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5 Sales Email Myths that are Costing You Money

5 Sales Email Myths that are Costing You MoneyRecently, I worked with Darren on some sales content—including launch emails—for the release of a new product at DPS. That launch email was tested against another version written by a professional marketer in a split test before the launch. In (what was to me) a shock result, the email I’d written achieved:

  • 7.3% more opens (39.5% to 32.2%)
  • 4.8% more click-throughs (7% to 2.2%).

As we’ll see, this experiment busted five key sales email myths:

  1. Use call-to-action sales links in sales emails.
  2. We need to “sell” the customer on the product before they’ll click a link.
  3. A sales email should focus on a discount or offer.
  4. A sales email should overtly drive readers to action.
  5. Scannability is about bold font, bullet lists, and subheadings.

First up, let’s look at the email.


Subject: Wish you could take Gorgeous Photos, Every Single Time? Now You Can


Wish you could take gorgeous photos, every single time? Now you can.

Photo Nuts and Shots is your comprehensive guide to creative photography. And for a limited time, you can get 25% off the cover price!

If you know your way around your camera, and you’re ready to harness practical techniques to take stunning, evocative images, this 100+ page ebook is for you.

Over 9 down-to-earth chapters, professional photographer Neil Creek will show you how to:

  • harness light to convey emotion
  • know the rules of composition … and when to break them
  • take the sharpest possible photo every time
  • adapt the camera’s exposure to produce the shot you want
  • master the concepts of shot perception, planning, and execution — in any setting
  • tap into your unique creativity to take evocative photographs that reach out to viewers
  • be the best photographer you can be.

For full details, visit our Photo Nuts and Shots page.

This lush, inspiring, practical guide normally retails for $19.99 but for a limited time, you can secure a copy for just $14.99.

That’s 25% off!

Of course, you’re protected by a 60-day money-back guarantee, so if you don’t feel this detailed ebook has helped you become a better photographer, you can get a full refund.

For more information, and to order your copy today, visit Photo Nuts and Shots info page.

Darren Rowse

PS: Order Photo Nuts and Shots in the next week and you’ll also go into the draw to win a brand new Canon EOS T2i SLR camera and lens.  But hurry, time is limited.

One thing you’ll notice is the aspirational nature of the selling point here. This was an aspirational product, being sold to people who had an ambition. Also, the DPS audience members aren’t new to the Web—they’re comfortable with technology and this medium.

The other email we tested used an offer-based subject line that promoted the launch discount. While discounts certainly appeal to customers, this example shows that a discount doesn’t always have the pulling power we think it will. What works best always depends on your audience.

This email contains a number of audience-specific techniques that I’m happy to discuss in the comments if you like, but in this post, I really wanted to focus on the broader techniques that I think helped give this email—and could give any sales email—a solid head-start in the response rate stakes.

1. Tie the opening to the subject line

The first sentence of this email is identical to the subject line. I don’t think that’s necessarily ideal, but I do think your email has an immediate hook if your subject line identifies your key selling point, and your opening answers that point.

As I’ll explain in a moment, this email does achieve that “answer” in its opening. But what do I mean by “answer”?

In this context, an answer isn’t necessarily an answer—to a question, for example—although it can be. An answer is a secondary piece of information that actively and substantially supports the proposition contained in your subject line. Look at a book’s chapters and you’ll see that their opening paragraphs directly relate to, explain, and/or support their titles. You’re aiming to achieve the same thing, but in a sentence.

So, for example, it would be much stronger to follow this email’s subject line with an aspirational opening sentence than an offer-focused opening sentence. Why? Because the selling point in this version of the email is aspiration. The opening sentence needs to reinforce that positioning whole-heartedly.

2. Make the first word count

The first word in this email is “wish”. It’s a present-tense verb, it directly reflects the selling point (aspiration), and it’s sweet and non-spammy. Wish? Who doesn’t have a wish?

I could have started with “Do you wish” or “Have you ever wished”, but those sentences just push that crucial word—wish—further and further away. We have micro-seconds to catch potential customers’ attention. We need to cut to the heart of the matter.

That first word is valuable in itself from a positioning point of view, but as we’re about to see, it has much greater value than this alone.

3. Link to the sales page

The first link to the sales page appears on the second line of the email. It’s an informational link containing the name of the product.

The other email we tested included its first link to the sales page in the fifth paragraph, and the link text was a call to action: “Order your copy here.” In fact, that email had two links, and used the same call to action in both. As you can see, the email above does not use call-to-action link text.

I think this points to a couple of common misconceptions about writing sales copy:

  1. The first is that a call to action is the appropriate form of link text in sales copy.
  2. The second is that a reader needs to be told things—that you need to “sell” them on your concept—before they’ll be sufficiently convinced to click on a link. I think most web users are more sophisticated than this. They trust their own opinions far more than yours or mine, and they know that clicking on a link is not a commitment to buy.

If you look glance at the opening of this email, you see two things: “Wish you…” and a link to Photo Nuts and Shots. I may be alone in my take on this, but to me, that says “Problem? Solution.”

4. Make it scannable

You knew this was coming, right? And yes, we included a list (every point starting with a carefully chosen verb, to communicate a benefit), a bolded discount offer, and an eye-catching post-script with a competition to generate immediate action.

But the other email we tested had all these “scannable” elements too. So what’s the difference?

I think scannability has evolved from the early days of subheads-and-bullet-list advice. As we just saw, at first glance, the opening contains a problem and a solution—even if the reader isn’t reading. This may sound extreme, but I’ll say it: the reader doesn’t really have to move their eyes to get that information.

If, as we know from research, readers’ eyes stray down the left of the display, then we should provide them with as much information as we can on the far left of the page. I am an extremely lazy online reader, so I know from personal experience that this makes a big difference to comprehension.

I think scannability comes right down to language choice and sentence structure. On the left-hand side of this email we see—even if we don’t consciously read them—the following words:

  • Wish you could
  • Photo Nuts and Shots
  • Over 9 down-to-earth
  • For full details
  • This lush, inspiring
  • That’s 25% off
  • Of course, you’re protected
  • For more information
  • Darren Rowse

This information combines to deliver:

  • acknowledgement of a problem
  • the name of the solution
  • a link
  • value: the book length (9 chapters; I used the number because it stands out more clearly in body copy than would the word “nine”) coupled with the size of the discount (also a number)
  • reassurance

The one thing to remember with this left-hand-side technique is that words in subsequent lines of the same paragraph may not display against the left-hand margin in the user’s email client. You really need to focus on first words of paragraphs with this technique.

5. Beginnings and endings

There’s another little scanning-related technique that I wanted to mention. Let’s look again at the list of benefits, which is probably one of the parts of any sales email that gets the most attention.

  • harness light to convey emotion
  • know the rules of composition … and when to break them
  • take the sharpest possible photo every time
  • adapt the camera’s exposure to produce the shot you want
  • master the concepts of shot perception, planning, and execution — in any setting
  • tap into your unique creativity to take evocative photographs that reach out to viewers
  • be the best photographer you can be.

I have this idea that we pay attention to the beginnings and ends of pieces of text. Take the middle sections out of these bullet points, and here’s the message you end up getting:

  • harness light …  emotion
  • know the rules … break them
  • take the sharpest … every time
  • adapt the camera’s … shot you want
  • master the … in any setting
  • tap into your …. reach out to viewers
  • be the best … you can be.

This applies to other pieces of text, too. Like the first two paragraphs:

Photo Nuts and Shots … 25% off the cover price!

If you know …  100+ page ebook is for you.

And the refund paragraph:

Of course … get a full refund.

So don’t just pay attention to the left-hand side of your content. Also pay close attention to the endings of each piece of text in your email.

Warning: oversell

This email did achieve a good response rate. However, the complaint rate on this email was higher than the other version we tested by 0.04%.

That’s a small percentage, and you’d probably say it was worth it, given the higher open and click-through rates.

Interestingly, Darren told me that the ebook’s author, Neil Creek, also voiced concern at the strength of the message in this email. When the email was mailed to the whole of the DPS userbase, the words “every single time” were removed from the subject line.

I have to admit that I was extremely impressed by the product itself, and that obviously came across loud and clear in my writing. But it makes an important point about word choice and expression. The bottom line seems to be, don’t go overboard, however enthusiastic you may feel about the product.

Rewriting the myths

After this experiment, here’s my take on the sales email myths I outlined at the start:

  1. Use call-to-action sales links in sales emails.
    Write your copy for the audience, and use what feels like natural link text. If it’s a call to action, fine. But it needn’t be.
  2. We need to “sell” the customer on the product before they’ll click a link.
    Some readers may need convincing, but many just want to look at what you’re selling for themselves. Don’t make them hunt for the link.
  3. A sales email should focus on a discount or offer.
    The focus of your email should be dictated by the audience’s needs.
  4. A sales email should overtly drive readers to action.
    You don’t need to use in-your-face techniques like call-to-action link text, repetition, and screamy sales lines (“Don’t miss out! Order now! Limited stock available!”) to get results.
  5. Scannability is about bold font, bullet lists and subheadings.
    Scannability is about paragraphs, sentences, and words as much as it is these presentation mechanisms.

How do you feel about these ideas? Do you think they’d work with your readers? What other suggestions can you add? Also, if you try some of these techniques and can share your results with us in the comments, we’d love to hear them.

About Georgina Laidlaw
Georgina Laidlaw is a freelance content developer, and Content manager for problogger.net. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
  1. Good information Georgina, thanks for sharing1

  2. Hello Georgina,

    Thank you for a concise and helpful list of facts on emails and what to do to be more effective.

  3. Good information you got there. And to be honest, the format of the e-mail appeals to me. It looks more like a proper communication and therefore eases the feeling of “losing money when I click the link”. I’ll give it a try.

    – Mike

  4. Unless I’ve read this wrong you compared two emails yet made five conclusions?

    If you make more than one change it is impossible to draw a conclusion as to what has caused the observed difference!

  5. Email is still the way to go when marketing, people are still making good sales through emails..even me..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  6. Like jezza101 says, you can’t draw such broad conclusions from two completely different emails. You can, however, use them to form hypothesis to be tested more carefully (look up “exploratory research”). Not to mention, your data has little statistical significance.

    Sorry, I’m not trying to hate, it’s just that this post is making very strong claims about what works and what doesn’t from meaningless data that comes from a meaningless test. The scientist in me can be a real bastard sometimes. :)

  7. Very nicely written and interesting!
    Good luck to you, Georgina!

  8. I definitely plan to bookmark this to refer to later, probably again and again. What I really like is that it’s simple and easy to do compared to most of the long format letters, and yet it is nicely effective. Thank you for posting it.

  9. To me, it’s always been weird how people can spend so much time trying to find their blogging voice, only to abandon it the moment they want to sell a product. I can always tell right away that I’m about to get the hard sell and start tuning out the message. Whereas, those who stop trying to emulate email marketers and just tell me why they like something, in the same style they would write a normal blog post, keep my attention and have a shot of getting the sale.

    I especially like the length of the message. I can’t stand getting an endless sales pitch in my inbox. My dislike of it is second only to the neverending sales pages put together with yellow-highlighted text and WAY too many testimonials.

  10. This was an extremely helpful sales analysis.

    I’ve noticed some unusual responses (with regard to click throughs and sales) in one of our companies, but never really analyzed them. Of course, trying to decide specifically *why* particular things work involves a lot of speculation, I think your evaluation makes a lot of sense.

    I’m going to implement some of your suggestions and tweak future mailings with these things in mind. Thanks so much.

  11. I think that point 3 is particularly poignant. So many email marketers fail to make some sort of special offer in their emails, and still expect readers to take action. People are busy, and if there is no reason for them to take action right now, they won’t.

    Great advice.

  12. Georgina,

    Interesting article and I’d guess that the bottom line, from a marketing point of view, is the number of sales that resulted.

    I’m intrigued by the percentage rates you quote, because there doesn’t seem to be much difference:

    7.3% more opens (39.5% to 32.2%)
    4.8% more click-throughs (7% to 2.2%)

    But, that is because of the way you have chosen to compare the figures. Unless I’m reading this wrong, you could have said:

    22.6% more opens (39.5% to 32.2%)
    318% more click-throughs (7% to 2.2%)

    These show the percentage increase over the other figures, rather than as a percentage of the total emails. It is actually far more significant. Even though statistics aren’t my forte and they are too often manipulated to show whatever is required, I’d say that the click-throughs, combined with the opens, show a huge advantage in your email over the other.

    If you consider 1,000 emails going out.

    Your email with an opening rate of 39.5% is 395 and a click rate of 7% = 27.65.

    The other email with an opening rate of 32.2% is 322 and a click rate of 2.2% = 7.08.

    So, overall your email achieved almost 4 times the number of clicks. You would have to send out 4,000 of the other emails to achieve the same as 1,000 of yours!

    Am I reading this right? If so, Darren probably owes you a drink :-)

    I believe that more people are getting wise to spammy emails now and authenticity shines through.


    • Exactly! Too many emails, too less value…Ruined the whole art of email marketing.

      Georgina just showed how going against the rules can actually make you stand out at times.

      Nice example!

      And Patrick, your percentages format would have made it even MORE convincing (pun intended) for me to read the post…ha ha!

    • Georgina Laidlaw says: 02/25/2011 at 10:17 am

      Hey Patrick,
      Yes, you could certainly look at the results in that way — to compare each email’s results against the other might have seemed a bit of an overstatement though (as you can see from the comments in this post, the representation of statistics is important to our readers), and is not a standard approach.

      That said, your comparative analysis makes an interesting point for bloggers assessing their own emails. If we consider the stats in the terms, “Imagine I sent 1000 of these emails. How many clicks will I get, compared to 1000 of those emails?” we might find ourselves more motivated to work with certain ideas or approaches.

      Thanks for your insightful comment ;)

  13. Great post! I will be launching my first product and writing my first sales email soon, so this post is extremely helpful!
    The world really IS at our fingertips!

  14. Georgina Laidlaw says: 02/17/2011 at 11:21 am

    jezza101 and David, you’re right: it wasn’t a research study. As I said at the outset, I wanted to see whether you guys thought these factors could have helped make the difference. Obviously it’s impossible to give a definitive answer—I just wanted to get your impressions :)

    Thanks for the comments!

  15. I really liked the First Word theory! That is really neat and definitely true! Thanks for posting this. It is really an eye-opener! Will do the first word technique right away!

  16. WebMarketingNinja says: 02/17/2011 at 2:59 pm

    “What works best always depends on your audience”

    I just can’t stress enough the importance of this. It is really IMO the one golden rule when it comes to email marketing.

    That’s why you’ll get a lot of different opinions in responce to this post. Because what you did may work for some and not for others.

    It just goes to show some of the conderations you need to make with email and why it’s not lock, load and fire.

    • Georgina Laidlaw says: 02/17/2011 at 3:17 pm

      Agreed. I think this exercise proves that some of the more traditional approaches deserve to be questioned, especially as particular audience segments we might be targeting evolve in particular directions.

  17. Helpful stuff, Georgina. Will keep your tips in mind when I’ll do email campaigns for my client.

    Thinking from a recipient’s perspective, bold text and italics are fine by me. But using ALL CAPS for emphasis anywhere in an email is a definite turn-off. Not only is it the written equivalent of being shouted at, but it just seems to me hovering on being overly promotional and pushy.

  18. Hello Georgina,

    I feel that all of your copy writing suggestions make sense and make for more authentic email writing. Exactly which one made the big difference in open rate and click through may not be that important, it could also depend on your audience. A synergistic approach works better than seeking for the active ingredient.
    Thanks for the great email tips.

  19. Having written many, many successful marketing emails, I had to chime in here.

    I’m not sure you’ve really busted any myths. You did exactly what works.

    The offer (discount) is not what pulls in the sales. What works is a problem/solution.

    Your subject line talks to people directly about something they want. “Hard sells” or “discounts don’t work; offering people the chance to get something they want does.

    25% off isn’t appealing unless it’s 25% off of something I already know I want to buy. If I want a new Kitchenaid mixer, a coupon for 25% off the price of one will get me to open the email. If I don’t need a mixer, or don’t know what Kitchenaid is, or don’t cook, I’d never open that email.

    You’re not really selling “the product” per se, you’re selling the solution – holes, not drills. Telling people about the features won’t work; demonstrating what they’ll get from the book will.

    Scannable doesn’t have to mean bold or lots of subheads – it’s small chunks of text.

    You’re right – the first few words are what people read. You did exactly what smart marketing writers do – put a problem/solution at the start of each line.

    Of course, it’s not a true test unless you only test one thing at a time (change the subject line for instance).

  20. Awesome stuff, I’ll keep this quick, this is the stuff that makes my job easier

    Thanks heaps

  21. People are very sensitive to anything that sounds too sales-y, even if that’s not the writer’s actual attention. You’d be surprised at the effect very common terms you write can have, and how they can often be misinterpreted. For example, you can hardly use the word “guaranteed” now without people becoming skeptical.

    • Georgina says: 02/24/2011 at 1:38 pm

      Ooh yes :) Word choice is definitely important. I think, though, that the appropriateness of vocab comes down to your audience, the level of engagement, and the way you use the words you choose.

  22. Of course, there is a way to avoid these myths all together…don’t spam in the first place. Agree with the tips here…keep it light, don’t push, get to the point and always remember that even opt-in lists can be spammed. Just be real, be informative and don’t try to sell your product as if it’s the cure for cancer and the answer to all of life’s mysteries.

  23. Great! Its an awesome post. Thanks for sharing. The first word “myth” is really interesting for me.

    Thanks for the post. :)

  24. Great points in here Georgina, tying in the subject line with the body is certainly important. This is what I use “pre-headers” for. Here’s my top 10 tips for improving open rates, i’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that: http://www.beamondcreative.com/2009/10/enewsletter-marketing-10-tips-for-a-successful-campaign-and-increased-open-rate/

  25. Timely post for me. Thank you Patrick and Jodi for adding to it and clarifying so well.

  26. What I find amazing is that the title and approach still just seems so spammy. For one, I would never open one of those emails, and I realize the percentage of people that do are low, but certainly there has to be a better way.

  27. This was a very interesting exercise Georgina, and it shows the value of split testing. I agree with you on speed reading/scanning. I look at the start and end of sentences. The middle is just the joining up words, the action is at the start and end. Knowing this can make a big difference when writing sales copy for emails.

    Leamington Spa, England

    • McNally!

      haha what’s up man!? Didn’t think I’d see you over at ProBlogger..good stuff yo!


      -Chris Alta

  28. I do a lot of email marketing and I have found your tips to be GREAT. They are extremely helpgul in both debunking myths and giving good advice for some ‘positive” practices. Thank you for a great article!

  29. I’m glad you covered the one about discounts and offers. I had never heard that as a myth, but the way of doing things. I certainly understand your point.

  30. It’s hard for me to conquer this email marketing strategy. Sending out emails that seem like they’re spam just seems a little wrong? I dunno.

  31. Beginnings and endings are very crucial area in email marketing, it should be professionally written. Otherwise people wont read complete email.

  32. Like it Georgina, it sounds almost like a blog post in e-mail minature – create the problem and solve it without being too direct and in your face and then subtely dangle more benefits elsewhere. I personally like the more gentler ‘pull’ technique rather than the direct ‘push’ one of selling and telling. Good to see that works!

  33. Georgina,

    I might have to disagree with you on this. By offering the customer a 25% discount you are eventually selling to the customer. And your call to actions are present on the sales pages you are directing the customer to. This shows that to make a good sale, you need to have a call to action, promote and lure the customer by highlighting the benefits and the deals that are available.

    • Georgina says: 02/24/2011 at 1:35 pm

      Hey Eddie,
      Yep — there was definitely a call to action and an offer, and the email listed the product benefits. I’m not trying to argue that people will buy without information on the product :) I am arguing that perhaps it’s time we questioned some of the “traditional email marketing wisdom” I outlined in those five points at the end of the article.

      I really do think that large segments of the online userbase have evolved beyond the point where that approach is either empathetic or optimal.

    • Ahh touche!

      I didn’t notice that but good eye Eddie! I just left a comment below telling Georgina that if you built an honest relationship with your reader and always gave them free content, never steered them wrong and kept everything you did 100% honest you wouldn’t need to sell your readers in the first place!

      They would willingly buy from you since they know you’re a good person and that anything you’ve ever put in front of them is to help them out!

      I’ve got a buddy who has about 1,200 people on his list but it’s like every week he’s promoting some product that he’s never even used, and because he does this to make a quick buck he’s losing subscribers and his open rate has gone down. People are getting sick of being sold these days and my buddy is a prime example of what not to do.

      So build the relationship, trust, and in the end you won’t even have to sell them anything!

      Good catch though!


      -Chris Alta

  34. Georgina!

    Thank you so much for sharing this brilliant case study with us.
    I also appreciate the email copy here as a reference and I thank you again for a summary that is of itself a definitive guide to email marketing.

    So basically what you are saying is that ignore what everyone tells you and just listen to those already on your list.

    Thanks again Georgina!

  35. Great information. I’m learning and think this site has better and more information to learn from than any I’ve seen yet to learn about blogging! Thank you. CJ Savage

  36. Thanks, Georgina for a great post! I learned a lot. I think that my emails have not been light enough, nor have they been concise enough.

    By the way, where in the email one creates to sell his product or service does he place the photograph he has taken?

    • Georgina Laidlaw says: 02/25/2011 at 8:41 am

      Hey krissy,
      I’ve only ever really worked with text so I have no experience with image placement.

      I’m sure some of the other commenters will be able to advise, though….?

  37. It is so much fun to read the posts of a problogger! This is really useful! Thanks for all the tips here. I didn’t do any of these before but I will definitely try it out! Thanks a lot!

  38. Good information. this is just what I was lokking for. thanks alot

  39. thanks georgina..it’s a great tips for email marketing. I have made many mistakes in relation to email marketing … it really helped me. Although I was a little difficult to digest the language you use (I’m Indonesian) but I understand the core points.

  40. Some really interesting points here – fascinating. I would love to see the e-mail written by the professional marketeer as well. Just to see where he or she went ‘wrong’.

  41. I’m a lover of brevity and yet, I’m having a great time reading your post. Yes, a lot of sales email will get into spam folders but then– if your subject line contains that magic word that makes them feel they’re already using your product even if they’re just about to read your email… then, I guess, you’ve found the holy grail of email marketing. This is something I’ve overlooked and thanks a lot for writing something that makes perfect sense. Cheers!

  42. Georgina,

    I haven’t yet gotten into direct email marketing and I don’t really believe in it really for this reason:

    If you build up the trust of your audience int he first place by giving them free valuable content and information that solves a vacuum of need in their lives. When you do this you build trust and a genuine relationship with them that when the time does come for you to monetize your list will buy from you willingly because you’ve never steered them wrong.

    Now if I did do email marketing for direct sales I’d be honest with them. I’d say hey I just bought this program, or this ebook and I thought it was great. If you want to check it out you can click through my affiliate link and do so, if not then no hard feelings!

    I think people would respond more to your honesty rather than an enticing sales pitch type email. Maybe you can do a case study next time by just being honest and letting them know what they’ll get, and that it’s through your affiliate link, etc.

    To each his/her own and whatever works for you keep doing it! Great post though, I always thought that you really had to entice your readers but you definitely broke those 5 myths BIG TIME!

    Especially with 1 and 2. Never thought that you didn’t really need to have Call-to-Action or Selling your reader. And this is where my argument comes in again, if you have already been genuinely benefiting your readers by helping them out with free content, when you do mention a product you won’t have to sell them on anything in the first place again because you built trust and a REAL relationship.

    An auto responder can only take you soo far! Gotta be a person and connect with people!

    Thanks for listening to my bs lol and again great post..super informational!


    -Chris Alta

  43. Great insights. Thank you.
    As someone who sends out many sales related emails, I’m going to put some of these ideas to use today

  44. Thanks for sharing all these great tips. It helps to think outside the box when it comes to sales materials, as everyone’s customers are different.

    Great post!


  45. Hi Georgina,

    I’m going to delve into your post completely, as getting my e-mail marketing plan in place is the order of the day. Thank you so much for all the great info!

  46. i always headache with the tile and the subtitle of email. Because title will be the one build the first impression to customers. A fail title may cause misleading customer understanding. It also will cause it will recognize a spam mail if use wrong wording. Email Marketing do need a interactive to capture customer interest and click into it. Content must be show what customer aspect to get or not they will directly bounce out and delete it. Smart use of internet marketing, it always the best marketing tool which is most effective to reach customers.

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