketing world, every email you sent would be personalized and/or segmented.

Until then, as you’re crafting your content, picture one of your customers reading it. Do they feel like you’re speaking directly to them, giving them what you promised when they subscribed, and offering a solution to their specific needs and problems? 

This email from Uniqlo is personalized to me based on past purchases. While the model is about 20 years younger than me and I don’t weigh 74 pounds, I do wear hoodies quite a bit and I’ve shopped for them on the past at Uniqlo.

An example of a personalized email.

Relevant

Relevance is important when it comes to marketing because, really, no one’s going to spend money on something that’s irrelevant to them. If you send an email to all of your customers in Maine selling your “Don’t mess with Texas” t-shirts, it’s unlikely you’ll make any sales. (If you advertise them your “Don’t mess with lobsters” t-shirts, then you’ll start raking in the sales.)

As we discussed in our section on why people unsubscribe from marketing emails, “irrelevant emails/emails don’t focus on my needs” was a top three reason. To keep your emails relevant they need to be timely, there needs to be a clear reason why you sent them, and they need to speak to your customers’ needs.

Here’s a back to school email from Half Price Books that’s relevant in two ways: Both in terms of the timing of the send (early August) and the content (supplies to buy my kids for school). They even offer a back to school discount code at the top of the email—and randomly throw in a “funny” item with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg plush doll to keep me reading and engaged.

An example of a relevant email.

To stay relevant, you also have to be careful about constantly demanding from your customers without ever giving anything back. That doesn’t mean you have to offer great, non-sales-y content most of the time, then occasionally asking them to spend money. Being more giving than demanding is about meeting the promise you made to your subscribers. If you promised that subscribing to your list meant “exclusive discounts” but your marketing emails always just promote stuff at full price or with generic discounts you’re offering to everyone who goes to your eCommerce store, then your emails are demanding without giving.

There’s a marketing theory called “give, give, give, ask” (or, as one prominent marketing expert calls it, “jab, jab, jab, right hook”). That means you should focus 75 percent of your efforts on giving your customers what they want, be it information, offers, a community, or something else—so you “earn” the goodwill to focus the remaining 25 percent on your needs.

Email copy strategy and the sales funnel

The basic sales funnel, if you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher, is a four-part process that takes a customer through a journey, starting with learning about your store or product and ultimately ending in making a purchase. The four parts are: Awareness, interest, decision, and action.

We’ve organized this section on copy strategy around that funnel because, ultimately, it’s what your marketing emails need to do. You need to make your subscriber aware of something, be it a product, upgrade, feature, offer, request, or piece of information. Build their interest. Persuade them to make a decision. Then give them a clear opportunity to take action.

Email copy and the sales funnel.

Many of the emails you send are probably following the sales funnel model already, even if you’re doing so unintentionally—it’s instinctive, but by giving it a clear focus, it can be more effective. While it’s clear how some emails follow the funnel, say a broadcast email about a sale, for example, even a transactional email about an expiring credit card on file fits into it. It makes a customer aware of an issue, builds an interest and perhaps even explains why they should update their info, persuades them to do so, and ends with a call-to-action (like a button they can click to update their card details).

In this section we’ll go over the four main sections of the sales funnel and the right copy strategies for each, all of which ultimately come together to form a cohesive, effective marketing email.

Headlines (and the first step of the sales funnel, awareness)

Since effective email marketing is almost exclusively opt-in, your emails won’t have to handle early stage awareness: Introducing someone to your brand. They’ve already found your store, and taken a concrete action toward purchase by subscribing to your list (or perhaps they’ve already purchased from you). That being said, if you send emails infrequently or your brand is relatively new and/or unknown, incorporating a quick refresher into the top of your email couldn’t hurt.

By and large, however, the awareness here refers to making your subscriber aware of what you’re promoting with the email. Introduce the product or products you’re selling, the deal you’re offering, the original content you’re sharing, the cart they’ve abandoned, the review you’re requesting, or whatever else you’re aiming to achieve with the email.

The primary place you’ll build awareness is with the headline of your email. Your images and copy will also contribute to awareness, however, the headline is the primary, eye-catching, awareness-building device in your arsenal.

While not every email will have a headline, most will—because they’re awfully important if you want to keep someone reading. (The most notable exception is text-only emails that are meant to mimic personal letters, though other emails you send may also lack headlines.)

As we discussed in our email design lesson, four out of five people will just give your emails a glance or a skim. (PDF)  But an eye-tracking study found that the first text people look at in an email is the headline—meaning it’s your best chance to hook someone to keep them from leaving your email.

The first piece of text that catches the eye in an email is the headline.

Headline length

Since people are glancing at headlines quickly and making snap judgments about whether to continue reading or move on, your headline should be short so it’s something the person can quickly process. People have maximum comprehension at 40 to 55 characters—our brains view that length as a sign that something isn’t too complex and will be easy to take in. But if you’re finding headlines at that size are too long, it’s best to go shorter, not longer.

Studies have also found that with the average headline, people absorb the first three words and the last three words. That’s something to keep in mind as you’re writing longer headlines; the middle is the least likely part to stick in someone’s brain. In this example from Chubbies, the first three words (“10 power moves”) and last three words (“back on campus”) are the most important in a longer headline.

A front and backloaded headline

Teaser versus benefit

When you’re crafting your headline, there are two main stylistic approaches you can take: A teaser or a benefit. A teaser headline would be a marketing slogan or something else that’s designed to intrigue a person to read on.

Here’s a teaser headline from Staples. They quickly explain what it means underneath the headline and illustration—but until you get to that clarification, it’s ambiguous and meant only to get you interested in reading about the promotion.

An example of a teaser headline.

A benefit headline is more straightforward—it’s direct and delivers an exact, succinct summation of what you’re promoting with the email. In this email from NBA Shop, they use a utilitarian, direct benefit headline: The sale (20 percent off), the length of the sale (one day only), the products covered in the sale (all)—and that’s it.

An example of a benefits-driven headline.

The benefit headline also leads into a concept called solution selling—you’re not selling a product, you’re selling what it can do. There’s a cliche that no one is buying a quarter-inch drill bit, they’re buying quarter-inch holes. Can your email headline can sum up the solution that results from the product you’re selling, rather than just the product itself?

Here’s an example from StackSocial. They’re not selling a course on cloud architecture—they’re selling the salary you’d get once you take the course and, therefore, become qualified for a high-paying job.

A headline that sells a benefit.

The different headline strategies can depend on your content but, overall, copywriting experts lean toward going with the benefits headline style over teasers. 

Photos (and the second step of the sales funnel, interest)

Awareness, the first step in the sales funnel, dovetails quite a bit into interest, the second step. You’ll often concurrently make someone aware of what you’re promoting while building interest in it. And while you’ll certainly build interest with your copy, here we’re going to focus on the visuals you use. The photos, after all, will do the heavy lifting in building interest—the copy will be more focused on driving the decision (which we’ll get to in a bit).

The pictures in your email are all about getting a potential customer excited about your product. As we said in our lesson on email design, you want to try to avoid stock photos and instead use photos that feel unique to your brand and, ideally, showcase your products in action. That same idea applies here, but for slightly different reasons. 

Avoid stock photos

You’re trying to build interest in your product. Is a generic office worker sitting at a desk working on a spreadsheet going to help make that happen. Maybe… but probably not. That’s especially true when it comes to the pictures at the top of your email, the pictures that more people will see because they don’t require scrolling. Can a stock photo really build interest and deliver the message you want? If you think so, then by all means, give it a try. But studies show that original photos tend to outperform stock photos when it comes to CTR. Further, because anyone can purchase stock photos, including your competitors, you run the risk of producing content that feels generic and the same as everyone else. 

Photos that look good

A crisp, professional photo (or a really good product photo you take yourself) showcasing a product looks far more enticing than a pixelated product photo with muted colors or unprofessional, unintentional shadows. It’s easier to get interested in a product that looks good—after all, two-thirds of people say the quality of product photos affects their decision on whether to buy something or not.

Here’s an email from Colorware, a company that custom paints electronics. Colorware isn’t a gigantic corporation and (most likely) doesn’t have an email marketing budget in the seven- or even six-figure range, but they’ve invested in professional photographs that best showcase the aesthetics of their product. Without these well-lit and nicely composed professional photos, the products wouldn’t look nearly as good—and likely wouldn’t sell nearly as well.

Professional photography makes a big difference in emails.

Photos that showcase your products

Photos that showcase your product are tied into the solution selling principle that we just discussed in the previous section about headlines. In our section on email design, we featured an email from Yeti that used a photo of a multitasking mom at the beach. Rather than saying “our cooler is great for multitasking moms at the beach,” their picture of a multitasking mom using the cooler at the beach to make her kids happy while staying calm and organized hammered the point home far more effectively. The better job you do demonstrating how your products will improve a customer’s life—whether filling a void, solving a problem, or just making life more fun—the better job you do building interest in your product.

Ideal photos show your products in action—vividly demonstrating how they will improve your target customer’s life.

In this email, Anthropologie isn’t just selling its dress—it’s selling the fun you’ll have wearing the dress to a spring beach party, looking good and kissing cute dogs. It’s not about the dress, it’s about all the cool stuff their target customer would get to do in the dress.

Good photos show your products in action.

Copy (and the third step of the sales funnel, decision)

Your email doesn’t need to be loaded up with copy. As we discussed in the email design lesson, to maximize your click-through rate, the ideal length is about 20 lines of text (which is around 200 words). Here’s an example of an Office Depot/OfficeMax email with approximately 20 short lines of text. As a result, it feels very easy to read and simple to process.

Good copy helps a customer make a decision.

There are a number of different copy strategies you can take as you drive a person toward taking action, all of which fall under different proven psychological approaches to persuasion. (PDF) You can employ one of these or combine a few of them, but in general, these are the content strategies that lead to an effective sales pitch that will drive a decision.

Reciprocation

It’s a quirk of human nature: When someone does us a favor, we feel deeply obliged to return it in kind. That’s why stores will offer “friends and family” discounts to people who are neither friends nor family. That deal is framed as a favor, the store generously letting you in on something exclusive because they like you, and it’s our instinct to return the favor—by actually using that discount to purchase something. For email marketing and decision-driving purposes, reciprocation comes into play in a scenario where you can position your offer as a generous service, exclusive perk, or customer-centric deal (“This weekend, buy any 2020 Ford at the wholesale price!”)

Here’s an email from Chronicle Books using the “friends and family” reciprocation gambit. Notice how the discount they offer is sizable: 35 percent off. When you’re positioning a deal as exclusive, it’s important to make sure the deal comes off that way—that increases the idea that you’re doing a favor.

Copy that uses reciprocation can be very convincing.

Power words for your reciprocation-driven emails include things like select, private, confidential, insider, VIP, exclusive, secret, reserved, elite, and members.

Authority

With the authority strategy, you demonstrate that you’re an expert (if not the top expert) in your space—and because it’s clear you know what you’re talking about, you’re the right person to help the customer get what they want. This strategy works particularly well when you’re selling info products, like courses—but also translates to plenty of other businesses too, from fashion to food to video games.

This email from Vitamin Shoppe positions the store as an authority on a subject lots of people have heard of but few people fully grasp: The growing CBD product market. Notice they have two calls-to-action side-by-side: SHOP NOW and LEARN MORE. Vitamin Shoppe knows that by establishing itself as a knowledgeable authority on a product category with lots of ambiguity it can help customers feel more comfortable purchasing from them. 

Copy that demonstrates authority.

Power words for your authority-driven emails include things like authentic, backed, best selling, don’t worry, endorsed, expert, guaranteed, lifetime, professional, research, scientifically proven, verify, and well-respected.

A subset of authority is demonstrating how easy you’re making things for your customers. In those scenarios, your power words include things like basic, cheat sheet, complete, comprehensive, easy, efficient, effortless, guide, in record time, minutes, now, on demand, quick, ready, simple, and smooth.

Commitment and consistency

People make purchasing decisions that are consistent with their values and their sense of personal identity. One study found 85 percent of Americans prefer companies that have strong values and make positive contributions to society. (PDF) So, ideally, your brand (and/or the product you’re selling) should align with a customer’s own beliefs. Write your copy so it demonstrates how solidly your values and sense of identity line up with the customer’s. (Notice that I wrote “customer’s” and not “customers’”—your goal is to make every individual feel like you’re talking and reaching out specifically to them.) 

This email from the clothing company Design By Humans is all about commitment and consistency. They demonstrate their eco-friendly values—the email is centered around their initiative to plant trees, and how your purchases help that. As a brand targeting primarily millennial customers, a green initiative like that is likely to resonate—three out of four millennials are willing to pay more to environmentally-friendly businesses. The email also ties into personal identity—the picture shows a cool, young woman (wearing a Design By Humans t-shirt) walking in nature. Are the people who got this email reading it in the middle of a beautiful forest? No. Do they wish they were and picture themselves as the kind of person who spends time walking through beautiful forests? Absolutely.

A headline that shows a commitment to values.

Power words for this scenario include amazing, attractive, awe-inspiring, bold, bright, brilliant, clever, elite, epic, genius, good-looking, hero, jaw-dropping, legendary, magic, mild-blowing, noteworthy, strong, successful, ultimate, and you. And, of course, if you’re promoting your socially-conscious values, things like local, sustainable, green, renewable, recycled, awareness, and future will get the message across.

Scarcity, urgency, and exclusivity

The less something is available, the more we want it. If your copy focuses on a limited number of products available, puts a ticking clock (figuratively or, with an animated GIF of a countdown clock, literally) on a sale, notes how infrequently you offer sales, or highlights the newness of a product, you can put someone in the scarcity mindset to immediately take action.

This email from Hiut Denim Co. shows just how simple it is to create a sense of scarcity. It’s just a picture with one sentence about the short run of this particular style of jean. There aren’t any flashing graphics. The word “URGENT” isn’t in big red text. This email just presents an exclusive, high end product with a short run—that alone is enough to get interested customers to buy now.

Copy that creates urgency and scarcity without being over the top.

Power words for this scenario can include now, immediately, today, only, limited, soon, quick, flash, hurry, alert, fast, instant, and wait.

Liking

The more we like someone, the more we want to say yes to them. To translate that to business, the more people like your brand, the more they want to say yes to buying—and one great way to create that bond is by showing off the people behind the brand.

In this email, BottleKeeper tells the story behind its invention to keep beer bottles cold. They’re adding character to their product—and the people behind it. If you’re in their target demographic, hearing about “Cousin Matt and Uncle Van” trying to “choke down warm beer from those plastic red party cups on a hot summer day” resonates with you. And the very tan, shirtless, cowboy hat-wearing, old-but-young-at-heart guy pictured is a vision of their customers (or how their customers intend to look once they’re 30 years older). The story is crafted to make a customer like the BottleKeeper brand and the people behind it and, therefore, want to buy products from the company.

A funny story helps grow a customer's affinity for you.

Power words for this scenario include join, come along, help, promote, and thank you. And you can also convey how you, personally, are excited about the product or deal you’re offering by using words like introducing, new, latest, special, save, try, and ultimate.

Social proof

We look to other people to guide our behavior. It’s not exactly a point of pride for us as a species, but it’s a fact—all of life is seventh grade and we’re constantly just trying to fit in. Social proof is a crucial sales strategy because it helps us mentally justify our decision—if thousands of other people are happily using a product, we feel pretty confident we’ll happily use it too.

You can demonstrate social proof in many ways: Talking about how many units of a product you’ve sold, sharing big social media numbers, and promoting testimonials and reviews are the most common. It’s all playing on our psychological tendency to look to other people for guidance in any situation where we’re unsure.

This email from the clothing company Betabrand loads up the social proof to convince a customer they’re in good company if they buy. “More than one million sold” shows that Betabrand has a ton of customers and is a reputable, established, successful business making quality products. “More than 3,000 five-star reviews” shows how they have lots and lots of customers who were so completely satisfied they felt compelled to share their happiness about the products with the world. And then, under the call-to-action, Betabrand includes two customer testimonials—including Twitter handles to add legitimacy that they come from real people.

Social proof is a powerful copy technique.

Power words for this strategy include things like backed, best-selling, research, proven, secret, reviews, satisfied, and join.

Call-to-action (and the fourth step of the sales funnel, action)

The final step of the sales funnel is the customer taking a decisive action—the entire sales funnel is about guiding the customer toward the call-to-action to make that happen. The call-to-action link or button, then, is the closing pitch—those last few words that bring things home and secure the sale or click.

Keep your emails focused

The more your email can focus on getting a person to take one specific action, the better. An email that’s trying to sell multiple products, get social media followers, grow a VIP club, get reviews, and share a blog post is too unfocused and convoluted—and, as a result, obfuscates the desired result.

The more your email can focus on getting a person to take one specific action, the better.

There’s a psychological principle called Hick’s law that states the more choices you present to someone, the longer it will take them to reach a decision. (Think about all those times you’ve spent 20 minutes scrolling through seemingly endless options on Netflix, futilely trying to decide what to watch—that’s Hick’s law in action.) When it comes to your marketing emails, the more choices you give a customer, the longer it will take them to pick one—if they pick one at all. 

If there’s only one desired outcome of an email, you eliminate the potential stalling and waffling.

There’s a famous study on jams that proved the power of Hick’s law. Two psychologists set up stands at an outdoor market, selling jams and offering free jam tastings. One offered 24 jams to try, the other offered six. At the end of the day, 60 percent of people stopped to try the jams at the stand with 24 options, but only three percent of those people purchased one. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of people stopped to try the jams at the stand with six—but 30 percent of them purchased.

Stand 1 (24 options)

Stand 2 (six options)

People who stopped to sample

60%

40%

People who made a purchase

3%

30%

If there were 100 people who walked by...

60 tried, 2 bought

40 tried, 12 bought

You can certainly see the surface-level appeal of putting lots of products, offers, and calls-to-action in an email. That certainly might attract more attention, like the stand with 24 jams—but remember that with fewer options, people are more likely to take the action to buy them.

Here’s a marketing email with far too many options—the “24 jam” email, so to speak. Unless someone is deeply knowledgeable about the tiny nuances between Samsung Galaxy phones, this wouldn’t mean anything to them. (Also, unless I’m crazy, it’s offering the same Samsung Galaxy S10e SM-G970U 128GB smartphone unlocked in prism black for two different prices.) This email induces immediate decision fatigue. Wouldn’t it be more effective if the email promising deals on “all our Samsung Galaxy phones” and just spotlighted the one phone that was the best deal?

Too many choices creates decision fatigue.

The average email has 2.1 call-to-action buttons—but the most common number of call-to-action buttons is one. That “2.1” average is boosted up by emails with lots and lots of calls-to-action; 20 percent of emails studied had more than three, and half of those emails had more than five.

Here’s an example of a much simpler email that eliminates any sense of decision fatigue. Funko sent this email advertising one product, only available at a limited time. There aren’t any decisions to make besides: Do I want to get this one product or not? (Also, look at their very smart, strategic use of urgency and scarcity to help people answer “yes” to that question.)

A single CTA focuses the customer.

1-2-3 for multiple actions

If you need to try to achieve multiple goals with a single email, try the 1-2-3 Method. That’s where you lay out the actions in a numbered list to keep them organized and simple. It’s a useful technique to shepherd a customer through several steps—one that, ideally, makes it seem like you’re helping them out, not demanding a bunch of different things from them. Here’s the 1-2-3 method in action from the yoga brand Fab.

The 1-2-3 method in action.

Whether you use one focused call-to-action or the 1-2-3 Method, make sure your call-to-action button or link leads directly to the correct page on your site. If someone clicked a call-to-action button for a free trial of your subscription service, it needs to take them straight to the sign-up page—not to the home page or a product page.

Call-to-action button copy

Your call-to-action button is the final step of the sales funnel. We talked about design tips for the button in our email design lesson, but there are also a number of things to keep in mind when it comes to the copy you put in the button.

Keep it short. The average call-to-action button is 14 characters and 3.4 words.

Notice this call-to-action from Free People is just 15 characters long—did they abbreviate “collaboration” to “collab” to be colloquial or to hit the ideal call-to-action button length? Probably the former, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

An example of short CTA text.

Don’t be demanding. Your call-to-action shouldn’t feel like an imposition where you’re putting someone to work. So rather than “Download the eBook” or “Register for the course,” try swapping in “Get the eBook” or “Take me to the course.” The little differences in phrasing completely change the tone. One study found changing a call-to-action from “Order information” to “Get information” increased conversions by 38 percent.

The gluten-free product company Cappello’s does an excellent job with their call-to-action in this email. (This email, by the way, is a note-perfect example of the sales funnel as discussed throughout this lesson, from a direct headline to an interest-building picture to likeable copy ending with a favor.) The call-to-action isn’t demanding—instead, the phrasing makes it both actionable and funny.

A CTA shouldn't feel demanding.

Avoid making it seem like a commitment on the spot. Words like “buy” and “order” feel like a commitment. Words like “get” and “learn” feel more casual.

Avoid a CTA that feels like a commitment.

Use words that have been proven effective. Words that have been proven to work well in call-to-action buttons include create, enter, explore, find, free, get, join, more, new, now, off, save, show, start, stop, try, upgrade, and the % and $ signs.

Effective phrases include “Yes, I want ____”… “Snag/Grab ____ now”… “Start my journey toward ____”… “Activate _____ today”… “Get my free _____”… and “Reserve my spot now.”

Notice in this email from the t-shirt company Star Cadet how “Snag it” fits the casual vibe of the brand and of this specific email. They don’t want to come off like a store demanding that you buy something—they want to come off like a buddy casually telling you about a cool find.

A casual CTA fits a casual voice.

Use first person pronouns. Since your marketing emails are all about making every subscriber feel like they’re reading something aimed directly at (and maybe even only at) them, using first person pronouns in the call-to-action adds to that feeling. A study found a phrase like “Start my free trial” got 90 percent more clicks than “Start your free trial.”

This email from the retro video game shop DK Oldies has a first-person call-to-action that fits in well with the rest of the email. The email is positioned as a personal message from the founder, written directly to the customer. Because of that vibe, the “Get My Pokemon Games Now” call-to-action fits; it even feels more natural than “Get Your” or just “Get.”

Using first-person pronouns in a CTA.

The footer of your email probably isn’t going to get that many clicks. (Except, sadly, a few clicks every email on the unsubscribe link.) It probably isn’t even going to get that many eyeballs. But it’s the final element of your emails—and if putting in a little effort on the footer even leads to a few people clicking on something there to take action, that effort is worth it.

Email footer content

Legality and compliance

The main reason you need an email footer, above all else, is for legal reasons. Your email must contain a clear place to unsubscribe and a current physical address for your business (in most jurisdictions), and the footer is a great place to put this information. 

You can also include a permission reminder in the footer—that’s a sentence letting the subscriber know why they’re receiving the message. (“You are receiving this email because you subscribed on our website on 9/6/17.”) While you’re not legally required to have a permission reminder, it could help reduce spam complaints—and maybe even stop someone from unsubscribing.

The footer is also a place for your legalese “fine print” if, for instance, you’re promoting a contest and you want to give the rules or you need to tell customers which products are excluded from an advertised sale.

Sharing and social

The footer is a good place to put things like a “forward this email to a friend” link and links to your various social media sites. You don’t want those elements to distract from the main calls-to-action in your email—but at the same time, it’s nice to have them for people who want to use them. And since we’re all conditioned to look to the footer to find those types of links, your customers who are interested will know to hunt for them there.

Don’t expect a ton of people to forward your email to a friend. The average forward rate is just 0.02 percent—or one forward for every 5,000 emails. (PDF) But if you’re not using the real estate for anything else and someone does want to be that one-in-5,000 who chooses to forward along your email, you might as well make it easy for them.

A footer with social media links.

Other helpful links

The footer is also a place where you can put links to customer support, affiliate and referral programs, your privacy or return policies, your company blog, and different sections of your website. Again, the odds are those links won’t get a ton of clicks—but you never know when the right person will see a link in your footer, click it, and go on to buy something.

Helpful links in a footer.

Summary and implementation

Summary

When you’re making every content decision for your emails, always fall back to the three keys to effective marketing: Anticipated, personal, relevant. Your emails need to be something your customers look forward to, filling a need in each of their lives, offering them relevant offers or information that can drive them toward a buying decision.

As for the content of your emails, it should follow the sales funnel, guiding a customer through the journey from learning about your product or offer all the way through the decision to buy.

  • Awareness. Informing your customers about the reason you’re sending the email and what you’re offering.
  • Interest. Building interest in your offer by showing just how it will solve a problem or meet a need in a customer’s life.
  • Decision. Using sales psychology to drive a customer’s decision to buy the product.
  • Action. Enticing a click on a call-to-action button to take the customer to your site to finish the purchase.

Each of those steps involves a different element of your email.

  • Headlines. Headlines build awareness and catch a person’s eye to keep them reading. Headlines should be short and, in most cases, clearly lay out the benefits of the product or offer.
  • Photos and pictures. Pictures build interest in your offer. By using high-quality photos, ideally ones that showcase someone that represents your ideal customer utilizing your product to improve their life, you build more interest and help drive a customer down the sales funnel.
  • Copy. Your copy will push the customer towards making a decision. There are lots of different tactics you can take including reciprocation, which is the human desire to return a favor; authority, where you demonstrate your domain knowledge and why yours should be the brand to buy from; commitment and consistency, demonstrating how your values and identity align with your customer; scarcity and urgency, showing why they need to buy now before it’s too late; liking, because people want to buy from a brand (or the people behind a brand) they like; and social proof, playing on our natural instinct to get our cues on what to do from others.
  • Call-to-action. Your call-to-action is the final step in getting a customer to take action. It’s best to keep your emails focused on one goal, with limited calls-to-action, and have those buttons feature short, effective words.

Finally, don’t neglect your email footer. Even if it doesn’t convert much, it still serves an important legal purpose and can be a good place to put things like social media buttons, links to important store policies, or a “share with a friend” link.

Implementation

Step 1: Figure out the purpose of the email you’re creating

  • Is it something your customers are anticipating?
  • Is it something that personally appeals to everyone receiving it?
  • Is it relevant to each recipient’s needs?

Step 2: Plan out your email content

  • Write a catchy headline that makes the purpose of the email clear and alluring.
  • Pick photos that best demonstrate how your product or offer is something desirable that can make a person’s life better.
  • Write copy that uses a persuasive strategy to drive a decision.
  • Craft a short, exciting call-to-action to close the deal.

Step 3: Build your footer

  • Make sure all the required legal bases are covered.
  • Add your social media links, an option for subscribers to forward the email to a friend, and possibly some deep links to various parts of your website.

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