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Writing Great Emails: Top 10 Tips

Do you remember when email first hit the scene? My first exposure to email was around 1988 when the publishing company I was working for installed internal email on our IBM 286 PCs. (Google this old PC and look at the pictures for a real stroll down memory lane!)

I remember wasting lots of time using this amazing new communication tool to chat with coworkers about anything and everything, most of it having little if anything to do with our jobs. And this was just internal email within the company — sending emails outside the company was still a year or so away.

Bedrock Communication Tool

Fast forward nearly 30 years and email is now an integral part of practical everyone’s life. Sure, we have text, instant messaging and countless social media platforms we can use for electronic communication. But good old-fashioned email is still the bedrock tool used by most people for communicating electronically, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

Given this, I often wonder: Why are most of the emails I receive so bad? I mean, we’ve got nearly three decades of experience using email. Most of us have used it practically our whole lives to communicate with friends, relatives, co-workers, clients, etc.

But I still see the same crappy emails all the time that violate the basic rules for email writing and email etiquette. This is true with both personal and business emails, by the way. So I thought I’d recap some of the most common violations of email writing and etiquette that I consistently see, including a few of my biggest email pet peeves.

Top 10 Email Tips

There’s probably nothing here you haven’t read somewhere else or don’t instinctively know. But based on my observations, there’s a big difference between knowing something and doing it. So here are my Top 10 tips for writing great emails — and not ticking off your email recipients:

1. Use the proper style, tone and level of professionalism for the type of communication. If it’s a work- or business-related email, use a professional style and tone. Write as grammatically correct as possible (within reason — I know everybody’s not a grammar geek like me) and don’t misspell any words. If it’s a personal email, you can be more casual and informal, but I still recommend keeping it pretty clean from a grammatical and spelling standpoint.

2. Respect your recipients’ time and attention span. This means writing a useful subject line that tells recipients what the email is about and keeping the content as brief and concise as possible. Follow the journalism inverted pyramid style of writing in which the most important information is in your lead paragraph and the rest of the email includes supporting and less-vital details of diminishing importance.

3. Use “reply to all” selectively and judiciously. OK, this is my first big email pet peeve: People hitting “reply to all” when it isn’t necessary. Before using reply to all, think about whether or not every recipient really needs to see your reply. If not, just hit “reply.”

4. Use “BCC” when sending an email to a large group of people. This will protect the privacy of everyone who is being emailed by concealing their names and email addresses. Otherwise, everyone who receives the message can see the name and address of everybody else who receives it.

5. Always follow the “overnight” rule when writing and sending an emotional or angry email. Raise your hand if you’ve ever sent an email while you were emotional or angry — and then immediately wished you hadn’t. I learned this lesson the hard way a long time ago and try to never forget it: Always sit on these emails overnight and read them fresh again in the morning. You’ll probably rewrite it, or just delete it.

6. Clean up long email strings before forwarding them. Emails that get forwarded or replied to all multiple times end up with long strings of signatures, disclaimers and other junk. It’s a courtesy to delete all of this before forwarding it on again yourself.

7. Don’t overdo it with your email signature. This is another one of my pet peeves. Logos and other graphics that are included with signatures often come through to recipients as attachments. Then you have to wade through all these useless attachments to find the real attachment you actually need.

I believe that simpler is better with an email sig: Include your vital contact info and a link to your website and maybe a social media page or two. You can bold or colorize type if you want something to stand out, but skip the fancy graphics and formatting.

8. Don’t send very large attachments. Super big attachments — larger than 5 MBs or 10 MBs at the most — can clog up or even jam your recipient’s inbox. I spent almost an hour once getting my email unjammed because of some super-sized video attachments somebody tried to send me. Use Dropbox to share attachments that are any bigger than this.

9. Use “high priority” sparingly. If you flag too many emails as “high priority,” people will start to ignore it. As for “low priority,” well, I’m not sure why you’d ever use this. It’s hard enough to ensure your email gets prompt attention without telling recipients it’s not really that important!

10. Know when to pick up the phone. Have you ever had email conversations that just go on and on without answering the question or resolving the problem? When you feel this is happening, stop emailing and call the other person or go track him or her down to talk face to face. I’ve wasted so much time before on these frustrating back-and-forths that could have been halted with a simple five-minute (or less) phone call.

Sales vs. Marketing: How They’re Different — and Why It Matters

I was talking with a good friend earlier this week who just started a new sales job. His boss gave him a marketing budget for the year and told him to create a marketing plan, so my friend wanted to pick my brain about where content marketing might fit into the plan.

We talked about blogging, ghost article writing, whitepapers and case studies — all of which are effective components of a content marketing plan. Then my friend said his boss expected him to write all of this content himself.

“They hired me to sell, not to write blogs and whitepapers,” he told me. He said he could easily spend half his time doing all this writing — which, of course, is time that he’s not spending talking to prospects and clients.

Sales and Marketing Are Different

Our conversation got me to thinking about sales vs. marketing. These two terms are often linked together — as in “the sales and marketing team” or “the sales and marketing budget.” However, they aren’t the same thing — not even close. Expecting salespeople to be marketers, or marketers to be salespeople, can be a costly mistake.

In short: The role of marketing is to generate qualified leads and prospects salespeople can try to sell to. Without marketing, it would be next to impossible for salespeople to do their jobs. And without sales, the work done by marketers would be for naught.

Here’s an analogy: An executive chef at a top-notch restaurant probably doesn’t go shopping for the food and ingredients he’ll use to prepare dishes. That wouldn’t be a very good use of his time and talents. Instead, he focuses on cooking and lets others worry about bringing him the ingredients he needs.

In the same way, skilled salespeople shouldn’t be spending their time trying to drum up qualified leads or create marketing tools like blogs and articles. Instead, they should be focusing all of their time, energy and attention on one thing: Closing leads provided by the marketing team.

How It Should Work

The publishing company I worked for in my first job out of college had a well-run and highly effective sales and marketing department. Everyone’s duties were clearly defined and there was a sharp distinction between what the salespeople and the marketing people were supposed to be doing.

The marketing folks scoured lists (this was back in the 1980s) for good prospects and compiled accurate contact information to pass on to salespeople. And they were constantly coming up with clever new marketing campaigns and direct mail pieces to send to prospects that generated a steady stream of qualified leads for salespeople to follow up on.

The salespeople, meanwhile, were closing machines. Freed from having to worry about finding their own leads, they were like bulldogs in pursuing the leads marketing gave them. I got to sit in on prospect meetings with them from time to time and was always amazed at their sales skills and abilities.

Due to this successful partnership between sales and marketing, the company’s growth exploded and they became the dominant custom publishing company in the country in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. To me, there’s no question that the clear separations between the sales and marketing functions was the biggest key to the company’s success.

Segregate Roles and Duties

What about your sales and marketing department? Is there a clear distinction between the roles and duties of your salespeople and the roles and duties of your marketers?

I think this is more important today than ever due to the ways that marketing has changed in recent years. In particular, I’m talking about the rise of content marketing as an integral part of many companies’ marketing plans. Before the Internet made content marketing the hot new marketing tool, two of the main marketing vehicles used by most companies were advertising and direct mail.

Very few companies expected their salespeople to write ads or create direct mail campaigns. They realized that these are very specialized skills so they hired expert marketers and copywriters to perform these tasks.

For some reason, though, a lot of companies today think their salespeople should be writing blogs, articles, whitepapers and case studies. “How hard can it be to crank out a few blogs and articles a month or pull together a 10-page whitepaper or case study?” is how the thinking often goes.

Well, if you’re not a professional writer, let me tell you: It can be pretty darn hard! Even if your salespeople are good writers and enjoy writing, you have to decide whether this is the best use of their time and talents. Just remember: Every hour they’re spending writing a blog or article is an hour they’re not spending talking to prospects.

Separate Sales and Marketing Functions

If you haven’t clearly separated the sales and marketing functions in your company, I urge you to make doing so a top priority. Make sure your marketing folks are concentrating on activities that help generate qualified leads for your salespeople — and that your salespeople are free to devote all of their time and energy toward selling.

Content Writing vs. Copywriting: What’s the Difference?

In just the past month, I’ve seen two different blogs tackling the topic of content writing vs. copywriting. Since I’ve been a professional writer for going on 31 years now, these blogs definitely piqued my interest. In fact, this distinction isn’t something I’d ever really thought about before.

In reading the blogs, I realized that the distinction goes deeper than it appears on the surface — and has application for marketing professionals other than just writer geeks like me.

History of the Terms

The term “copywriter” goes back a long ways. Exactly how far back, I’m not sure — but at least to the Mad Men era of the 1960s and the heyday of Madison Avenue advertising copywriters.

The term content writing or content writer, however, is relatively new. Along with myriad other terms like website, dot-com and hyperlink, it has sprung up over the past two decades with the rise of the Internet. In fact, the term content writer is usually short for “web content writer.”

In his blog Copywriting vs. Content Writing, Gordon Graham, aka That Whitepaper Guy, gives a good example that helps illustrate the difference. We’re all familiar with service journalism, which is best reflected in magazines and websites that cater to a niche audience whose members share some kind of common interest. Whether it’s woodworking, arts and crafts or collecting baseball cards, there are magazines and websites devoted to delivering valuable content that’s of interest to this audience — or more accurately, this community.

Magazines have done this since they started rolling off printing presses in the 1800s. With the Internet having become part of our everyday lives, businesses now have the opportunity to do the same thing publishers do when creating new magazines: Communicate and build relationships with niche communities by delivering content that’s of interest to them.

The better job magazines do of accomplishing this, the more subscriptions and advertising they will sell. The better job businesses do, the stronger relationships they will build with customers and prospects — and eventually, the more products and services they will sell.

Hence, the term content marketing, which is using strategic content to communicate and build relationships with niche communities that have a common interest in what a business markets and sells. So, content writing is writing material designed to do just this. Usually, this material consists of blogs, articles, whitepapers, case studies and so forth.

How Copywriting is Different

Copywriting is a little bit different. The best example of pure copywriting is still advertising, where copywriters hone unique skills in creating ads designed to get us to take a very specific action: click a link, make a phone call, visit a store, etc. The main goal of most copywriting is to sell — this is especially true of direct response copywriting, where top copywriters can earn tens of thousands of dollars for writing a single successful direct mail letter.

Content writing usually isn’t so sales-oriented, at least not directly. Unlike a copywriter who is skilled in getting people to take an action right away, a content writer’s skills lie more in crafting and telling a story or delivering valuable information in an easy-to-digest way. A good content writer will give readers just enough information to help them realize that they do need the products or services offered by the business without actually coming out saying it.

In this blog, for example, I write about things that I believe will be of interest to my niche community: those in the world of professional marketing and communications. I usually try to tell some kind of story and “give away” a few tips and pointers that might be useful.

What I never do is say “If you need a content writer for your articles, blogs or whitepapers, pick up the phone and give me a call — now!” By publishing a useful (I hope!) blog on a consistent basis, my goal is to stay top of mind so that if you ever do need a content writer, I’m the first person you’ll think of.

Unique Skill Sets Required

As I hope this illustrates, content writing and copywriting really are two different things, and they require different types of writing skills. I’ve been a content writer my entire career so I’m pretty good at it. While I’ve done some copywriting designed to generate response and make sales, it’s not my specialty so I’d probably refer you to someone else if you called and asked if I could help you with this.

On the flip side, I’ve worked with some great copywriters before who weren’t that good at content writing. When you’ve been trained to get readers to take a very specific action right away, it can be hard to shift gears into the more subtle and less salesy style and techniques required for content writing.

If you ever find yourself in need of a freelance writer, keep the differences between  content writers and copywriters in mind. Choosing the right kind of writer from the start could save you a lot of time, money and frustration.

Social Media Marketing: Living Up to the Hype

I have to admit that when it comes to social media marketing, I might have underestimated the power of this relatively new medium. Based on what I’m seeing, social media marketing very well might actually live up to all the hype that digital marketers have been giving it the past couple of years.

When I wrote about social media marketing a year and a half ago, I confessed that I’m not a big social media guy. It took me a long time to join the 1.5 billion other people worldwide who are on Facebook, and I still don’t engage on any other social media platforms — whether Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest or Tumblr — except LinkedIn.

Personal Experiences Change My Thinking

But my personal experiences on Facebook recently have shown me first-hand the potential power of social media as a sales and marketing tool. Here are two quick examples:

Last fall I started noticing Facebook ads for a new gym, Crunch Fitness, that was going to be opening near my house. I was interested in joining because I’d been going to my old gym for over 6 years and was getting kinda bored. Crunch used Facebook to promote their grand opening, publicize pre-opening deals, and even answer people’s questions. I joined and told the manager how effective their targeted Facebook advertising was.

About the same time, a new local record store’s ads and posts also started popping up on my Facebook news feed. So my daughter and I went to check it out loved the store, Comeback Vinyl — it’s owned by a mom and her son who love vinyl records and decided to open their own store. Now we stop in regularly and never leave without buying an album, book, poster or the like.

Would I have even heard of these new businesses — much less visited them and become a regular customer — if I hadn’t seen them on Facebook? I suppose I might have driven past them, though neither is on routes I usually drive or has a very visible street presence. And I might have seen a newspaper or TV ad if they’d gone this route, though I’d guess these are much more expensive.

Plus, their social media presence enabled the gym and the record store to regular interact online with their customers and prospects. The gym posted updates and pictures every day about the progress of their renovation, building interest and excitement, and the record store regularly posts links to interesting articles about music and bands. There’s also the ability to do local targeting on Facebook — the gym and record store are both fairly close to where I live.

CEOs Are Jumping On Board

In 2012, Forbes.com ran an article titled “Why CEOs Should Care: How Social Media Drives Business.” The article noted that a survey of CEOs worldwide found that only 16 percent of them were actively participating in social media. However, it predicted that this percentage would grow to 57 percent within five years.

Fast forward three years later and according a Forbes.com article published last May, 80 percent of CEOs are now engaged in social media. This was a significantly higher percentage than the magazine predicted in about half the time it originally anticipated. This indicates that business leaders, while slow to embrace social media at first, are now jumping on board along with everybody else.

5 Social Media Marketing Tips

If you are planning to launch a social media marketing campaign — or if you have a campaign but would like to improve your results — here are 5 ideas from social media marketing pros, as complied by Social Media Examiner:

1. Create a social media channel plan. Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, points out that many companies think they need to create content for every social media channel out there. Compounding the problem, they then post the same content on every platform. Since the goals for each social platform should be different, each platform’s content needs to be different — and the best way to organize all this is with a social media channel plan.

2. Focus on one social media channel. Jeff Korhan, MBA, the author of Built-in Social, takes this one step further: He suggests finding the one social channel that is densely populated with your ideal customers and focusing all your social marketing efforts here.

3. Post social media content consistently. According to John Lee Dumas, the founder and host of EntrepreneurOnFire, consistency is the key to growing a social media following and building engagement. Being consistent requires putting the right systems in place to keep posts organized, interesting and relevant to the audience. He recommends using Edgar, an online platform that makes it easy to create and manage content categories, schedule posts and update your schedule.

4. Use social updates to write blog posts. Social marketing strategist Ted Rubin suggests using your most popular tweets and LinkedIn and Facebook posts as material for your blogs. Blogs don’t have to be three pages long, either — Rubin notes that Seth Godin, one of the world’s most successful bloggers, is a master at writing short, thought-provoking blogs that are easy for time-pressed people to read.

5. Use LinkedIn Publisher. According to Melonie Dodaro, the author of The LinkedIn Code, LinkedIn’s free content publishing tool is a great way to increase your exposure to your target audience and build your credibility as an industry expert. Each time you publish here, all of your LinkedIn connections and followers will receive a notification.

The Marketing Power of Strategic Content Reuse

As a freelance writer, I produce lots of different kinds of content for my clients in the financial services and business-to-business sectors. Every week I write blogs, articles, newsletters, white papers, case studies — you name it and I’ve probably written it.

I usually don’t get much feedback, good or bad, to the content I write for my clients. I’m not complaining — everybody’s busy and I don’t need an “atta-boy” reply to everything I send to a client. But I got an email last week from one of my clients that really made my day.

Heck, you could say it made my week, month or even my year!

This Guy Gets It

Steven Schipper is the founder of LendTrade, a firm that helps banks and other financial institutions trade loan portfolios. I’ve been writing blogs for Steven since early this year, which he posts on his website in order to provide value-added content for site visitors, help boost his search engine optimization (SEO) results, and position himself as a expert in his industry.

Steven is one of those entrepreneurs who “gets it” when it comes to content marketing. He realizes that creating a blog is just the first step in a broader content marketing program. As I’ve discussed before, once you have created a piece of content — whether it’s a blog, white paper, case study or whatever — you have multiple opportunities to reuse the content in many different formats across a variety of different channels.

Steven asked me what I thought about creating a series of four blogs each month around a broad topic and then combining these into a comprehensive white paper. “Great idea!” I practically screamed into the phone.

So I merged the four blogs I wrote for him in September into a comprehensive overview of the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosures rule (or TRID), a hot topic in the mortgage finance industry. Then I worked with my designer to create a really nice-looking white paper he could post on his website as a PDF.

In October we did the same thing with the four blogs I wrote that month on the CFPB’s efforts to limit the ability of auto dealerships to mark up interest rates on car loans they secure for their customers. That gave Steven two timely white papers he could post on his website in addition to his weekly blogs.

In November, Steven decided that two white papers were enough for the time being so he asked me what I thought about repurposing that month’s blogs as an e-newsletter. “Even better idea!” I screamed again. At this point, Steven might have been thinking that maybe he’d just email me with his next idea.

The Good Stuff

Last week, Steven forwarded me an email reply he’d just gotten from his newsletter. A reader complimented him on the content and said he’d forwarded the newsletter to others in the bank, who in turn forwarded it up the line to their CFO and to their Washington, D.C., lobbyist.

But wait — it gets even better. Steven also said in his email to me that he just spoke with a hot prospect at a very large bank. He sent the prospect one of his white papers and “he really liked it and forwarded it to his ALCO committee.”

Folks, THAT’S what I’m talking about when I say that there’s some serious marketing power behind strategic content reuse. Think about it: Steven hires me to write weekly blogs, but he doesn’t stop there. After posting the blogs to his website, he repurposes them as white papers and newsletters. It’s the same content — it’s just used in different formats and shared across different channels to maximize its impact.

I do the same thing with the content you’re reading right now. In addition to posting it as a blog on my website, I also send it out as an e-newsletter (you can sign up for it here). This enables me to archive all of my content in one central place and provides an opportunity for you to comment on my articles below so we can start a dialog.

From White Paper to Blogs … and More

My friend Gordon Graham, aka That White Paper Guy, wrote a series of articles this year discussing how to repurpose a white paper. He explained how to repackage a white paper’s content into a press release, set of blog posts, slide deck, landing page, and set of tweets.

“By recycling your white paper into different formats, you’ll reach a much broader audience and deliver more value to your clients,” Gordon told me. “If you’re a B2B marketer, you’ll get more bang for your marketing buck.”