Commentary

The Content Writer's Shtick: How To Engage Email Readers

You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, which says 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers.

It’s true. But here’s another 80/20 rule that you may know about: 20% of your content should promote your business, and 80% should be educational and/or entertaining.

That’s the theory propounded by Corina Leslie, the PR &  marketing manager for ZeroBounce, in a post for PromotionWorld. And she’s right on the money.

What does Leslie define as educational content? 

-- An interesting blog post.

-- A branded infographic.

-- A useful study.

-- Your own insight on a topic that matters to readers .

That’s clear enough. But how do you make a B2B communication entertaining? By engaging the reader with humor and a little self-deprecation.

Take Kinaxis. It has created some very funny videos, like this one: Two prisoners, former executives of a high-tech firm, blame their plight on a salesman for their company, who never says no. 

“This suite will make me a sandwich?” a prospect asks him in a flashback.

“Yes!” the salesman says. 

“This suite gives land back to the Indians?”

“Yes!” he promises.

Political correctness aside, that video is designed to prompt a few yuks and make a larger point: A company has to be honest when describing its product.

Humor works for consumer marketers like Geico and Farmer’s Insurance, so why not for B2B?

Maybe you’re not at the video stage yet, so let’s ask a more urgent question: How’s your email copywriting? Does it, to steal a phrase from the late direct-mail writer Bill Jayme, reward readers for their reading time? Is it colloquial and conversational?

It can’t possibly when it consists mostly of turgid, self-promotional copy larded with redundant language and keywords. I’ve read whole white papers written like that. It’s a workout.  

Then there’s grammar. Does anyone remember the old direct-response ads written for Haband by Duke Habernickel? They were known for their bad grammar. But that was part of a shtick. It won’t work for everyone.  

“Not all of us care so much about grammar, but most people do,” Leslie writes. “And even those who don’t still consider it unprofessional when they get a poorly written email. No matter how good your visuals are, the core of your email is your copy – words are the ones that communicate the most.” 

Leslie advises writers and managers to:

-- Set aside enough time to write and edit your copy.

-- Send a few test emails to several people in your company, or friends

-- Go over your email one last time right before you send it.

Here’s one more remedy for unspeakably bad writing: Take the advice offered by Lord Chesterfield in the 1700s:

“The first thing necessary in writing letters of business is extreme clearness and perspicuity; every paragraph should be so clear and unambiguous, that the dullest fellow in the world may not be able to mistake it, nor obliged to read it twice in order to understand it.”

He continues, “This necessary clearness implies a correctness, without excluding an elegancy of style. Tropes, figures, antitheses, epigrams, etc., would be as misplaced and as impertinent in letters of business as they are sometimes (if judiciously used) proper and pleasing in familiar letters upon common and trite subjects. In business, an elegant simplicity, the result of care, not of labor, is required. Business must be well, not affectedly, dressed, but by no means negligently.”

The solution? “Let your first attention be to clearness, and ready every paragraph after you have written it, in the critical view of discovering whether it is possible that any one man can mistake the true sense of it; and correct it accordingly.” (Reprinted from "Applied Business Correspondence," by Rupert P. Sorelle, 1923).

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