How to Turn a Bad Email into a Better Email
I couldn’t write this article a year ago.
I knew good copywriting when I saw it, but I couldn’t tell you what made it good.
I couldn’t tell you why some emails and sales pages made me want to buy a product (even if I had little interest in it) and why others nearly made my eyes bleed.
I now know how to turn bad copy into better copy.
The difference between bad copywriting and good copywriting is both about what the writer does and doesn’t say.
See, good copywriting is a bit of a dance.
You want to give the reader just enough information to keep them reading, but not so much that they can say:
“I know what he’s talking about. I don’t need to finish this.”
Bad copywriting spills the beans way too early. And in a very unflattering way.
Good copywriting leaves a trail of beans that leads you to a lovely 15-bean soup at the end.
(That’s an absolutely terrible analogy. But I think you get the point.)
So, in this post, I’m going to write a terrible, no good, very bad email.
Then — I’ll explain a few reasons why it’s bad.
Then — we’ll turn that bad email into one that’s better.
And I’ll show you exactly how and why it’s better.
Note: We’re talking about email/sales page copy here — not website or branding copy, although there are some principles that apply to both fields.
Let’s Turn a Bad Email into a Better One
Let’s pretend we’re writing for a banana company.
We’re reaching out to banana consumers and trying to get them to switch from our competitors’ bananas to our own.
Subject: Bob’s Bananas — Better than the Rest!
Here at Bob’s Bananas, we hand-select our bananas on our South American banana farms.
We only pick the highest-quality bananas to stock on grocery store shelves.
Not only that, our bananas are higher in Vitamin B6 than any other bananas on the market!
We’re always striving to produce the highest-quality bananas we possibly can. That’s why our founder, Bob, travels to our farms in South America once every 90 days to check in on our farmers and help them grow our bananas as naturally as possible.
So, the next time you’re at the grocery, go for Bob’s!
You won’t regret it.
The Bob’s Bananas Team
This email actually shows some promise.
It points out that Bob’s Bananas are “hand-selected on South American banana farms.”
It notes that “Bob’s Bananas are higher in Vitamin B6 than any other bananas on the market!”
And it shows a commitment to quality:
“Our founder, Bob, travels to our farms in South America once every 90 days to check in on our farmers and help them grow our bananas as naturally as possible.”
But, despite these seeds of hope, overall, this email falls flat. Here’s why.
First, the subject line looks like a boring advertisement.
It’s clearly an advertisement and it gives the reader no reason to care about the email.
They’re likely not familiar with Bob’s Bananas — and, in fact, they probably don’t even realize there’s a difference in quality between different banana brands.
They’re probably happy with their current bananas (they have no reason not to be), so most people would likely ignore this email.
Second, this email doesn’t answer the most important question in copywriting.
So, Bob travels to South America to work with his banana farmers—
But do other brands do that? Or just Bob’s?
Does Bob have any good stories from his experiences there?
What motivated Bob to do that?
This email hints at something awesome, like the fact that Bob is so invested in the quality of his bananas…
But doesn’t answer the most important question in copywriting:
Why does this matter?
It tells you that Bob’s bananas are “hand-selected” and that they are “higher in Vitamin B6 than any other bananas on the market!”
But it stops there. And that’s the problem.
As a copywriter, you have to do more than state facts. Anyone can do that.
Readers are busy. They have way too much going on in their lives to think about why they should choose Bob’s Bananas over any other company.
It’s your job to show readers why they should choose your product.
Here’s an example:
You’re thinking about buying a new car, and your friend just bought the exact same car you want to buy.
Aside from being a little jealous, you want to know what your friend thinks. So you ask:
“How do you like it?”
And she answers:
“Well, it’s red, and it has tan seats.
It’s got 18-inch rims too, and it gets 34 miles per gallon.
There’s a sunroof and the speedometer goes up to 140.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m asleep over here. With all due respect to your friend, that’s a terrible answer.
When you’re learning about a product, you might want to know facts…
But features like the size of the rims or the color of the seats aren’t what really matter.
What you really want to know is what those features allow you to do.
Your friend should have said:
“Well, it’s red and it really catches people’s attention when I’m driving down the road.
The seats are tan, so they don’t get too hot.
It’s got 18-inch rims, which just makes me feel like a baller.
It gets 34 miles per gallon, so I hardly ever have to stop and get gas.
It’s fast as hell — the speedometer tops out at 140, and I’ve gotten close.
AND to top it all off, there’s a sunroof, so I can get fresh air without creating a tornado inside my car.
I love it. You should get one.”
She’s not just telling you facts about the car. She’s telling you why those facts matter.
That was a bit of a tangent, but I hope you get the idea. When writing copy, always ask yourself:
Why does this matter?
Back to Bob now.
Third, this email shows a lack of audience awareness.
Readers want to be entertained, even in their marketing.
And, unless your company is a household name — or unless you give them a reason to — they’re probably not going to care about anything you do.
So simply saying, “we have good bananas,” isn’t going to make anyone buy those bananas.
You can even take the “Why does this matter” question a step further by asking:
“If I were reading this — would I care?”
If the answer is anything but, “Hell yes” —
It’s time to go back to the drawing board.
One of the best ways to make your reader care is to actually know who they are.
Since we’re reaching out to people who buy bananas, we can assume they’re at least somewhat interested in their health…
And our second email will play on that interest.
So, in summary, here are a few reasons why this email is bad:
The subject line looks like a boring advertisement
The email doesn’t answer the most important question in copywriting (“Why does this matter?”)
It shows a lack of audience awareness
Now, let’s write a better email.
Subject: Eat this to feel happier (it’s probably in your kitchen now)
You might not realize this, but…
You have something in your kitchen right now that can increase your happiness.
(And no — I’m not talking about the wine.)
In fact, you probably eat this food nearly every day—
But you might not be getting the full benefit from it.
A lot of people are careless when they buy this food, because they think that “it’s all the same.”
But a recent study has shown the organic version of this food produced by one company gives you 12% more of a critical vitamin responsible for making you happier.
But before I tell you what this happiness-boosting food is, I want you to fully understand why the vitamin it contains is so important.
The vitamin I’m talking about is B6.
According to Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center:
“Vitamin B6 helps your body make serotonin, a chemical that influences mood. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, and some antidepressant medications work by raising levels of serotonin. ”
If you’re not getting enough B6, you’re increasing your risk of experiencing mood swings and depression…
Maybe you’re already experiencing these things.
But, starting today, you can add a simple habit to your daily routine that can give you more than 30% of your daily value of vitamin B6.
The best part?
You probably have this food sitting on your kitchen counter right now.
I’m talking about bananas.
And while you can get a portion of the B6-boosting benefits of bananas from any old banana, there’s one specific banana brand that’s been proven to have up to 12% more vitamin B6 than conventional bananas.
You might have never noticed this boutique banana brand before, but now—
You’ll notice their bananas every time you’re at the grocery.
What’s the name of the brand?
And I guess it’s time I introduced myself—
I’m Bob McNana, owner and founder of Bob’s Bananas.
We’ve always had a passion for producing the highest-quality organic bananas on the market…
And we’ve always had a feeling our bananas were better than big box brands…
But we recently had a study performed that proved it.
In the study, our bananas were shown to have up to 12% more Vitamin B6 than our competitors’.
That means if you want to get the most B6 possible from your bananas (and help your body produce serotonin — responsible for feelings of happiness and wellbeing)...
Choose Bob’s Bananas the next time you’re in the grocery store.
Eat up! :)
Before we analyze this email, let’s get something clear—
This email is not perfect.
I’m sure there are ways it could be improved.
And, the idea that eating bananas could actually make you happier is — well, it’s a stretch. I’m not sure it’s an angle I would actually use in a real email.
But for the sake of demonstration, it works.
Regardless of all that, this email is better than our first one.
So let’s analyze why.
First, it has a big idea.
There’s a theme that ties the whole email together:
Bob’s Bananas can make the reader happier than other brands’ bananas because they have 12% more Vitamin B6.
This is something that’s missing from the original email, which mentions that Bob’s Bananas have more Vitamin B6 than any other bananas on the market, but fails to show us why that’s important.
This email takes that same feature (high Vitamin B6 content) and then shows us exactly why it’s important:
Vitamin B6 is responsible for serotonin production.
More serotonin can make us feel happier.
Bob’s Banana’s can give you more Vitamin B6 than other bananas.
And since Vitamin B6 can increase serotonin production and Bob’s Bananas have more Vitamin B6 than any other brand…
Bob’s Bananas can make you happier than other bananas.
Your marketing message will be much stronger if you just pick one thing and make sure you communicate why it’s important.
Otherwise, your message is scattered. The reader gets bombarded with so many ideas, they can’t hold on to any of them.
Pick one idea.
“What’s the one thing I want my reader to know at the end of this email/sales page/ad/etc.?”
And then make sure all your copy is helping get that point across.
Second, this email points to a VERY CLEAR benefit for the reader:
Remember, you should always be asking yourself:
WHY is this important to the reader?
In this case, our email is important because it’s showing the reader a simple way they can feel happier.
Third, this email is laced with curiosity.
There’s a certain mixture I like to call Copy Crack™. It is either:
Curiosity + Fear
Curiosity + Benefit
If you can weave curiosity and either your reader’s fear or a benefit they really want into your copy, they’ll keep reading.
Opinion: While we use readers’ fears and pain points to sell products, it’s not cool to play on illegitimate or irrational fears to sell .
In this email example, we’re weaving curiosity with a benefit the reader wants (feeling happier).
The idea isn’t to blatantly withhold information, though. That’ll just piss people off.
Remember, this is a dance.
You’re entertaining and educating the reader throughout the copy. But you’re waiting until the very last moment to reveal the BIG truth/idea that they want.
By the time the reader gets to the point where you introduce your product, they should be on the edge of their seat, saying one of two things:
“Just tell me already!”
“Take my money!”
This is a tough balance. And, honestly, I think it’s something that could even be improved in our “good” example.
Why is this so tough?
Because it’s hard to walk this line without sounding like a skeezy marketer.
Thankfully, there’s a simple solution—
Give your reader A TON of value.
Make sure you’re giving them information that is actually helpful and informative so that, by the time they hear about your product, they trust that you know what you’re talking about and that your product will actually help them.
For reference, I think Ramit Sethi/Growthlab does a fantastic job of this.
Fourth, this copy is specific AF.
I’ll be honest with you:
Bob’s Bananas doesn’t actually exist (as far as I know).
Bob McNana isn’t a real person.
And his bananas don’t have 12% more Vitamin B6 than the leading big box brands.
But if they did—
I’d be more likely to buy them.
Specificity is important because it keeps you from simply saying:
“Our thing is better than the other thing. You should totally buy our thing.”
And it allows you to say:
“Here’s WHY and HOW our thing is better than the other thing. So, if you buy our thing, you’re getting a better thing than if you buy the other thing.”
Being specific allows you to show your product is better instead of simply telling your reader it’s better.
In this “good” example, Bob doesn’t just say that his bananas have more B6.
He shows you why Vitamin B6 is important (benefit) then shows you exactly how his product helps you get that benefit better than his competitors.
Fifth, this email shows the reader the problem with their current situation.
This is subtle.
But, by clearly showing the reader how Bob’s Bananas are better than other brands (more B6) and by showing them why that’s important (more happiness)...
We have given them a reason to be dissatisfied with their current banana company of choice.
Then we gave them an opportunity to experience something better/solve that problem by buying our product.
So, here’s why the second email is better than the first one:
It has a big idea
It points to a VERY CLEAR benefit for the reader
It’s laced with curiosity
It’s specific AF
It shows the reader the problem with their current situation
The Truth Is…
This post is not an extensive guide.
But, if you’re looking for a few quick ways to improve your copy—
Try this stuff out.