Tips for Writing Effective Emails

May 13, 2013 | By | 5 Replies More

From newsletters to order confirmations, email is an increasingly important aspect of the customer experience. There is much more to say about effective email than we can fit into a brief column, but the tips below are a good start. The e-business industry is still so inexperienced about email that even following these basic tips will put any online business ahead of most of the industry.

email marketing

Use a “hook”

An email must have a good reason for being sent; otherwise it’s better to not send it. The hook of an email is the single thought or message conveyed by that email and should be stated in the first sentence or two of the email.

By containing a hook, the email makes it easy for a customer to understand the point of the email. The customer is more likely to respond if the choice is clear: act or don’t act to get the specified benefit. Customers are less likely to act, understand, or otherwise have a good experience, if they have to spend time figuring out the point of the email.

DO: refine the hook to express the idea or message clearly and simply.
DON’T: rely on jargon or indirect wording to express the hook.

Support the hook

Just as the hook provides focus for the email, so should the rest of the email refer to the hook for focus. For example, an email telling customers that there is a sale on a particular product line on an e-commerce site should do just that — tell customers about the sale.

This same email should not be considered an opportunity to inform customers of every promotion, feature, or tidbit of corporate news. Customers tend to scan e-mails, and if several propositions are presented, even the hook will go unnoticed.

DO: stick to a single subject in the e-mail.
DON’T: try to incorporate as many elements as possible.

Be succinct

Keep the email short. From the subject line to the farewell, the email should offer the reader the most relevant information in as few words as possible.

Customers are busy, and many feel overwhelmed by too much e-mail. Messages that are short and to the point are more likely to be read. When writing email text, try to state the ideas in as few words as possible.

DO: choose words carefully.
DON’T: think that having a lot of space means that you should use it all.

State the most Important things first

Customers will start reading an email from the beginning and read the introduction to to see if it’s worth spending more of their time. Readers tend to pay less and less attention to what is written as they scan more quickly through the rest of the email.

To make sure customers read the most relevant information, put the most important information (the hook) at the top, followed by the most important supporting information. Each successive paragraph will receive less and less of the reader’s attention and should contain less and less important information. As soon as the hook is well enough supported, end the email.

DO: provide the customer the most important information at the beginning of the e-mail.
DON’T:  “save up” the key information for the middle or end of the email.

Write for Scannability

After absorbing the hook in the opening line of the e-mail, if customers choose to read the rest of the message, they will do so quickly, looking for the most important components. Thus it’s important to make it easy for customers to scan the email.

Do use dashes or bullets to express lists of ideas or section headings.
Don’t require users to read long continuous blocks of text.

Use the active voice

The most effective way to communicate a message or idea is to use the active voice. The active voice focuses on the subject rather than how the subject is being acted upon, creating a more powerful image or idea.

Below are some examples of the active and passive voice:


We’re happy to announce that there are now over 20 new product categories on our site. Best of all, more categories are still being added every day.


We’re happy to announce that you can now shop in over 20 new product categories — and we’re adding more products every day.


You’ve been selected for a special discount on any of the the following products:


Buy any of the below products at a special discount:

Use the right tone for your audience

Email communication tends to be less formal than traditional business and marketing writing. It’s important not to be too formal, nor to familiar, when e-mailing your customers. The right tone for an e-mail varies, depending on the customer being mailed and the topic of the e-mail. (For example, an e-mail apologizing to a customer for poor service should be more formal than the weekly newsletter.)

DO: feel free to make your email fun and irreverent, if this is appropriate for the customer and the moment.
DONT: be overly casual and risk being disrespectful to your audience with the wrong tone.

Use language that counts

Avoid using words for their own sake. Remember, you don’t communicate with your customers just for the sake of communication, but to get across an idea or proposition. To do this, each word and each sentence must “carry its own weight” and have something to do with the hook. If you can get your idea across in fewer words, do so.

DO: make sure every sentence provides valuable information.
DONT: include text just to fill up space.

Avoid URLs that wrap

URLs can behave in peculiar ways when they are so long that they are broken into two lines of text. It’s best to avoid “wrapping URLs” entirely. Here are some things you can do:

  • If the URL is within your control, reduce its length so that it fits on a single line.
  • Instead of listing it in the middle of a paragraph, insert a carriage return before listing the URL so that it starts on a new line.
  • If the URL is so long that it must fit on two lines of text, tell the readers how to put together the composite URL in their browser window.
  • Wrap text at 68 character per line
  • Use URL shorteners such as Bitly

E-mail applications vary in hundreds of ways, but what they have in common is a basic text width. All applications will correctly display text that is 68 characters or less per line. While this “hard wrap” may sometimes result in excess white space on the right side of the page, it is better than having lines of hard-to-read, distorted text. Most good text editing software contain a feature to wrap text at a certain line length.

Avoid excessive use of ALL CAPS, ****, and I!II

It can be tempting to use these techniques for emphasis or urgency; however, using them in excess can be ineffective. It’s best to employ these techniques sparingly. The example below shows some well-placed emphasis:

In This Issue:

* Messages from our Sponsors
* Top E-Commerce News Headlines
* How to Advertise in this Newsletter
* E-Commerce Times Job Board

* * * * NEW * * * *

Visit the new E-Commerce Times Letters to the Editor page and see what other readers have to say about today’s e-commerce issues!

* * * * A D V E R T I S E M E N T * * * *

eTranslate GlobalWeb is changing the face of eBusiness through Dynamic Localization. A revolutionary new form of multilingual content development, Dynamic Localization gives companies the ability to deliver perishable content simultaneously to multiple language markets.


Space and Spacing

In an e-mail, “white space” is as important as the text in effectively communicating an idea or message. The eye can comfortably take in a limited amount of text at a glance, particularly on a computer screen. Cushioning the text with space helps readers scan the text more easily.

  • Most paragraphs should not exceed three or four lines of text.
  • Use “bullets” liberally to make individual points without writing a whole paragraph
  • Place double spaces between paragraphs and sections.

Below is an example of a good use of text and space:

Thank you for Ordering from

Your purchase information appears below.

To see the latest information about your order, or to make changes to your order, visit:

Your Account lets you manage your orders online by giving you the ability to do the following:

* Track the status of this order
* Combine open orders to save on shipping
* Change payment option for this order
* Change shipping option or address
* Cancel unshipped items from this order

You can also reach Your Account by clicking on the link in the top right corner of any page on our Web site.

If you still need to get in touch with us about your order, send an e-mail message to (or just reply to this message).

If you ordered several items to be delivered to the same address, we may send them to you in separate boxes to give you the speediest service. Rest assured, this will not affect your shipping charges.

Thanks for shopping at

— Customer Service

Use hyphens to delineate important information

Text and space aren’t the only way to highlight text. This is particularly true for text-based emails. Lines of hyphens or equal signs (=) can also be effective. Consider the example below:

============ The Creative Good Update – 03 Aug 99 ===========
By Mark Hurst, President of Creative Good

In This Week’s Issue:

– Will the Web Be Easy Tomorrow?
– Best Practices Site Launches
– E-Recruiting Launch
– Creative Good Speaks
– Creative Good is Hiring
– Subscription/Contact Info

Will the Web Be Easy Tomorrow?

The Internet will soon become so easy to use, one commentator argues, that today’s PC skills will be irrelevant tomorrow.

Always offer an option to unsubscribe

As explained earlier, e-mails should only be sent when customers have requested information or if there is something noteworthy to tell them. Even with this level of permission there will still be people who who will want to unsubscribe from the e-mail list or newsletter.

Always offer the option to unsubscribe. As an emerging convention, customers can now typically expect to see unsubscribe instruction as the last item at the bottom of the e-mail, following the signature and P.S.

The three most important pieces of real estate

There are three key opportunities to get your message across to your customer. Failing to optimize these three opportunities will likely result in a large number of deleted e-mails.

The subject line, first line of the e-mail, and the P.S. at the end can hold the customer’s interest. These three elements get more attention than any other section of an e-mail. If a customer is scanning the e-mail, as most customers do, those three may be the only elements read at all.

We discuss each of the three elements in more detail below.

Subject line

Whether or not a customer opens is affected quite a bit by the subject. If the subject line is relevant or informative enough, customers are more likely to open the e-mail. The subject line offers a very small space in which to make a very large impact. Below are some principles to follow when writing a subject line.

  • An e-mail subject should tell the customer what the e-mail is about in clear, simple language.
  • Even if the product or service offered is lighthearted or fun, the subject should not rely on quirky or jargon-filled language to invite the reader in.
  • The subject should give some indication of the benefit the customer stands to gain by opening the e-mail.
  • One way to write a strong subject line is to use a shortened version of the hook.

First line of the e-mail

A bad first line of an e-mail will be the only part of the e-mail the customer reads. However, a strong and informative first line, clearly stating the benefit of reading the full e-mail, will increase the chance that more customers will at least scan most of the message.

Like the subject, the fast line of the e-mail should be explicit and contain the hook of the e-mail, including the benefit to the customer. Once again, if the first line offers something the reader considers to be valuable, they are likely to continue.


After reading the opening line of the e-mail, most customers will scan the remainder of the message. The post script is a convention most readers will recognize. While the p.s. is not an essential element of all e-mail communications, it can be an effective way to highlight a reminder or a particular point of interest.
Recommended Books on Tips for Writing Effective Emails:

Original Publication Date: November 2001.
 Article written by Ed Dawidowicz Bennett and Mark Hurst. Reprinted with Permission from

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Category: Email Marketing

Comments (5)

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