Ian Brodie is the best-selling author of Email Persuasion and creator of Unsnooze Your Inbox - *the* guide to crafting engaging emails and newsletters that captivate your audience, build authority and generate more sales.
Valuable content emails are the bread and butter of email marketing.
They're what builds credibility and trust. And they keep you top of mind for when your potential clients are ready to buy.
But too often they're done very, very badly.
No matter how great your content is, if you just brain-dump it into an email it won't land properly.
And that means none of that credibility building, relationship building or getting top of mind is actually going to work.
Luckily, there's a simple way to structure your content emails that increases readership and maximises the chances of those readers taking action. Let's take a look using an example of an email that Brian Clark of Copyblogger sent out recently called "The Robots are Here".
The first few seconds of your content are make or break. You could lose half your audience if you get it wrong.
In an email or Linkedin post it's the first sentence or two. On Youtube it's the first 30 seconds. maybe less.
That's how long it takes for someone to decide whether to continue reading or watching.
Marketing experts rightly tell you to put a lot of effort into your subject line or headline or thumbnail image – because that's what gets people to stop, pay attention and start to read or watch.
But they put a lot less focus on what happens next – and that's a big mistake.
Because if half your readers quit straight away, all that effort you put into the subject line was wasted.
“How do I get people to keep reading or watching?” I fake hear you ask :)
Bear in mind the decision isn't a purely rational one. A lot of it is System 1 thinking. Instant gut feel heuristics at their best.
The first thing is “does this look easy?”
When they open your email or start to read your Linkedin post, is it horrible dense text that looks like you'll have to battle with it.
Or is it nice and open.
Plenty of whitespace. Plenty of variety in sentences and paragraphs.
On Youtube I'm less certain of what “easy” looks like but I suspect that fast-paced rather than pondering is the key.
The second thing is Potential Value.
Form what you see in those first few sentences, do you get a sense that you'll get a lot of value from reading or watching the rest.
I use “value” in the loosest sense here. It could be value like boring content markers mean: some kind of practical, useful, how-to info.
But value could also be a brilliant new idea that triggers a lightbulb moment. Or it could just be you're entertained for a bit and can forget the monotony of daily work life.
Either way, you have to see in those first moments that you'll get value. That allows your System 2 brain to put a lid on System 1 and stop it looking for something new for instant gratification.
“Oh but Ian” I fake hear you ask again, “how do I show potential value early on?”
That one's simple. You tell them.
On Youtube rather than playing your expensive intro ident first, cold open and tell them what they'll learn from this video and how that will benefit them. Then cut to the intro.
In an email do the same – say what they'll learn and why it's important. Or make a provocative statement they'll want to have explained. Or begin an intriguing story they can't resist hearing the end of.
I opened this email with “The first few seconds of your content are make or break. You could lose half your audience if you get it wrong.”
I'm not saying that't the perfect opener, but it does the job.
It gets you interested by introducing a problem: that the first few seconds of your content are make or break. And it raises the stakes by saying you could lose half your audience if you get it wrong.
That second part is vital. No point telling people about a problem they have if they don't think it's important.
I call this compelling opening to an email (or any content) your “hook”. Because it hooks your readers or viewers in and makes them want more.
It's a vital element of any successful email alongside the transition, content and call to action.
Last time I showed how I got over 3x my normal engagement on a Linkedin post by harnessing the AIDCA formula.
(In fact the post has now got over 10x my normal engagement).
In particular, it was the A that made all the difference.
And without going all sciency, the thing that drives attention is contrast.
We notice things that stand out from what's around them. Because back in the day, things that were unusual and different were quite likely to eat us.
So the lucky folks who were good at spotting them survived and passed on their difference-spotting genes to us, their descendants.
In fact, not only do we pay more attention to things that are different, we don't even really see the things that look similar to their surroundings. They never enter our consciousness. They're filtered out before they get there.
So if you want someone's attention your first impression has to be one of contrast.
On Linkedin my comic book imagery looked very different to 99.99% of the dullsville content usually posted.
With Facebook it's similar: people pay attention to posts with “different” images. Only over there, what looks different to the rest of the feed is different to what looks different on Linkedin.
Apologies for that last sentence. I didn't mean it to sound like Dr Seuss, but I couldn't find better words :)
On email, the place to stand out is your subject-line and pre-header.
Traditional best practice says your subject line needs a benefit – otherwise why would someone open the email?
But the reality is that pure benefit subject lines have been done to death. Once you've read 7 emails about how to double your sales in 2023 you kinda stop opening them.
That's why it's often a good idea to set up a throwaway email address and subscribe to a bunch of newsletters from your competitors or other people your clients are likely to follow.
That way you'll know what their inbox looks like.
Close enough anyway.
And that means you'll be able to deduce what would look different for them.
Like a lower case headline with a weird question for example.
Of course, you need to deliver on the promise of the headline too. Hopefully I've managed to show that yes, it can be this simple. At least when it comes to getting attention.
How are you going to feed that into your next communication?
One of the biggest impacts the net has had on business – in my view anyway – is the opening up of non-traditional niches.
What I mean by that is that in the past your client focus was very much defined by practical aspects of who you could reach.
Unless you were very big, you could usually only reach local or at best national clients.
Unless you lived in a big city, you had to focus on a relatively general niche to make sure there were enough of them near you.
You almost always had to focus on niches with “externally visible identifying characteristics”. In other words in order to be able to reach them with your marketing they had to work in an industry or a job function or be part of a demographic you could target.
That's all changed today.
While traditional marketing still works, of course, we now have other ways of reaching people.
Online advertising is so cheap (relatively) and the algorithms are so smart that you can put out ads to a broader audience and let the algorithm figure out who responds best to it.
You don't need to know in advance if it's people from a certain industry or with certain demographics or job titles. The algorithm can pick out common characteristics you couldn't possibly know.
Or (my favourite strategy) you can become a beacon that attracts the right sort of people for you.
You can't find “people who want to become scriptwriters” using traditional marketing targeting. But Lucy V Hay built a big following by publishing incredibly valuable resources for budding authors and scriptwriters and they found her.
You can't find “people who want to learn Airtable to automate their business” using traditional marketing targeting. But Gareth Pronovost built a hugely helpful YouTube channel teaching Airtable and potential customers for his courses found him.
Create valuable content for the people you want as clients (no matter how weirdly and non-traditionally they're defined) and they will find you – as long as you actively promote your content.
And it means you don't have to lock yourself into the boring old industry/job description/demographic niche model we were stuck with in the past.
Why would someone choose to buy from you rather than one of the many people who does something similar?
It's an important question.
We'd all like to think it's because we're better somehow. But in the real world it's for a myriad of factors.
Sometimes we're just in the right place at the right time. Often it's because of that magical word: chemistry.
I remember the first $1m consulting assignment I sold back in the day. We went out with the senior clients for a meal on the first day of the project and I asked their CFO why they picked us.
He initially talked about our capabilities and experience and methodology. But then he paused and (perhaps aided by the consumption of an amount of alcohol) said “you know what…the real reason was your team just kind of clicked with our team much better”.
Here's the important thing…chemistry comes from interaction. And more often than not it takes a bit of time.
Those interactions can happen face to face. But they can also happen online though emails or video or messaging. It just takes longer that way.
That's why it's vital to build a following. People who regularly tune in and interact with you in some way. Whether that's reading your emails, watching your videos, or chatting with you in your group.
Our interactions over time teach us whether we like someone and trust them. We get a feeling for whether they understand us and are on our side. Whether they're the sort of people we'd like to work with.
All those feelings influence our buying decisions which we then rationalise and pretend we made on purely logical criteria.
So in addition to understanding why someone would buy from you, you also have to understand why they would follow you and keep following you.
Because unless they stay with you, you won't reach the level of relationship where they'll feel comfortable buying from you no matter how better you rationally are than the competition.
So why would someone follow you?
A good way of answering that is to ask yourself why you follow the people you follow.
Think of the people whose emails you read whenever they arrive in your inbox. Or whose channel you're subscribed to on YouTube. Or whose posts you always take a look at on Linkedin.
What is it about them that makes you follow them like that?
If you want people to take action and eventually to hire you or buy from you, you've got to make an offer to them.
But make too many offers and a lot of your audience will bail on you.
Some people tell you not to worry about it. That people who unsubscribe if you hit them with a few sales pitches were never going to buy anyway.
But that's simply not true. And especially not for large, infrequent purchases with a long sales cycle.
(Typically the people telling you not to worry don't have much experience with those types of sales.)
If you're ready or close to being ready to buy and you see some kind of sales offer your reaction is very different to someone who's a long way off.
In one case the offer could be quite useful to you. In the other it's irrelevant and feels pushy.
But since you don't know how ready people are, what can you do?
Play it safe and not make any offers and you won't get many sales.
Be aggressive and make lots of offers and you'll lose a lot of potential clients before they're ready.
The answer, in my experience at least, is twofold.
Firstly, you can make offers in ways that don't feel so aggressive.
You can give value first and then make a relevant offer, saying “if you'd like to know how to do this faster…”, “if you'd like my in depth training on how to do this…”, “if you'd like someone to do this for you…” – anything that positions your offer as the logical next step for someone who's ready.
That way the people who aren't ready get something useful from you, but kind of mentally disregard the offer because of the “if…”.
Or you can give useful info in the form of a video and make a similar offer at the end. If people aren't ready they most likely won't even make it to the end of the video to see the offer!
Or you can give options for people at different stages. For example:
“If you're beginning to see the signs of this in your business, your best next step is to [something free they can do themselves]. But if it's already hitting you hard and you need an immediate fix, we have [something they can pay you for]”.
Just giving people options and making it OK for them to say no or to do something else takes the pressure out of your offer and means it won't push away the people who aren't ready yet. But it will attract the people who are.
Next email: a more advanced technique for making offers only to people who are ready.
Hi – Ian here (apparently that's my catch-phrase :o ).
Last email I said that for high-value services you want to avoid doing what most email marketing training recommends: putting pressure on your subscribers to buy.
Flash sales, 5-day cash machines and the like all work for low-value products where a bit of pressure nudges a potential buyer into saying yes.
But for a high-value product or service when someone isn't ready to buy, putting pressure on them pushes them away. It backfires.
So what do you do instead?
The answer is a bit blindingly obvious I'm afraid. But rarely done.
If someone isn't ready to buy, then instead of pushing them to buy, you should get them ready to buy instead.
Unfortunately, getting people ready to buy isn’t easy and it takes time. Which is why most marketing people prefer quick tricks and hacks and “secrets”.
Getting people ready to buy starts with understanding what needs to be in place for your clients to be ready.
And while there are differences that are unique to your specific situation, the good news is that a lot of it is common across all clients:
Firstly, people only buy something significant when they believe their problem or goal is big and urgent.
And if they're going to buy from you they'll want to know that you understand them and their challenges – and that you're on their side.
To have confidence you'll be able to help, they'll need to see that you have new ideas, insights and experience (new to them at least). And solutions that actually work.
And for any kind of service they'll want to know that you’re the kind of person they and their team can work with.
And it turns out that these are all things you can get across – or at least make significant progress on – in emails.
I'll talk about how to do it in more detail in future emails, but here are a few examples to get you going:
Rather than just sending your readers a tip, explain it via a story about how you experienced the problem yourself – or a case study of a client. That'll show your readers you understand them and their challenges.
Rather than just sending out emails with the same advice as others are giving (no matter how good it is) – focus your tips on the areas where your advice is different.
Be open in your emails about your beliefs, the causes you champion and the way you believe things should be done. You'll attract people with similar beliefs who want to work with people like you. And just as importantly you'll repel the people you wouldn’t have got on with.
Every email you send needs to be interesting and valuable to your readers – otherwise they won't read them. But in your emails you can also cover so much more that gives your readers what they need to know and feel to be ready to buy from you.
In “lockdownworld” where you can't work with clients face to face, many consultants, coaches and trainers are turning to online courses as a way to deliver value to their clients and maintain their income.
And while a lot of focus has been put on how to create online courses, the technology to use, and how to market and sell them; very little has been published about how to make sure they actually serve their primary purpose.
In other words, how to make sure that your clients really learn from them, implement what they've learned, and get sustainable results from them.
Because if your clients aren't getting results, you're not doing your job. And your course won't get the testimonials and referrals it needs to succeed.
In this video, I talk to learning and development expert Antoinette Oglethorpe about strategies for getting more engagement and real learning from your online courses – and how to make sure that what your students learn gets put into place back in their workplace or lives so they get the results they're looking for.
As I'm sure you know, I've long been an advocate of using stories in marketing content to give a more engaging (and effective) experience to your audience.
But recently I've noticed a worrying trend. I guess I'd call them “ego-stories”.
You've probably seen them yourself, they're especially prevalent on Linkedin.
On the surface they look like a solid use of a story to make a point.
But they leave you with an icky feeling. And when you analyse them you can see why.
In almost every case, the author is the hero. And the story simply recounts some good deed they did with a “lesson” tacked on the end.
They hired someone who was late for an interview: lesson = everyone deserves a chance.
Their first 3 businesses went under but now they're a gazillionaire: lesson = you can make it even if you don't succeed at first.
They paid the amount the person in front of them in a shopping queue was short of: lesson = er, actually I'm not sure there's a lesson, it was just all about showing what a wonderful human being they were as far as I can see.
In literature, the hero is never perfect. The hero always has flaws. That's why we can identify with them.
And they never succeed just through their own brilliance or virtue. There's always someone who helps, or luck, or some external factor.
Otherwise we don't believe it. And we don't like them.
So when you're writing stories to illustrate your points, try making someone else the hero. Perhaps your client. Or make it about something you witnessed.
Or if you're the hero, show how you were helped. Or you were lucky. Or you made a mistake and then figured things out.
But please, please, don't go down the ego-story route!