The Anatomy of a Modern Direct Response Marketing Email

Find out how to develop an email message that generates interest, relevancy, and response using up-to-date email best practices.


Email marketing today isn’t what it used to be. The first email marketing blast was sent in 1978, and while it resulted in an impressive $13 million in sales,1 it was COPY-HEAVY, unsolicited, and probably the only digital offer the recipients saw that day.

Let’s face it, you (or your parents!) probably didn’t even know what email was in 1978, and SPAM was simply a canned meat product. Most people didn’t even get their own e-mail address until the late 1990s—at school or the office—when it was merely an innovative way to communicate person-to-person.

Email’s Come a Long Way, Baby
Peering through the annals of email marketing, it’s easy to see that email wasn’t always considered the panacea for mass marketing. It wasn’t until the internet became more widely accessible and the volume of personal email addresses hit a critical mass that marketers took notice. The direct response email marketing that we know and love was born.

Marketers’ use of email for direct response marketing purposes has evolved over the years along with technology and consumer preferences. Like many things in the world of marketing, the target is always moving. But where’s the arrow pointed today? Let’s start at the top.

A Winning Subject Line
Today, people’s email inboxes are inundated with marketing messages. It takes only a second to scan the subject lines and delete those that are annoying or simply not relevant. It’s a good idea, therefore, to avoid being overly salesy.

CoSchedule shares these stats about email subject lines:

  • 35% of recipients open emails based on subject lines alone
  • 69% report emails as spam based on subject lines
  • 43% click the spam button based upon the email “from” name or email address

If you’re looking for a response, you need that e-mail opened. Inspire action by using deadlines or triggering an emotional response from curiosity (ask a question) or surprise (use a statistic) to “fear of missing out.” Incorporate an emoji for humor or to add visual appeal and out from the text-only subject lines.

As for length, you may want to test which length works best for your specific campaigns, but we like to stick with 50 characters at the most.

A Personalized Message
With databases today so rich with individual information, personalization in marketing is all the rage today … and it boosts response. Direct response marketers are putting their data to good use by speaking directly to an individual’s experiences, needs, and preferences.

In other words, don’t send the exact same message to every contact in your database! You don’t have to—you’re not limited the way they were in 1978. Get creative, and get personal.

There are many, many ways to personalize email content, and it depends on what customer data and system functionalities you have. For instance, you can have multiple versions of a message crafted especially for specific customer segments. In the copy itself, you can insert a customer’s name in the salutation or reference a product or service they’ve already purchased in the headline. Or, you can go so far as sending trigger e-mails based on customers’ behaviors.

Learn more in Who, Me? 3 Best Practices for Direct Marketing Personalization.

A Strong Visual Image
You want your emails to look great. Using a photo or video within an email to help “tell the story” of your message or to promote your offer is a great way to command attention and elicit an emotional response. Consider a visual that:

  • Highlights the beauty or key features of your product
  • Alludes to the way your service makes customers feel
  • Demonstrates results of using your solution

Make sure your web and graphic designers optimize images (use right size and format) for the most popular email clients. You don’t want images to land your messages in SPAM folders and people can get frustrated waiting for images to load. Get more insights in 3 Reasons to Apply Mobile-First Email Design.

A Single-Offer Focus
Let’s not try and do too much, OK? Emails that are short, sweet, and to the point are working well for those of us looking for a response. Making a single offer means making it clear—make that unquestionable—what you want the recipient to do. “Download the white paper,” “Sign up for the webinar,” or “Buy now to save 30%.” By all means, not all three things! Have a single focus to the message. Include one call to action.

That takes us down to the response—bingo! From the subject line to the offer, make sure your emails send an up-to-date, actionable message about your brand.

Contact us for more ideas on developing effective email campaigns.