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"What Should I Write About?" How to Generate Ideas for Your Email Marketing

This post is part of a series called Email Marketing Jumpstart.
How to Find Out What Your Email Subscribers Really Want
What Makes Readers Click Buy? The Secrets to Great Sales Emails

Anyone who writes as part of their job—whether that's emails, web copy or reports—has at one time sat in front of their computer and wondered "what should I write about?"

At best, this question will spark ideas and you'll find words pouring from your fingertips. At worst, it's a form of writer's block, and you can sit asking the question for hours on end without getting anything onto the page.

Email marketing is most effective when you send out messages frequently. As such, you'll need a strategy to keep writer's block at bay and ensure you've got a constant flow of new ideas. That's where this tutorial comes in. We've put together a step-by-step guide to help you continually generate ideas for your email marketing.

We've put the steps in a specific order because that's our tutorial format. But coming up with ideas is about being creative, and creativity doesn't usually follow neat, straight lines. It's a messy, chaotic process. So, you don't have to follow these steps in a specific order. Just try out what appeals to you, and see if it works. If not, try a different step.

Ready to go? Then let's get to it!

Step 1: Decide the Type of Email You'll Send

Before deciding what to write about, it's a good idea to decide the type of email you'll be sending. In a previous article, we outlined four main email types:

  • Promotions and Offers
  • Newsletters and Digests
  • Essential Communication Emails
  • Relationship-Building Emails

Knowing the type of email you'll be writing has two main advantages when it comes to creativity.

First, creativity works best against constraints. As neuroscience journalist Jonah Lehrer explains in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works:

The imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.

The "shackles" of the email type you choose will boost your ability to come up with creative ideas.

Second, choosing an email type gives you a specific structure to work with. This structure provides a foundation for your creativity.

Another way of establishing constraints is to limit every email you send to a single topic (this works with all email types except newsletters/digests). Doing this means your emails will be more focused, so you'll get a better response from your readers. It also gives you a bigger supply of emails to send out—because every new idea you come up with is a new email.

Step 2: Ask Yourself: How Can I Be Useful?

Once you've put constraints on the type of email you'll send, ask yourself: what's the most useful thing I can do for my subscribers?

Useful emails:

  • Help subscribers solve a specific problem, or achieve a specific goal.
  • Are written in clear, no-nonsense language.
  • Make subscribers want to open all your emails.

Not sure what would be useful to your subscribers? Then ask them. We've got a guide to putting together an email survey.

And if you're still building your subscriber list, you can always do background research on your target audience.

Step 3: Collect a Swipe File of Great Emails

Did you know that most of the stories in Shakespeare's plays had already been told? Shakespeare borrowed ideas from other people and made them his own.

You can do the same with emails. Subscribe to as many different email lists as you can. The more wide ranging, the better. Sign up for updates from bloggers, authors, online stores, your local hair salon. The more the better.

If you want to avoid cluttering your inbox, you can set up Gmail filters, create an account just for your subscriptions, or use a disposable email service such as Mailinator.

Once you've subscribed, look out for emails that provoke a reaction. They might make you curious or angry. They might make you laugh. Any reaction is good.

Whenever you observe yourself reacting to an email, save the email to a swipe file. You can create this using a word processing document, an Evernote notebook, or a folder of plain text files. The important thing is to build a collection of emails that you can turn to whenever you need inspiration.

As the artist Austin Kleon puts it:

Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.

Of course, you should never directly copy emails in your swipe file. Instead, use them as inspiration for:

  • Structure. The power of any piece of writing—including email—is often in the structure. When an email connects with you, you can mimic the structure, and change the content.
  • Tone. This could be serious, savvy, sassy or sanguine. Find your own voice by experimenting with other people's voices.
  • Topic. Need ideas for what to write about? You'll find plenty in your swipe file.

Talking of topic, when you're deciding on which email lists to subscribe to, make sure you subscribe to as many as you can within your industry or niche. You'll collect a wealth of ideas to share. More importantly, you'll notice the blind spots of others in your industry. When you see what they're missing, you can fill the gaps with your emails.

It's also worth noting that the most engaging emails usually tell a story. This is especially the case if you're writing relationship-building emails. As well as your email swipe file, build a story bank, and keep it well stocked with stories from your day-to-day life. Even simple stories, such as a meme you discovered in your Twitter feed, can be enough to spark an idea for a whole email.

Step 4: Observe What Works—And do More of It

One of the key advantages of email marketing is that you can track how many people are opening your emails and clicking links within your emails.

By tracking opens and clicks, you can discover the types of email your readers most appreciate receiving. You can use what you learn to generate ideas. If a particular topic or type of email is generating a lot of opens, then you can focus your ideas around that.

If you've got a blog, you can also check your blog stats to see which blog posts are most popular with your readers. Repackage these topics into emails.

Step 5: Use These Idea Generation Strategies

Writers and business thinkers have developed some great strategies for producing ideas on a consistent basis. Here are a few we're sure you'll find helpful as you write your emails.

The Bookshelf Technique

Stuck for a topic to write about? This is a really quick way of getting started.

Head over to your bookshelf, and look through your book spines. What topics are your books on? These are topics you're interested in, so you've likely got a lot to say on them. And if you need further inspiration, you can always dig into one of the books.

The bookshelf technique was created by personal development consultant Chris Payne. Payne explains why the technique is so powerful:

Often, we forget what we know and what interests us. And when we look at a bookcase, we're reminded of that. As you look along, notice patterns: what subjects have you got more books on than others? Use that as a trigger to create content.

Payne further says that books "will remind you of events in your life that you can write about. There are stories you can refer to. There are quotes you can use." 

And once you've got one idea from a book, it will spark other ideas.

You can also use the bookshelf technique is your RSS reader. Look through the blogs you're subscribed to. You'll be reminded of your interests. And you can quote from the blogs you're subscribed to.

Use a Random Idea Generator

Still stuck for ideas after checking your bookshelf?

Then go even further out-of-the-box by starting with a completing random idea. There are plenty of random idea generators online, including this one.

You might be wondering "how will being random help my subscribers?" The answer is that it probably won't. But equally, what you write won't be random. When you start with a random idea, you'll link it up with your experience, knowledge and wisdom. Through the lens of the random idea, you'll see all these in a new light, and you can pass that new perspective onto your email subscribers.

Set an Idea Quota

To use this technique, make yourself come up with 100 ideas for emails. Don't stop until you've reached 100, and write down every idea, no matter how bad it is.

Why does this work? Because you push through the obvious to find the extraordinary. You're forced to stretch your imagination.

As creativity consultant Michael Michalko explains:

The first third [of ideas you generate] will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. These ideas are the familiar and safe responses that lie closest to your consciousness, and therefore, are naturally thought of first. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity because now you are stretching your imagination.

Michalko continues:

A quota allows you to generate more imaginative alternatives than you otherwise would.

Freewriting

When you're coming up with ideas, you might find that you're censuring yourself. You tell yourself: "I can't use that idea, it's not good enough."

Business consultant Mark Levy explains that this happens because of your internal editor. In Levy's own words:

The “internal editor” is a metaphor I use to describe that voice inside or that part of our brain that dresses up what we say and write so that others will think of us as smart and consistent. The internal editor is important. It helps society run but it hinders you when you’re trying to come up with a unique solution.

How does your internal editor hinder you? Because it's too powerful. It doesn't only block bad ideas. It blocks all ideas.

Unless you find a way around it, the internal editor will truncate your thinking because it wants you to be consistent.

Fortunately there's a way around the internal editor. Write down your bad ideas, then you'll discover what's beyond them.

Levy's technique for getting around the internal editor is freewriting. Here's how it works:

It’s very simple. Take a problem and write for seven minutes as quickly as you can. Set a timer. No one will see what you are writing other than you. Feel free to go anywhere. Disagree with yourself, ignore punctuation. Write about when you first saw the problem, the roadblocks you’ve encountered... whatever! Write as fast as you can because as Ray Bradbury said, “In quickness, is truth.”

Go Quote Harvesting

Quotes make great starting points for emails, and there are plenty of places online where you can collect quotes. Goodreads ranks quotes by popularity, so you can find quality quotes fast, while The Quote Garden organises quotes by category.

Do everything you can to check your quotes are authentic (as Abraham Lincoln once said, "The problem with internet quotes is that you can't always depend on their accuracy.")

Now, Write Your Emails

Using the techniques you've learned in this tutorial, you'll find you have an endless stream of ideas to write about in your emails. Now, go write them!

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