Alyssa’s top six email marketing tips

When it comes to email marketing, Alyssa Miller often uses herself as a case study to determine which emails clients will open – and which ones they won’t. As Baker McKenzie’s global manager of marketing technology and training, Alyssa has noticed she will spend hours on websites like Self and Prevention clicking on all the links.

Why? Because the headlines catch her attention:

Seven Foods You Should Never Eat for Breakfast
Why Red Wine Gives You Headaches
Does Drinking Soda Really Cause Diabetes?

Okay, so we work at a law firm, and it’s not like they teach headline writing in law or business school. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use proven techniques for writing headlines that pique a reader’s curiosity – tricks that I reveal in this post.

Aside from the importance of catchy headlines and self observation, Alyssa has learned a few things about the ideal frequency, length, imagery and distribution of email campaigns during her 10 years managing our Firm’s email marketing tool.

For this post, I talked to Alyssa about how to get more people to read our email campaigns and whether she really avoids Prevention magazine’s seven black-listed breakfast foods. I know I’m guilty of eating at least two of them, but Alyssa assures me that she avoids all seven.

I’m not sure how much we can trust someone who only eats bananas and almond butter for breakfast, but here we go nonetheless.

1. Survey your audience.

Ever wonder what your clients want to read about and how often? Ask them. When Alyssa started producing the Firm’s alumni newsletter five years ago, she sent it out quarterly with six to eight stories in each issue. After a few years of reviewing the analytics, she noticed that people tended to read the first few stories but not those farther down on the list.

So Alyssa sent out a short survey asking those who hadn’t viewed the newsletter in at least six months whether they still wanted to be on the alumni newsletter distribution list (otherwise known as an “opt-in survey”). If their answer was “yes,” she asked what types of topics they were interested in and how often they’d like to receive the newsletter.

Based on the responses, Alyssa started sending out the newsletter every month and limiting the content to one or two stories with news about notable alumni, alumni events and local office information. “The survey indicated they wanted to receive more custom news rather than information that we repurpose from our firm’s website, so we try to draft original content,” Alyssa says.

After she made these changes, view rates of the alumni newsletter rose from 60% to 80%.

2. Become friends with analytics

Aside from surveys, you can also use metrics to find out what topics appeal to your audience most. If, for example, you send out a newsletter with six stories each month, you can review which articles got the most clicks going back three to five issues and then use that information to give your readers more of what they want in the future. “Most people who send email campaigns look at their view rates but not their click-through rates,” Alyssa says.

Although it can be daunting at first to wade through months of metrics, every click tells you what a reader likes. That’s why Alyssa recommends learning as much as you can about how to benchmark your open rates with industry standards (20% is the average for professional services) and how to boost your statistics.

3. Be chunky.

It’s not every day that someone tells you to “be chunky,” particularly when you’re trying to avoid eating cereal for breakfast. But for email marketing, it works. This means organizing your content into bite-sized pieces so it’s easy to scan. Think bullet points, glance boxes and short paragraphs.

For newsletters, it means listing a brief synopsis of each article with “Read more” links instead of putting the full articles on the main page. It’s not only less overwhelming to your readers because it reduces scrolling, but it also creates links for each article, which enables you to track which parts of your newsletter readers are clicking on most. Yep, we’re back to metrics.

Being chunky also makes content less daunting for those reading it on their smart phones – an important audience considering that 50% of all emails are read on mobile devices, according to a 2016 IBM Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study.

The good news is that since the launch of our rebranding in December, all of our email marketing templates are now mobile responsive. “That means you put your content into one template and it changes to render perfectly no matter what device you’re viewing it on,” Alyssa says.

How’s that for service?

4. Choose striking imagery.

Maybe 10 years ago clip art and images of businessmen shaking hands were all the rage, but the world has moved on. Gone are the days when you should be using pictures of currency in your finance newsletters. Let go of the literal and go for the metaphor. “Look for images that are colorful, sophisticated, and not literally representative of the topic,” Alyssa says. Here’s an example of imagery she chose for a LinkedIn webinar promotion:

When searching for your own imagery on iStock or ThinkStock, here’s a cool tip that will help: Put “abstract” into the search field along with your topic, as in “banking abstract” to get more creative results. I had never heard of this trick before Alyssa told me about it. When I tried it, the search returned much slicker images.

5. Clean out your distribution list.

I know, I know, you inherited your contact list from the person who had your job before you and the person before that person and beyond. It’s ballooned to 10,000 contacts, and you don’t have time to go through it. It’s like we’re asking you to organize your garage or storage unit. I can hear the groans from here.

But here’s the thing: Cleaning out your distribution list is the number one thing you can do to  increase your view rates. At least that’s what Alyssa claims. “It’s a manually intensive process but it’s worth it,” she says. “You end up with a smaller, more targeted list and you’re no longer sending content to people who don’t want to read it.”

To perform this task, first buy your favorite candy (okay, maybe your favorite alcoholic beverage). Second, review your distribution list and put the people who are regularly opening your campaigns to one side. Third, look for people who haven’t opened any of your campaigns for a specific timeframe, such as one year. Take a deep breath (and a bite of candy or swig of drink) and delete them from your list. Finally, send the rest of your contacts a brief opt-in survey, and use their responses (or lack of response) to determine who else to delete.

“People tend to think that bigger is better, but that’s not the case with email marketing,” Alyssa says. “Think about the email communications that you receive. Do you read the ones that aren’t relevant to you? No.”

6. Send your campaign early in the week.

Email marketing services like Customer.io and Mailchimp have made a science of finding the perfect time to send email campaigns. According to their research, the best time to send your campaign depends on your content, audience and intent. For example, do you want your audience to just read your communication or respond?

The best time to distribute informative newsletters or blogs is at the beginning of the week (Monday through Wednesday) between noon and 4 pm. The best time to send emails you want readers to respond to is toward the end of the week, either early in the morning our late at night (from 6 am to 8 am and 8 pm to midnight). Email marketing researchers explain why in this infographic.

Given that many of our Firm’s email campaign audiences are based in different time zones across the world, the precise time isn’t as important. But Alyssa has noticed that emails sent earlier in the week do get higher open rates.

“It’s good to know the general rule, but you’ll learn more by looking at your own reporting to see when people are viewing your campaigns the most,” she says.

Yep, there we go again talking about metrics.

Extra credit: A/B testing.

For those overachievers out there who have already cleaned up your distribution lists, chunked up your content and made it a habit to select striking imagery, there are other techniques you can use to find out what will make more readers open your campaigns.

One is called A/B testing in which you divide your distribution list into two separate groups and set up your campaign one way for one group and another way for the second group, such as by using different email subject lines for each. Then you can see which campaign gets a higher view rate.

As much as we try to make email marketing a science, it’s a lot of trial and error. So play around a little to see what works. “We can always get better at finding out what people want to read and using data to figure it out,” Alyssa says.

Amen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to grab some green juice and a breakfast sandwich.

The best way to use bullet points

Independent Thinker

We all have pet peeves, those things that make our blood pressures rise while others just shrug. One of my pet peeves has to do with bullet points. Bullet points? Yes, bullet points. I know the world is filled with more pressing issues like global warming, race relations, and the impact of Brexit, but when I see bulleted lists punctuated like this (highlighted in red below), it makes me cringe:

To demonstrate our Firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we provide internal programs that include:

  • hosting Diversity Roundtable Discussion Series for law students;
  • offering secondment opportunities for minority lawyers; and
  • providing US$1.6 million in tuition grants for minority students.

Looks fine to me, what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. What’s the purpose of bullet points? To separate items in a list. What’s the purpose of semicolons? To separate items in a list. What’s the purpose of the conjunction “and”? To separate items in a list.

Then why do you need all three? You don’t.

Bullet points, all by themselves, cue the reader that this is a list of separate but related items, which is why the minimalist in me grimaces when I see the unnecessary punctuation. And look how much cleaner a list looks without it:

To demonstrate our Firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we provide internal programs that include:

  • hosting Diversity Roundtable Discussion Series for law students
  • offering secondment opportunities for minority lawyers
  • providing US$1.6 million in tuition grants for minority students

Ahhhh, much better.

So why is using semicolons with “and” in bulleted lists so prevalent? Why do we find them throughout our Firm’s PowerPoint presentations, brochures, client alerts, newsletters, and email announcements? Because style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and APA Style say you should use them. Even our Firm’s Stylebook recommends taking this approach.

I still say you shouldn’t. Writing style rules vary depending on which guide you consult and they evolve as usage changes. I think The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA’s approach is old school and out of touch with the cleanest, most reader-friendly way to use bullet points in business and legal writing.

Many writing experts agree. One of my favorites is Grammar Girl, a magazine editor named Mignon Fogarty who produces the popular podcast, “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” I like her because she consults all of the style guides on a particular issue and makes recommendations based on what’s most logical and easiest for readers. Here’s what she has to say about bulleted lists:

Your text will be easier to read if you don’t put commas or semicolons after the items, and don’t put a conjunction such as “and” before the last item. All of these things are unnecessary clutter. If you find yourself wanting to format it this way, it probably means you should write it as a sentence instead of a list.

Exactly.

In this blog post, Best Practices for Bullet Points, business writing expert Lynn Gaertner-Johnston makes a similar point: “Avoid ending bullet points with semicolons. Semicolons have been used that way, but the style seems old-fashioned in today’s crisp documents.”

Amen.

So yes, if you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow The Chicago Manual of Style or APA Style, then go ahead and use them. (I’ll avert my eyes.) For anything else you write, I recommend avoiding them.

PUNCTUATION

Semicolons aside, what is the proper way to punctuate the items in a bulleted list? Good question. The major style guides make this pretty complicated. Here are the simple rules I follow:

1. If your list items are complete sentences, punctuate each item with a period or question mark.

During the corporate compliance conference, the speaker’s main points were:

  • The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is no longer the only concern for global companies.
  • Governments in countries like China and Brazil are increasingly enforcing local anti-corruption laws.
  • Companies now face stiffer penalties and higher fines in compliance investigations.
  • More enforcement authorities are focusing on prosecuting individuals in corporate corruption cases, not just the companies.

2. If your items are single words or sentence fragments, do not punctuate each item.  

During the corporate compliance conference, the speaker covered the following topics:

  • The impact of anti-corruption laws besides the FCPA
  • Increased enforcement in countries like China and Brazil
  • The rise in penalties and fines
  • Greater prosecution of individuals

As for how to punctuate your introductory statement leading into the list, I like this guidance from the Business Writers’ Blog best:

If your lead-in text is a complete sentence, use a colon. If the lead-in is a sentence fragment, you can omit the colon, or use it. It’s up to you—either is okay.

For consistency, I prefer to always use a colon for my introductory statement, such as in my examples above.

CAPITALIZATION

Should you capitalize the first word of every bullet? Again, it depends. Most style guides say if your items are complete sentences, you should. If they are fragments, you should not. However, I prefer the Grammar Girl’s guidance on this:

If your list item is a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter. If your list item isn’t a complete sentence, you can choose whether or not to capitalize the first letter—it’s a style choice. The only thing that is important is to be consistent. I capitalize the first letter of everything in lists because it’s easier to remember “capitalize everything” than it is to remember “capitalize complete sentences and use lowercase for sentence fragments.”

Personally, I always capitalize the first word of each list item not just because it’s easier to remember, but because I think it looks better. Not capitalizing reminds me of the design trend of using lower case for proper nouns in baby announcements and wedding invitations, such as, “save the date! dave & laurie to tie the knot!” To me, it looks informal.

PARALLELISM

Now that we’ve come this far, be sure to use parallel construction in your bulleted lists. What is parallel construction? It means being consistent. Each list item should follow the same structure. That means using all complete sentences or all fragments, not a mixture. It means using all statements or all questions, not a mixture.

It also means if you start your first bullet with a verb, all of your bullets should start with verbs — and they should be in the same tense. If you start with a noun, they should all start with nouns. This is important for readability. A common mistake I see in our Firm communications is this type of mix and match:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16 are:

  • Having an LGBT liaison in every office
  • Biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Maintaining a Global Listening Ear Program
  • Annual event for additional support

What’s the parallelism violation here? The first and third items in this list start with verbs, “having” and “maintaining”; the second and last items start with noun phrases, “biannual calls” and “annual event.” To maintain consistency, you should start all items with verbs like this:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16 are:

  • Having an LGBT liaison in every office
  • Holding biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Maintaining a Global Listening Ear Program
  • Hosting an annual event to provide additional support

Or with all noun phrases (adjectives + nouns) like this:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16:

  • LGBT liaisons in every office
  • Biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Global Listening Ear Program
  • Annual event to provide additional support

FINAL TIPS

Other bullet point tips I find helpful are to avoid using letters (a, b, c) in a vertical list because it looks too much like a multiple choice test. Instead, use bullets. Also avoid using numbers unless your list contains items that need to happen in a specific order (such as a list of step-by-step instructions) or you are using a “Top 5” or “Top 10” list format, like this:

The Five Essential Elements of Compliance are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Risk assessment
  3. Standards and controls
  4. Training
  5. Oversight

We’ve covered a lot of ground on this very important issue of bullet points. To help you remember the main points, I’ll leave you with, what else, two bulleted lists that summarize my tips.

Do:

  • Use a colon after the phrase or sentence setting up your list.
  • Capitalize the first word of each bullet, particularly when it’s a complete sentence.
  • Punctuate complete sentences with periods or question marks.
  • Be consistent about how you start each bullet by using all nouns or all verbs in the same tense.

Don’t:

  • Use semicolons or the conjunction “and” after the items in your list.
  • Punctuate the items in your list if they are sentence fragments.
  • Use numbers unless your items need to be sequential.
  • Use letters instead of bullets.
  • Mix and match how you start each bullet.

Thanks, I feel better already.

Two writing tips I learned the hard way – but you don’t have to

Cork, Ireland

There’s nothing quite like getting yelled at in front of other people that makes me want never, ever to make that mistake again. Public humiliation has a way of searing constructive criticism into my head,  particularly when that feedback begins with “Cunningham!” and is shouted across a crowded room.

“Cunningham! Stop putting two spaces between your sentences! You’re giving me carpal tunnel syndrome!” the metro editor bellowed, pounding on the backspace key.

“Sorry!” I replied, my face turning crimson as my colleagues craned their heads to see who was in trouble this time.

It was my second week at my first reporting job at a newspaper in New Jersey and the learning curve was steep. I not only had to figure out how to get the local police to talk to a California girl like me at murder scenes, but also how to keep my editors happy, or at least quiet, while they were editing my stories.

I hadn’t received such loud personal instruction since my high school days on the soccer field. “Cunningham! Stop goofing around and get over here or you’ll be doing laps!” my coach would yell during practice. “Cunningham, push up, push up! She’s wide open! Move!” he’d shout at games.

During my third week at the New Jersey paper, the metro editor broadcasted yet another writing tip across the newsroom: “Cunningham! Don’t put the attribution at the beginning of the sentence! Put it at the end!”

Although it was no fun getting yelled at, I’ll admit it was effective. You better believe I learned those rules, which I’ll now impart to you, albeit in a kinder, softer way (you’re welcome).

Tip 1: Use one space, not two, between sentences in everything you write.

I see this mistake all over the Firm: in emails, internal newsletters, proposals, client alerts, memos, Executive Committee papers . . . everywhere. So here’s the thing. Using two spaces between sentences is wrong. Wrong? Yes, wrong. Even in formal writing? Yes, even in formal writing. In any kind of writing.

Double spacing between sentences is an outdated practice that our school teachers instilled in us during our formative years, despite the fact that style manuals established decades ago that one space between sentences is the rule. Open any book, newspaper, magazine, academic journal, industry report, or handbook and you will find that one space is the professional standard.

Why do so many people still use two?

Blame the typewriter, says New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo in this article explaining the history behind the misconception among even the most educated that they should double space between sentences:

In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we still type like we do. The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks loose and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.

But monospaced fonts went out of style in the 1970s with the advent of the electric typewriter, then computers, which both use proportional fonts. This means anyone who still uses two spaces between sentences is overcompensating for a technological shortcoming that no longer exists. Even worse, they are making their paragraphs more difficult to read.

“One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing,” Manjoo says. “A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.”

Tip 2: Put the attribution for a fact or research finding you are citing at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning.

This is a finer point of writing that I probably never would have picked up if it hadn’t been shouted at me across a crowded room. Once I walked over to the metro editor’s desk and he explained why putting the fact first and attribution second is better, it made a lot of sense. I adopted this style rule and haven’t looked back since. Here’s the difference:

Attribution first: According to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, pharmaceutical sales in China are projected to increase 17% from 2012 to 2017.

Attribution last: Pharmaceutical sales in China are projected to increase 17% from 2012 to 2017, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

Can you see the difference? Why the second sentence is stronger? The most important part of the sentence is the statistic about China’s projected rise in drug sales. That’s the point you want your readers to get. So put it first, not after a long citation that’s more likely to lose their attention.

Is the first sentence incorrect? No. You will see attributions at the beginning of sentences everywhere, even in publications much more prestigious than the NJ newspaper where I got my start. I was just lucky enough to have an editor who had picked up this tip and passed it on.

Let’s try it again.

Before: According to George Walker at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston, developing a new drug costs an average of $2 billion.

After: Developing a new drug costs an average of $2 billion, according to George Walker at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston.

See how putting the attribution at the end makes the statistic stand out more? You don’t have to struggle through the expert’s name, name of the center, or where the center is located before getting to the point of the sentence.

Improving your writing is about making life easier for your readers. Making adjustments like using only one space and stating your facts first may seem inconsequential. But make enough of these small changes and they will have a big impact on the quality of your writing. Try it, see what happens. I don’t want to have to yell.

Five reasons people like lists

While skimming news headlines, surfing the web or browsing book titles, you may notice a common writing technique: “Top 10 Ways to Burn Fat,” Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

The technique is using lists and it’s a quick and effective way to create headlines and organize content in a way that piques curiosity and encourages readers to take a closer look. It’s a format I often recommend when teaching our lawyers and professional staff how to write client alerts, newsletters, and blog posts that grab their audiences’ attention and keep them reading past the email subject line. It also works for event titles, proposals and thought leadership reports.

Consider this: if you were a general counsel who received alerts from two different law firms with the following headlines, which one would you read?

1. Dodd-Frank Act Takes Effect
2. Three Ways the Dodd-Frank Act Will Impact Your Business

Here’s why using lists work:

1. They are bite-sized. Organizing that information into a list helps reduce information overload and provides a simple structure that is easy to digest. It’s why I think The NA 5, a weekly summary of five news items from our North America offices, is one of our Firm’s most effective internal newsletters. (To subscribe, contact NA Communications Specialist Mary Kate Martin.)

2. They are scannable. As creatures of the information age, we are bombarded with more content than ever. So what do we do? We skim. Organizing your content as a list makes it easier for readers to scan, and if your points are compelling enough, get them to slow down and engage. (Like you’re doing now, right?)

3. They pique curiosity. Titles with numeric lists evoke curiosity because it’s human nature to want to know what’s on that list. A report about supply chains called, “Five Steps to Managing Third-Party Risk” is likely to make a client wonder, What are those five steps? Are we following them? How easy are they to implement? Hmmm…I better read this report to find out. Congratulations! You’ve just landed a captive audience.

4. They get to the point. When receiving an alert or newsletter about a recent legal development, a busy client wants to know three things:

  • What happened?
  • What does it mean for me?
  • What do I need to do about it?

That’s why the headline, “Three Ways the Dodd-Frank Act Will Impact Your Business,” is more likely to catch their attention than, “Dodd-Frank Act Takes Effect.” The first headline tells them you’re going to get right to what’s most important to them.

5. They speak directly to your audience. When you’re organizing your content into a “Top 5” or “Top 10” list, your writing automatically becomes more focused on your audience. For example, if I were to tell you, “Write a client alert explaining the top three ways the Dodd-Frank Act will affect our banking clients,” you would have to decide what to include and what to leave out. How would you do that? By focusing on exactly what you should be focusing on: the concerns of your target audience.

Publishers across all disciplines use lists for a simple reason: they work. Using a list imposes discipline on the writing process. Rather than writing in a vacuum, you are having a conversation with your readers. As a result, they are more likely to listen. And after all that work you put into writing that important proposal, client alert or email, isn’t that the point?