Don’t get diarrhea of the fingertips

Oct 01, 2000 9:30 PM  By

E-mail messages that run on and on and on may offend readers, or bore them – but they definitely won’t sell to them

Think back to ancient times. The year 1995 will do.

For e-mail, that’s not only ancient, it’s prehistoric. Remember those golden times? We were reveling in the (at last) universality of fax machines. The World Wide Web was just a hatchling, beginning to show signs of being one of those science-fiction monsters that double in size every day…and not yet informing us that within two years it would become dominant.

In terms of force communication, those days were kinder and gentler. Snail mail was the principal means of one-to-one solicitation. The typical message included envelope treatment, a letter that might be a single page or might be four or more pages, a brochure, a validating enclosure, and a response device.

Then came the e-mail explosion. And right behind it came a mindset that’s becoming more prevalent and more valid by the hour.

That mindset is implicit in the very concept of e-mail: “C’mon, buddy, I have eight other messages to plow through. What’s your point?”

Looking at any day’s assortment of e-mail pitches, don’t you sense that some of these “communicators” are still playing by ancient rules that don’t apply to the current game? It parallels a group of Sunday-afternoon swimmers who find themselves caught up in a vicious game of water polo. They’re out of their element.

You’re the expert. You know the rules Everyone who reads this publication is an expert of sorts. Granted, the entire world of Web marketing is still too new for anyone to lay a valid claim to solid, certified credentials, let alone offer to share them. Rules are there, but we haven’t yet recognized and codified enough of them to justify every proclamation of what to do and what to don’t.

Not to worry. What we do have is enough experience in failed e-mail campaigns to justify one cardinal rule: Don’t get diarrhea of the fingertips.

Here’s an e-mail message that begins so straightforwardly it’s an automatically disposable cliche. Subject line: “Why not save half the money you’re spending on life insurance?”

Suppose we look at this and agree: “Yeah, why not save half the money I’m spending on life insurance?” After that miraculous reaction, the e-mail sender had better be ready to kill with one blow. But uh-oh. This e-mailer is still thinking of direct mail: “Too many individuals are spending more money than they need to spend on life insurance. They don’t get competitive rates, assuming their provider is….” Blah blah blah.

Hey there, old-timer, this is e-mail, and your targets have their finger nervously tapping at the mouse. Click…and you’re out of there. Verbosity is out. Copy “compression” is in.

Get to the point, immediately That’s right – rush to the point. Get that mouse to guide the text downward instead of clicking away.

In the insurance example, a better follow-up would be: “If you didn’t know you might get $1,000,000.00 coverage for $27 a month, you’d better take a look at this.”

Consider two quick differences. First, our revision follows a basic rule of force communication: Specifics outsell generalizations. Second, we’ve pulled the reader up short, with a number that has to seem startling. In fact, we’ve pickled the number by adding “.00,” a rhetorical ploy.

Oh, you say, but that rate applies only to women under 30. In two words: So what? We’re just firing the opening gun, and we don’t want to fire blanks. The easy next move: “Look at these unbeatable rates.” And we then quote specific rates by age categories. The idea isn’t to misrepresent. It’s to give you the opportunity, in an e-mail ambience, to present.

A venerable rule, resuscitated Way, way back, when I regarded myself as a budding scholar, I took a college class in advertising. The mentor or docent or instructor or professor or whatever title he held was a career academician. He had built and maintained a quiet career behind ivy-covered walls. He hadn’t ever suffered the indignities that attend those of us who earn our livings scrabbling around in the dirt, trying to get recalcitrant message recipients to respond.

So he spoke, and I made a note, regarding sales letters: “If you can’t say it on one page, you can’t say it at all.” God help me, when I began a part-time teaching stint, I parroted that dogma. Just one problem with it: It wasn’t true. As a practitioner, almost by accident I found that a two-page letter could outpull a one-page letter. Over my checkered career, I’ve written four-page letters, eight-page letters, even 16-page letters, some of which outpulled their shorter counterparts in head-to-head tests.

But not on the Web. For e-mail, the professor’s caveat is smack in the middle of the target.

The following unsolicited e-mail message – and such messages may increase as unwitting Web visitors deposit their online names with compilers that gather them through sweepstakes and freebies – runs to the equivalent of two single-spaced pages. Look at the limp beginning:

Do you need to lose some weight?

We are promoting a special on a very new product that has produced wonderful results for those who have tried it. [Name of product] may sound too good to be true, but we can assure you it isn’t too good to be true. It is true. It is so true that we are guaranteeing your money back if you agree to try this product and it does not work for you.

You still can eat, and not just salads. You can have sensible meals, including desserts, and watch the pounds slowly vanish as your waist and hips begin to regain the shape they should have but have not had for so long….

And on it goes, for about 80 additional lines before a “click here” option. Before suggesting a replacement, here’s a minichallenge: Aside from the verbosity, can you see some obvious defects in the technique?

You’re a certified expert if you noticed:

1) The message lacks contractions. The Web is informal, so contractions are in order. It isn’t “We are,” it’s “We’re”; it isn’t “It is,” it’s “It’s”; it isn’t “does not,” it’s “doesn’t.” As written, the e-mail begins and continues with a stiff formality that just doesn’t connect.

2) The message begins with a word Web buyers detest: “We’re promoting.” We’ve had too much spam, too many phony deals, to appreciate the word “promoting.”

3) Why “We”? E-mail is one to one. “We can assure you” is a mysterious, unknown group; “I can assure you” is one to one.

4) Who wants to lose weight slowly?

Now, let’s attack this writer’s chronic case of diarrhea of the fingertips.

That first paragraph is self-destructive: If this writer wants to reduce flab, let that writer start with his or her own communication. Instead of…

We are promoting a special on a very new product that has produced wonderful results for those who have tried it. [Name of product] may sound too good to be true, but we can assure you it isn’t too good to be true. It is true. It is so true that we are guaranteeing your money back if you agree to try this product and it does not work for you.

…we can tighten and gain attention by remembering that specifics outpull generalizations, by writing what the reader wants to see instead of what we want to say, and by being one to one. Just one sample approach (you may have another, which unquestionably is superior to the original):

Have I got news for you!

In fact, it’s terrific news, if you’re five to 20 pounds overweight. (If you’re one of the lucky ones who aren’t, ignore this news. It isn’t for you.)

Tried some of those “weight loss plans”? Sick of promises that just don’t come true? Those ridiculous days are gone forever. Click here and take a look at your slim, trim future!

I’m not claiming this is award-winning prose. I do claim that this type of e-mail approach should at least double the response the sender generated with the original.

So what can we conclude? Brevity not only is the soul of wit. It’s the heart and soul of successful e-mail.

A point to remember when you look at your e-mail message and wonder if it may need Imodium: Take your finger off the mouse and put it on the “delete” key.