Email Marketing

Copycatwriting: 5 marketing cliches to put in the bin

Words are powerful. They help to define your brand’s personality. In email marketing, the right phrasing can make the difference between open and ignore.

But sometimes copywriting is more copy and less writing. How many times have you seen the following phrases recently?

Just for you

A spectacular summer sale – just for me, and me alone? Well, don’t I feel special! Call me a skeptic, but I suspect it’s actually for me and your 799,999 other subscribers.

Just/only for you crops up pretty regularly in email marketing. Nine times out of ten, it’s used in a context where it is both meaningless and absurd. Dishonest too, but that particularly unfortunate quality is usually drowned out by the silliness. Most times when I see this phrase, I’m not even sure what exactly the brand is pretending to be true.

‘You’ may be the magic word of advertising, but a misplaced ‘just for you’ is more hooey than Houdini.

[Verb] your [adjective]

Find your incredible! Discover your awesome!

Cease your unimaginative, more like. It’s ok to creatively bend the rules of English. Copywriting wouldn’t be much fun if we always had to stick steadfast to a strict set of rules. But when the linguistic rule‑bending is an act of copycatting rather than innovation, then it starts to look less like cool copywriting and more like grammatical incompetence. Write your something new.

Don’t miss out

Yes, I know: FOMO. Truth be told, I have never been comfortable with this concept. It’s ethically questionable, and I suspect that the modern shopper is more aware than ever of the sales tricks up a brand’s sleeve. This is particularly true when a sender hits their audience with the same panicky phrases time and time again. Overuse diminishes effectiveness.

That’s my personal position on the matter but the stats tell a different story, for now. The numbers tell us that FOMO works. CXL‘s research reveals that a countdown timer, for example, can push up conversions by more than 300%. Urgency sure brings in the money.

But ‘don’t miss out’ is bottom‑of‑the‑barrel FOMO. It’s generic and ignorable. Motivators such as offer end dates and limited stock give people a real reason to act. ‘Don’t miss out’ is copywriting fluff.

Click here (to)

The computer mouse was invented in the 60s, came into popular use in the 80s and became a household essential in the 90s. People have been clicking things for a while.

In well‑designed email (or even an adequately designed one), the clickable elements are self‑evident. Plastering CLICK HERE on a button tells the user precisely nothing. It’s a lever labelled pull me. Thanks, I know how to use it, but I’d love to know what it does before committing to the act.

Click here also pops up regularly in passages of text. Click here to see the full terms and conditions, click here to download the PDF. In this context, the phrase is merely redundant but in such a way that it gives a mailing an unfortunate ‘My First Marketing Email’ quality.

Image of QWERTY keyboard with 'Press me to type' added above every letter key.

Maximise / power up / supercharge…

Wow, this company doesn’t just promise to increase our sales. They’re going to ultrarocketblast them. Let’s give them our money, right now!

Over-the-top choices – or inventions – of verbs are an extreme side effect of the sell the benefits principle. But there are a couple of problems with this phrasing: it’s been done to death, and it was never that great in the first place. Human beings simply do not talk like that.

Keep the actions grounded in authenticity, incorporate some demonstrable stats, and let the numbers speak for themselves.

What’s good copywriting?

This article probably reads as a list of my least favourite pieces of copywriting. And that’s because it is. Copywriting is a creative endeavour and that always brings subjectivity into play.

For me, the best email copywriting is a blend of directness and true inventiveness. I see few brands pulling it off. But those that do, send the emails I look forward to opening. Maybe yours is one of them.

Artificial intelligence

6 ways to spot AI-authored copy

Generative AI can do some amazing things. It’s a painter and musician and coder and, of course, author.

How good it is at performing those roles is a topic up for debate. AI artwork regularly drifts into accidental surrealism, with superflous human limbs and bizarre fusions of objects.

But what about AI-generated copy? While the glitches can be glaringly machine-like in a picture, they’re more subtle in a passage of text. Here’s how to spot them.

Repeat offence

My father was an avid reader and writer. He’d often take a keen interest in the essays that I wrote for school. One of his most useful pieces of advice was to avoid repeating myself.

He was right. Repetition weakens writing. A lack of variety in phrasing can make an article dull. Redundancy labours a point through duplication. Human authors do their best to avoid these.

A computer on the other hand will be unlikely to police itself to nearly the same level. Snippets on a topic will be pulled from here and there and this and that to build an article. There’s a strong probability that key points will be repeated over and over and over*.

*Sorry, blatant repetition, I know.

Yesterday’s news

Generative AI platforms are trained on huge sets of data. Unless the platform in question has live access to the internet, its knowledge base only extends as far as the last update. The platform would not be privy to latest developments on any given topic.

Old news is unengaging at best and misleading at worst. Humans and search engines alike favour high quality, original content. Out-of-date doesn’t necessarily mean no longer correct. It can simply be information that has become so commonly known that further publication is redundant. Customers prefer personalised email to non-personalised!? Hold the front page!

Get your facts right

If you’re using a generative AI tool to produce or aid articles, never take it for granted that the software knows what it’s talking about. Because, technically speaking, it does not know what it is talking about. It algorithmically reproduces and combines content from multiple sources – which can include information that is no longer true, or perhaps has never been.

As a reader, keep an eye out for factual errors and especially contradictions. If it smells fishy, trust your instincts and verify the information elsewhere.

What’s the story?

A good quality article written by a human has a story-like flow. There’s a beginning and a conclusion. Computer-generated articles on the other hand often hit an abrupt end.

And what’s a story without a message? A good story makes you think and feel something. A robotic author literally feels nothing, so why should you as a reader?

Don’t you dare

Language models by default are clinically impartial. A platform won’t automatically spit out a controversial opinion that makes you stop in your tracks. It’ll compile a collection of neutral statements of fact.

You can coax it out of its formal shell of course with prompting. The results are perfect – if you’re aiming for a plasticky have a nice day flavour.

A human’s opinion piece carries real emotion and real sentiment. Even an article that you fervently disagree with can be an excellent read. There’s a human-to-human spark that is missing with AI.

It just feels… off

You’ve probably heard about the uncanny valley. It’s a term often applied to computer-generated or animatronic simulations of human faces. Our brains are acutely conditioned to recognise faces with their every nuance and motion. It would take something very special to fool us.

AI-authored articles often fall into a linguistic uncanny valley. Attempts at personality are injected jarringly, equivalent to writing “LOL” in the middle of a legislative document. Instead of a human voice shining through the words, there’s a perceptible artificiality to those written by a computer.

Image of mannequin faces that demonstrate the uncanny valley effect.
This, but in words.

How much does it matter?

If we read something and enjoy or learn from it, does it matter if a computer wrote it? What if it was only computer-aided? Platforms like ChatGPT can be very useful as idea generators.

Is it ok if the text is a piece of marketing blurb rather than an opinion piece? How about a social media post, or a response to? Can there be any value to fiction or poetry conjured through ones and zeroes?

Ultimately it’s up to each of us as individuals to decide how we feel about AI, but it’s hard to deny that authentic human content is going to become rarer. With that in mind, it can’t hurt to be able to tell the difference.

Artificial intelligence

Up your marketing game with generative AI!

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has long been a topic of discussion, with most debates focussing on its potential to surpass human capabilities. However, it is crucial to shift the focus from comparing AI to human excellence towards understanding how AI can enhance individual skills and abilities. So I was pleased to read a recent interview with Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. He highlighted the value of AI as a tool to assist and improve creative processes – even for him!

Neil Tennant’s viewpoint aligns with the idea that AI can be a valuable resource even for established musicians and artists. He cites the example of a song, "Forest Floor," which the Pet Shop Boys never finished. Tennant suggests that if AI had been available at the time, he would have used it to generate multiple versions of the chorus, potentially uncovering an unexpected gem. This demonstrates how generative AI can act as a creative catalyst and assist artists/experts in overcoming writer’s block or exploring new avenues.

The real question: does AI make me better?

Often, discussions surrounding AI revolve around its ability to outperform humans in specific fields. However, the true value of AI lies in its capacity to amplify individual potential. When we reframe the question to focus on what AI can do for us, the possibilities become apparent. This mindset shift opens up new opportunities for marketers, designers, and generalists who may lack specialized expertise in certain areas. By leveraging AI, individuals and organizations can level up their skills and accomplish tasks that were once time‑consuming or costly to outsource.

AI as a levelling-up opportunity

The potential of AI to level up individuals in various fields is evident, especially for jobs requiring multiple skills – marketing being a prime example. If you are a marketer who also has responsibility for email, or an email marketer who lacks specialized expertise in an aspect of the role or have limited resources at your disposal, leveraging generative AI to enhance their skills, produce quality content, and maximize their productivity.

AI in copywriting

Copywriting plays a vital role in marketing, and AI‑powered generative models have proven to be valuable aids in this domain. While there are skilled copywriters who excel without AI, many marketers can benefit from using AI to generate and refine copy. By providing a straightforward brief to AI language models like ChatGPT, marketers can swiftly create subject lines, short‑form copy, bullet points, and newsletters, all while maintaining control over the desired tone. This collaborative approach allows individuals to become better email marketers and enhances their overall productivity.

SubjectLinePRO for instance, is a valuable tool I use that harnesses the power of ChatGPT to assist in writing and then testing compelling subject lines. Several other AI‑powered solutions are available in the market, offering similar benefits. These tools empower marketers with limited copywriting skills to craft engaging content more efficiently and effectively.

AI in image creation

The process of sourcing images for articles or marketing materials can be time‑consuming and expensive. AI‑powered image creation tools, such as Bing Image Creator, have revolutionized this aspect of content creation. Marketers can now generate their own images based on their envisioned concepts, saving time and eliminating the need to rely on external designers. Although having a skilled designer will still result in superior outcomes, AI empowers individuals – like me, who lack that luxury to produce higher‑quality visuals that effectively convey their ideas.

Three email-themed illustrations in different styles, generated by AI.
Images created by Dela Quist using Bing Image Creator

AI in email coding & deployment

While generative AI is a powerful ally, certain aspects of marketing particularly email, still require caution. Challenges related to email deliverability, rendering and accessibility across various email clients necessitate expertise or collaboration with coding specialists. Agencies like The Email Factory (who I recently joined as a NED) specialise in optimizing email design and build to ensure rendering consistency and compliance with industry standards. In terms of email deployment, segment creation etc. I am yet to see a tool that performs those functions.

By recognizing the areas where AI is yet to reach its full potential, marketers can make informed decisions about when to insist on expertise.

Conclusion

Generative AI’s role in the creative process is not to replace human expertise but to augment and empower individuals in their respective fields. By adopting a mindset that focuses on AI’s capacity to enhance personal abilities, rather than comparing it to the best human talents, we open ourselves up to a world of opportunities. Neil Tennant’s perspective, along with real‑life experiences, supports the argument that AI is a tool for levelling up and improving individual skills. Marketers in general, Email Marketers in particular, can benefit from AI‑powered solutions for copywriting and image creation, enabling them to excel in their roles without extensive specialization. Embracing AI as an enabler rather than a competitor will ultimately lead to personal growth and professional advancement in the evolving landscape of marketing.

This article and associated images were produced by me using #chatgpt ChatGPT and #Bing Image Creator.

Email Marketing

Set the tone

I last wrote about the importance of tone of voice in emails in 2015. While much has changed (in part due to the rise of social apps like Tik Tok and Instagram and more recently generative content AI), many businesses are still creating marketing collateral that comes across as stilted and impersonal when it comes to email.

Whether the excuse is ‘we’ve always done it this way’, fear of brand perception or just plain lack of imagination, adopting a corporate approach no longer fits with how we behave online.

Certain business sectors allow for more flexibility than others but there is scope to increase the appeal of your email messages with colloquial writing.

TV advertising has been doing this for decades because you can see and hear people in situations where anything other than relatable interaction seems out of place (although there are unnatural situations – those cringe-worthy life cover or funeral plan ads for example).

TV ads actually lean toward extremes to create dynamism so human interaction and everyday language is pronounced and quick-fire to make the most of the short message time.

The ways we interact online now is much the same as if we were there in person – screen communication is second nature, especially to Gen X, Z and Alpha.

And now there is a new player in town for writing, creativity and ideas in general; the rise of the robots!

The easy life?

Yes, the likes of ChatGPT can save time and generate copy in the style of a range of writing styles by accessing past works but it’s not original, nor will it work for a brand wanting to express individuality or stand out from the crowd.

I have spoken with time-poor marketers who find it difficult to avoid generative AI, but promising at the least to rework content output to fit their brand, products, current offers and timings.

But even using AI as a start point means the initial creative process suffers and whilst emails shouldn’t be novels, they should have original content, an individualistic approach and be created by people immersed in their brand with mind-mapping capabilities. It’s no bad thing to have a human flaw or two in the mix either.

The alternative is the emails we receive becoming increasingly similar and there are enough of those out there as it is.

AI for email has been around for a while and is one of the tools many ESP software platforms incorporate so digital marketers aren’t afraid of it – but perhaps we should be this time. The pace and global adoption of AI for creative use should be a concern for all of us.

Don’t get lost in the noise

Creating copy for emails is about more than brand voice. We need to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and peers to stand out.

Many marketing emails – particularly in the B2B space – have a generic tone and display stock images in a linear layout in the hope people will read on and click on something. Adopting a conversational approach doesn’t have to be boring or misrepresent your brand.

By sticking to the script – be it generalising or by using output from generative AI – we risk coming across as robotic and detached which means our message becomes less appealing, leading to diminished engagement.

Attention spans are short online and fragmented across multiple channels and devices so it’s critical to engage people as quickly as possible with a friendly and distinctive approach.

The ever-increasing hours we spend with our devices is driving change in communication styles, making a less conversational approach to marketing feel outdated.

Grab me now

Two key areas in marketing emails are the initial headline – which should draw people into the rest of the email – and your call-to-action. Your headline should be succinct and pique interest, maybe using a question or humour as long as it is consistent with the theme and content.

The call-to-action should be different to what we all see too often. ‘Buy now’, ‘Read more’, ‘Don’t miss out’, ‘Find out more’ are better than ‘Click here’ but they’re all overused and easily passed over.

Instead, come up with copy unique to your brand and email theme. There are more words to play with in text links but you can have fun with button text too.

And it’s not just the tone of voice in an email – the design, layout, images and call-to-action placement all need to be connected and coherent. Emails should work well on mobile devices and be able to appeal in multiple physical settings.

By the book

If you don’t already have one, create a ‘copywriting brand bible’ with customer types, tone of voice, language and style –  including words that encapsulate your brand identity (and ones that don’t). Follow brands that have a tone of voice and identity you like, as well as ones that don’t.

Join the dots

Ensure the brand message remains consistent so as not to confuse or disenfranche customers. All emails – newsletters, sales, order confirmations, delivery notifications, follow-ups etc. should tie in. Make the customer journey as memorable and joined up as possible.

Look at me

Vacassa, Nonny and Howies all send emails that are visually striking and easy to read:

And you don’t have to be a small or ‘funky’ brand to look good – Apple, M&S and VW use clean images combined with bold colours and good use of space in these examples.

It’s only natural

Marketing should reflect how integral the online world is in our daily lives. Allied to effective segmentation, targeted content and unique language, people will feel more comfortable and trusting when interacting with brands – not just see them as faceless entities mirroring each other in our inboxes in the hope of making a quick buck.

Change can be a scary prospect for some brands and marketers but the beauty of email is that it is quick, easy and cost effective to test. Sending to small data segments to gauge how well messages are received and how well they perform will give marketers the knowledge to get closer to customers and that’s a win for both sides.

The likelihood of any of us being offended by a brand being more approachable is remote, in fact we prefer it. We’re all human and we’re all unique, so why communicate with us as if we’re not?