Writing Copy with Crunch

One of our wonderful client-friends (we have a lot of those, which is part of what makes our work here so much fun) sent me an email this week with the curiosity-piquing subject line, "Where's the lettuce?" -- it contained a link to this article about the "missing ingredient" in a lot of email marketing.

We spend a lot of time talking about the beef of email marketing: perfectly clean copy, clear calls-to-action, highly scannable designs, solid coding, and the right offer. But there's more to a great burger than a great patty.

A recent Crate & Barrel email included in our Email Design Look Book provides the answer to the missing ingredient. The May 1 email promoted knives with a minimalistic design that used silhouette photography of the knives and simple blocks of product information. The design is nice and clean, but what makes it exceptional is the ribbon of lettuce used as the bottom border of the primary message block. Smith-Harmon designer Ellen Bolotin, who brought the email to our attention, says that "the lettuce on the bottom just makes me laugh."

That's what so many emails are missing -- a little, cool crunch-a-little lettuce. Most emails are all business, all beef. While effective, there's something a little boring and joyless about them.

Many people view their inboxes as stressful places, so delivering a little unexpected delight is well worth the effort -- and likely to make opening your email feel less like a chore.

I couldn't agree more. I spend a lot of my time reading emails, tweets, Facebook status messages, website copy, and fundraising letters -- and the ones I remember definitely include content that is not strictly necessary, but that adds enormous flavour, personality and charm. When you take an all-business approach to copywriting (and design, for that matter), you miss an opportunity to connect with your community through humour, delight, and serendipity.

Here are just a few of my personal favourite lettuce-delivery vehicles online:

  • John Richards, the morning DJ at KEXP.org (the Seattle-based radio station that keeps me at least somewhat in the loop, musically), sends out a daily email to his listeners with his playlist, upcoming live shows in the Seattle area, and several extras ranging from a Link of the Day to a news story filed under the heading, "The End is Near". (Here's a recent entry in the latter category: "Andrew Mizsak, clean your room! Father calls cops on adult son, member of the Bedford school board, for refusing his chores.")
  • BC Business magazine has made an intriguing shift in the past year or two, and here's one sign of why I care much more about them than ever before: Digital editor John Buchner kicks off the publication's Twitter feed every morning with a daily haiku. Like this one: "June's last slanted sun / And sharp air, she breathes, and her / heels click on the road. [Good Monday morning.]"
  • Years ago, SF Gate columnist Mark Morford crafted a daily email newsletter called "The Morning Fix," which was a favourite of mine. It included a rotating series of delightful diversions, such as the daily Mullet Haiku (contributed by readers) and a word-of-the-day feature that was notable mostly for its hysterically funny usage examples, most of which were send-ups of then-VPOTUS Dick Cheney.
  • BUST magazine used to have a fun feature in their e-newsletters -- sadly, it's gone now -- called "Shebonics", where they'd insert a quote from a famous woman, usually on the subject of feminism or female empowerment. (Sample: "I used to think Hollywood was a very disorganized place run by very evil people. Now I think it's a really disorganized place run by a lot of evil people and a few really great ones who somehow found their way in there. I still would never live there." Sarah Polley in Interview)

Quirky, personal, funny, or just odd -- so long as it's not competing with the "beef" part of your message (or perhaps "protein" would be more inclusive?), I recommend spicing up your writing with an extra or two. In a medium that struggles to avoid being impersonal, your copywriting is one of the things that can really help you stand out from the crowd and connect with your readers at a gut, emotional level. It seems to me the key is to give yourself permission to share something unusual about yourself; obviously it needs to be something you're comfortable sharing, but you need to push past the inner voice telling you that nobody cares (or that people will think you're weird), and remember that your quirks just make you more lovable. And don't we all just want to be loved?