In my column for MediaPost this month, I write about email as a novel. Now I know that for many of us, actually taking the time to develop a process for writing email so that it integrates more closely with your brand and communications strategy is a bit of a luxury. But this is another of the tactics for improving email marketing that asks marketers to take a long view, and be proactive about the discipline instead of reactive.

If Your Email Were a Novel
by Mike May
Published on 4.6.11 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

Writers embarking on a new work do not just sit down at a keyboard and start pecking out the great American novel. Storytelling is a craft, and the act of actually writing a novel is usually preceded by months of researching, planning, sketching and vetting. And after the writing the editing begins, a task as onerous and essential as the initial pen to paper — er, pixel to screen. There is a lot of process and training required to elevate writing to art. Yes writers have a gift, but it’s a gift akin to a runner’s ability to tap out a marathon in just over 2 hours — years of training go into recognizing that gift’s true potential.

William Faulkner famously claimed that short stories were much more difficult to write than novels, because of how much restraint the author must exercise over what to include in such a restrictive form. Where does that leave email writers? Kids have to read sonnets to pass high school English. We have about the same real estate to work with, but have to earn every word of attention. If any writing craft needs process, training and discipline, surely it’s ours.

In fact, there is a lot we can learn from the novelist’s craft when approaching our own, not the least of which is to think of email as a craft, and not some form of e-manual labor. If we think like writers instead of marketers, we may enjoy a wider audience for our work. Who knows? We may even find ourselves with a bestseller on our hands. So dust off your Hermes 3000, crack your knuckles, and let’s create a real page-turner:

Genre: Novels are romances, mysteries, psychological thrillers or comedies. Emails also have a genre, ranging from newsletter to promotional message to announcement. The important thing about a genre is choosing one. You don’t hear a novelist say, “Gotta get a book out” (OK, Stephen King probably says that, but he’s an exception who proves the rule), but we say it about emails all the time. The emails we send also need to have a clear purpose, which their genre defines.

Plot: This is the story your email tells, whether it’s about a 20%-off sale, or recommended products based on what you’ve bought in the past, or a webinar next week. But plot is also a narrative that can span through multiple installments, like the Harry Potter series or “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Your story doesn’t begin and end with each email. How does each installment in your ongoing series draw your audience in deeper, and further develop your relationship with subscribers?

Theme: “The author is not trying to say anything, Mr. May,” my 10th grade English teacher said to me once. “He is saying something. You evidently just can’t hear it.” A layer deeper than the story about your spring sale or registration deadline, theme is the underlying message and carries the impact each email has on your brand development. Anyone can send an email. But if your company makes a point of sending only messages that it is uniquely qualified to send, then the theme starts to emerge and every message helps strengthen the brand. For example, “60% off – today only” is a message that defines Gilt Groupe  and Haute Look and The Clymb, but would positively ruin Neiman Marcus or the TED Conference. When the theme of emails is ignored, the messages start to compromise the rest of the work done to build a brand. There may be short-term gains, but the expenses hit the balance sheet later on.

Tone: Like genre, an email’s tone should be a deliberate choice. An email that relies on humor or levity can be very successful for a brand similarly aligned, like Old Navy or The Onion. But a brand that trades on authority should have a very different tone in its emails: messages from The Economist or BMW should probably never include an exclamation point. A brand whose positioning is approachable and conversational might use a first-person voice to forge a personal connection.

Very often, I see messages where each of these elements is determined more by the individual message’s objective than by brand positioning and continuity. Individual emails can enjoy some success by going maverick on the brand and focusing on the immediate business need and environment. But I believe that an email program is more successful when approached as a craft with a long view. Email artisans do not need a writer’s gift, but could enjoy better results through some of a writer’s process and discipline.