This point of view assumes that an email in itself cannot contain any useful information. All it can do is point to information located elsewhere and induce readers to surf there. Also, some experts theorize that short copy with many links is better than long copy because "people don't have time to read emails." But if this is true, why would they assume the same people have time to read a Web site?
Certainly, promotional emails fall into the "drive 'em to the Web site" category because most sales are closed on the Web. But email newsletters can be of more than one kind -- ranging from snippets of copy with links leading back to the Web site right up to full articles in the email itself. So, which should you choose? Here are some guidelines.
Magazine-style newsletters: very short copy. E-newsletters from Martha Stewart Living and The Baby Center are examples of what I call magazine-style emails, as they serve essentially as a table of contents to the latest Web site updates.
The Martha Stewart newsletter presents teasers about a whole lot of topics: food, entertaining, crafts, gardening, decorating, pets, TV, and so on. In signature Martha style, the newsletter, while acting as a wrapper for dozens of links, is as appealing to view as the Web site. It is well organized, using the magazine's color palette, juicy photos and an attractive layout to separate the topical areas. The editors use short motivational copy as a lead-in to each topic, and a careful selection of well-named links ("No-Bake Chocolate and Peanut Butter Bars," "Summer Activities for the Kids") inviting a click for a closer look.
Utilitarian newsletters: combination copy. Newsletters designed to deliver usable information, such as recipes, news, and how-tos, can benefit from including at least one full article within the body of the newsletter and short copy lead-ins to other articles hosted online. The subscriber clearly wants to receive "news he can use," so don't make him take the extra step of clicking to retrieve it. This is especially true if the Web site isn't up to a high standard.
I subscribe to a niche newsletter from Afri Chef called "Taste of Africa." The chef author sends two or three whole recipes of African origin in each email. I get the information I signed up for at a glance, and I can dive into the links to additional content or offers when I have time. Meanwhile, I can print off the entire email and take it to my kitchen to start cooking up wonderful curries and exotic desserts.
Hybrid newsletters: medium copy. Many newsletters contain a combination of helpful information and promotional material from the sender. A good example is ADT's Home Security Services newsletter. Readers get serious home safety tips, heartfelt customer stories, a smattering of offers designed to up-sell customers to new products, plus links to customer service, free safety decals, and so on. To maintain a balance among the different types of content, I recommend writing a meaty one- or two- paragraph lead-in to the primary article(s) with links to the full hosted content. In this way the newsletter is not overwhelmed with copy, but the gist of it is there for readers to scan.
Single topic newsletters: long copy. It is perfectly acceptable for an e-newsletter to deliver a singular message in its entirety in the body of the email. This is done superbly by Christopher Kimball in his "Letter from Vermont"; by Alan Fox, the CEO of Vacations to Go, when he writes a personal letter about his own vacation experiences; and by President Obama.
Have you signed up for White House emails yet? The email uses a template that replicates White House stationery with the presidential seal. You'll receive a direct message from the president, without the distractions of sidebars, teasers, promotional tiles and a multitude of links. It's clean and classy. I wish more emails were like it.
There is a season and a reason for every approach to copywriting for e-newsletters. Strive to give the reader what he or she really wants from you, and let go of the notion that clicks are the only measure of success. Loyalty, deep engagement with the brand, well-informed customers, and sales both online and off can be your reward for getting it right.