Catalog Copy: Actives vs. Passives, Technique vs. Salesmanship

When a critic lumps Web copy and e-mail in the same pudding, he or she parallels the chef who puts chocolate sauce on a steak. The two are parallel only in their use of cyberspace. ▪ The difference is obvious: A Website is passive. It sits, waiting for a visitor to land. But an e-mail is active. It probes and pushes, which is why so many annoyed bureaucrats are militating for antispam legislation.

From a creative point of view, spam doesn’t exist. Well, make that shouldn’t exist, with the opt-outs we include in every message. I’ll justify that last comment: Spam is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to employ a different cliché, one person’s spam is another’s delight.

Controlling the opt-outs

The typical opt-out message reads something like this:

To unsubscribe from this newsletter, click here:

On a basic level, reducing the number of opt-outs is simple enough, just by making opting out not quite so easy:

To unsubscribe from this newsletter, send an e-mail to: [DIFFICULT ONLINE ADDRESS]

But do we really want to offer a naked opportunity to opt out? We can move up one minor plateau by a reminder of the relationship:

This newsletter is coming to you because of your relationship with Alloyed Gold Associates. If you want to unsubscribe, go to…

In for a penny, in for a pound. Any guilt we can build helps reduce opt-outs:

This newsletter is coming to you because of your relationship with Alloyed Gold Associates. Your subscription is both private and free, but if you would rather not receive this inside information, go to…

One more step. The assumption of a warm relationship, if apparently sincere, will cut the number of opt-outs even further:

This newsletter is coming to you because of your relationship with Alloyed Gold Associates. Your subscription is both private and free. We are delighted to send this inside information to you. If you would rather not receive it (but we sincerely hope you do), then go to…

Yet another level exists, a “second generation” type of opt-out. Wording might be something such as this:

I’m delighted to tell you: You qualify for special offers, special discounts, and free offers! Tell us which you prefer:

  • Let me know about any special private offers.
  • I’m interested only in gold bullion and discount jewelry.
  • Let me know about free offers and discounts.
  • Nothing for me. For the time being, don’t send me notifications of this type.

Those who use this “look what you’d be missing” technique seem to suffer far fewer opt-outs. The rationale is that the message underscores benefits the individual will miss while others will enjoy them.

Salesmanship is a learned art. E-mailers who recognize the value of name retention should learn this art, recognizing two truisms: First, name acquisition is expensive; second, many lost names would have responded to the next e-mail if they hadn’t opted out.

An unholy development

Okay, time to irritate a lot of technicians:

We’re beginning to see online the same unholy development we’ve seen in print and broadcast media: the substitution of technology for salesmanship. Vendors are pitching the availability of eye-popping media — animation, sound, three-dimension, movies — for e-mail. Business-to-business e-mail.

Do you see anything wrong with that picture? One is the casual avoidance of testing. We already have tests in which straight text to business targets outpulled rich media, not only dollar for dollar but piece for piece. How is that possible? My analysis has to parallel yours: It’s because straight text most closely parallels a personal message and is less likely to be blown out of the water by a casual flick of the mouse.

Never assume

Assumptions of what constitutes effective e-mail seem to stem from assuming all the weaponry we’ve assembled to make our Websites supercompetitive also applies to e-mail. That assumption is about as logical as the assumption that the same supermarket bin should house chocolate bars and steaks. When a visitor arrives at your site, he/she either a) has been there before, or b) expects to find professional flash and salesmanship. The point: That person is aggressively looking for either you or an entity like you. E-mail is the reverse — you’re looking for that person, hoping to establish a relationship that in turn will lead to his/her looking for you.

E-mail has to have in its genes the most dynamic future of any medium since Gutenberg. It’s quick, it’s intensely personal, it offers quick and easy testing, and it’s cheap. But that implicitly suggests a downside: Everybody knows it. Everybody wants to reach the same people you’re reaching.

So add to the roiling pot of force-communication stew this unpleasant fact — and fact it surely is: Our best targets are the individuals who get the most e-mails.

Ah! On a given morning, a midlevel executive arrives at his/her computer and sees 34 e-mails. Which will survive? You begin to see how text isn’t made obsolete by the delicious software now available to us as e-mail marketers. You begin to see how the medium no longer is the message. You begin to see how attention to the subject line and simply adding the individual’s name to it can be more significant by light-years than dancing headlines or rumbling graphics.

No, no, this isn’t a diatribe against technological advances. Please accept these comments as a plea for sanity. Let’s not be stampeded by those who claim their software is the alpha and omega of e-mail success.

I said this is the medium that offers quick and easy testing. That’s the answer to the question, “Which will bring not just the most response but the most valid response?” My experiences not only may not parallel yours, but they may differ based on what we’re offering and to whom. (One experience: Text is preferable when the message suggests urgency; rich media are best when the message suggests artistry.)

Let’s label that chimera Problem A. We move on to Problem B, a problem of psychology rather than one of technology.

Problem B is the speed with which we’re sophisticating our targets. Even a year ago, we could grab and shake with headings such as

  • I know something about you.
  • Did you forget our date?
  • Let’s do it.
  • You’re off the hook.
  • Why did you do that?

Sigh. We’re in mid-2001, and the rocket-driven juggernaut has zoomed through the ether at warp speed. That these still succeed at all is due to the influx of new prospects who haven’t had the exposure the old hands have had. But, another sigh, they have neither the position nor the buying power the old hands have had.

Be of good cheer. We can’t kill e-mail, no matter how we abuse it. We can’t even maim it. It’s our science-fiction monster, so huge and powerful it can and will take over the earth.

The trick is to domesticate that monster, make it our servant instead of our master. And the way to do that is to recognize the magical word that transforms its thunderbolts into a warm, fuzzy umbrella: rapport. Establishing rapport is the key to e-mail success.

That key lies not in startling software but in a basic knowledge of child psychology. And every one of us has that key in his or her pocket…don’t we?

Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide and is preparing his 25th book, E-Mail Marketing.

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