The reading level for this article is Novice

I get a fair amount of email these days. In general, the chances are far greater that I will open the email if I see a person’s name (preferably something that reads like “tmiller” or “rsullivan”) in the address line. Obviously, if it’s a name that I recognize I give it more attention. But even a name that I don’t recognize will often engage my curiosity.

The subject line is also important. If left blank, most times I won’t open it. I see filling in that blank as a matter of courtesy. You should give me some sense of what lies within. This gives me the ability to prioritize what is more important.

Being a writer and all, I like evocative subject lines. In direct marketing parlance, it’s the teaser copy. So go ahead and tease me.

If you’ve got something that you have specific reason to believe that I will benefit from, get descriptive in the subject line. After all, assuming your database information is right, this is a bit of information, some news, or an opportunity that I could benefit from. Don’t hide the goodies.

I like good writing and a sense of humor. I am especially engaged by self-deprecating humor – the kind of candor or humility that one does not usually associate with marketing organizations.

Why is that? It seems that there is a tyranny of the positive among most brand architects. In this era of greater access to what was once protected information, dirty little secrets do secrete – and often quickly. All the more reason to strive for something approaching sincerity. Otherwise, the official voice sounds like one of those sanctioned broadcasts in the Soviet era.

In business (and personal) emails, it’s always important, in my opinion, that one deliver something of value. By that I mean a couple of key facts from an objective source, some competitive intelligence, links to interesting articles, or privileged access to some kind of web event that will leave me the better for having attended.

Remember that, in most cases, your markets are actively fleeing your communications.

Take this as your mantra going into any advertising or marketing communications project: “People don’t want to hear from me.” How do you overcome this active resistance? Why should your message be any better received than other messages are?

My advice to email marketers is to attempt the impossible: empathy in the face of terrific pressures. Put aside your agenda and your “messaging platform” for the moment and try to envision the agenda(s) of those you want to influence. In so doing – even for just 20 minutes – you will find that your messaging platform needs to be revised, often radically.

Let me repeat that word: empathy. I know several businesspeople who view empathy as a kind of handicap, or who “envision the other” solely as a way to get that other to work his or her will. Genuine empathy causes one, perhaps, to move a bit more carefully. Your work becomes a kind of active reflection.

I don’t know how corporations encourage empathy within their own ranks. I do know that empathy can’t be manufactured purely for the purposes of email or other marketing communications. It doesn’t begin and end at the shoreline. It extends naturally from within the living organism that is a corporation, or it rings hollow.

A marketer who is empathetic with his or her customers and potential customers is, I assure you, different from a marketer who pores over research before adding the word “robust” to the next email campaign.

Research is an extremely important tool, though. It can provide you pieces of the picture. Empathy puts those pieces together. I am reminded of how the best historians write. It’s as if they were living other lives through their research.

At this point, a fundamental question comes to mind: Do you like your customers and potential customers? Sorry if this question seems too basic. But I have often visited marketers who can barely veil their contempt for their markets. (Descriptions of the “targets” usually begin with sentences like this: “These guys are just a bunch of heavy-industry tech-heads.” Note the word “just.”)

Marketers often walk around with disparaging caricatures – mental stick-figures – in their heads of those whom they would serve. Obviously, one doesn’t have to like folks to sell them buckets and buckets of just about anything. But how much more interesting and rich work would be if we actually wanted to help those whom we must serve.

If the web is a way for little companies and suppliers to get on the same footing with bigger competitors – and, clearly, this advantage is no longer as pronounced as it may once have been – then email is, in my opinion, an even greater leveler. Because it affords you the opportunity to “speak” as a person with another person.

And I have found that your status doesn’t matter. Your brand isn’t determinative. You are as you present yourself in the text (and with whatever media you incorporate). Are you helpful? Are you informative and informed? Are you a fierce advocate who believes in the value of what you have to offer? Are you conversant with the challenges and desires of your audience and willing to make them your own?

This Web Marketing article was written by Chris Maher on 3/18/2005