Score Big on Your First Email with 4 Simple Ingredients

The story my husband loves to tell at parties is how I adamantly said “No, thanks” when he very nervously asked me out (and as usual, he’s not exaggerating). But, after I messaged 20 of my closest friends and was called an “idiot” by every single one of them, I gave him a chance. In my defense I had a good reason, but that is neither here nor there. The other story we both like to tell is how our first date was horribly awkward. Like how-about-them-Dodgers bad. But another date followed, and another, and the rest is a five-year history filled with laughter, adventures and wedded bliss.

Where am I going with this? The first date can be either the gateway to a life-long relationship; or it can end tragically before it even begins. There are four key ingredients to making a first date successful, whether it’s with a stranger or a longtime friend. And, the best part is, these rules are just as relevant to email marketing. I just hit you with a double-advice blog post whammy! It’s just as nerve wracking hitting that send button to 25,000 people, whether it’s to prospects or longtime customers, as it is asking someone out for the first time. And we’ve probably all been there right? Relevant life experience analogy? Check!

The Perfect Email Recipe
























1. The Subject Line and Sender

There is only one first impression, and in a list of unread emails that look identically bold at 8 a.m., you really need to razzle dazzle.

  • Be familiar. Using a real person as the sender name, rather than some unknown group of yahoos like “marketing,” can elicit an emotional response. It might make someone say, “Hey, Judy sent me an email and needs my help! I’ll open it.”
  • Be simple, clear, and relevant. Segment your audience and focus your subject line on specific solutions to popular pain points. Make people think about what amazing info they might miss out on if they don’t give your email a chance.  I have an example of this in action at the end of this post.
  • Don’t be too clever. More than a just a handful of recipients need to understand the witty reference. Below is an example of one subject line that was meant to be clever (I assume) but I was very hesitant to open at first.

Orbitz Example


  • Be brief. The shorter the subject line the better (6-10 words, 50 characters or less) because it may get cut off, or you might lose the point if you say too much.
  • Don’t say anything insulting. Some words should be avoided in any instance. Don’t use these spam trigger words.
  • Show your fun side. Symbols in subject lines are OK in some instances, like a heart icon in a fun newsletter. But use sparingly as they are not always supported. Nothing is more annoying than a tiny empty box where an emoji once lived.

2. Design

A schleppy mess does not impress. The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” is basically crap when marketing to prospects. The look of your email is just as important as the words within it.

  • Be color conscious. In a recent Litmus Webinar, I learned that yellow can cause anxiety and urgency, which might improve your CTRs; blue conveys trust; green might suggest to go, act now. This is a good article on color psychology, which actually suggests to avoid yellow. The point is you should perform A/B testing to find out what your audience reacts to the best because colors can play a huge role in your email’s success.
  • Look dapper. Slapping some random, ill-sized images here and there does not an aesthetically pleasing email make. At least look like you tried even if you put the email together in five minutes. This is where professionally designed, easy-to-replicate templates come in handy.
  • Make eye contact. Use images of real people looking in the direction of your CTA. According to the folks over at Emma Marketing, it works!
  • Take risks. Do you remember the last beige email you received? Exactly. Try bold color combinations and an interesting style. Just don’t stray too far from the authentic you. It might be a shock the next time if you look completely different; consistency is important.

3. Copy and Tone

The most important part of any email is keeping your audience interested. Getting your email opened is the hard part. Now it’s all about the conversation. Otherwise, it’s “check please!” before you even get to the good part.

  • Don’t talk about yourself the whole time. It’s not all about you. Remember WIIFM: What’s in it for me? Ask questions. Be interested in the other. What can you offer that no other email can?
  • Don’t use complicated jargon. Unless you speak the same technical language, keep it clear and simple. You don’t want to confuse your audience or make them feel less knowledgeable, even if they do think the capital of California is Los Angeles. (If that’s the case, maybe they aren’t the right prospect for you anyway.)
  • Be personal. Know your audience and segment based on customer type, geography, and interests. Personalize the email with first name (but always check the data first for potential data entry errors). People like being constantly reminded that you know their name.
  • Don’t push. You don’t want to intimidate someone right off the bat. This is just the first email; you don’t have to put everything out there yet. Verbal diarrhea is usually a major turn off. So is the word diarrhea. Sorry.

4. Call to Action

The email is coming to an end. Your ultimate goal is to get your audience to extend a hand to you for a future engagement and to make them want to see more from you.

  • Be clear. Only use one main call to action. Make sure you end on the same page with a clear next step. Will you call them? Will they contact you?
  • Sleep on it. Avoid intimidating language like “Buy Now.” People need time to consider things, so make sure to nurture them and kindly follow up after an appropriate waiting period. But also don’t keep people waiting and wondering! Will you respond in five minutes or one to three business days? Set expectations.

I clearly established in an earlier post that I have a borderline-obsessive crush on Litmus. So you can imagine my excitement when I received an email from them the other day. It’s like Christmas morning when I see one of those clean, crisp messages in my inbox. I know something exciting is about to happen! Squee!

I wanted to share this as an example of an email that definitely includes the four key ingredients (and a couple of the insights in this post came from their 8 Second Challenge Webinar). Excellent timing with my post.

Litmus Email Example

The subject line instantly has my attention. I have 8 seconds until what? The message self destructs? The aliens arrive? I want to know more!

And is a casual and approachable sender email address. Everyone knows it’s from marketing, but they are subtle about it.

Some other reasons I think this is a great email:

  • The H1 copy immediately answers the question “I have 8 seconds for what?”
  • “Better” is used in a non-offensive way. They aren’t insulting your emails, rather suggesting that everyone wants better emails. Because who doesn’t?
  • The image is simple but eye catching.
  • The body copy is under 100 words.
  • An easy-to-digest number is used in both the subject line and the body copy.
  • The copy gives you just enough information on what you can expect from the Webinar.
  • The name of the Webinar is appealing and inviting you to be involved.
  • In this case, the determining factors on if I can attend (date and time) are up front. I’d rather know now than find out after wasting valuable time that I can’t attend.
  • CTA: “Save your seat” is less forward and more personable than “Register Now.”

Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it wonderful? Ok, enough of the love fest. Next time you are crafting an email, think of the ingredients that make a successful first date and you might just score big time. In open rates and click-thrus, of course.

This post was paired with some cauliflower stir fry. I didn’t notice that I was drooling into it as I dissected this email. Still delicious!