E-Mail: The ‘videotape’ of DM

Recently, I was ushered into the office of client Citizen Shane who was, at the moment of my arrival, sitting with eyes glued to his computer screen. '!#^%* e-mail!' cursed this usually amiable individual as he flung a finger at his delete button.

Recently, I was ushered into the office of client Citizen Shane who was, at the moment of my arrival, sitting with eyes glued to his computer screen. ‘!#^%* e-mail!’ cursed this usually amiable individual as he flung a finger at his delete button.

‘Too much junk e-mail, eh?’ I said rhetorically.

He turned and looked at me, surprised. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I like getting e-mails. I even like spam if it’s well done. It’s just….’ He returned to the screen. ‘Read this!’

He clicked to a promotional e-mail laced with one spelling error after another. ‘Yet these people’s printed stuff doesn’t have spelling or grammatical mistakes in it, not even typos.’ Then, he pulled up another company’s e-mail. ‘And these guys’ print work is always excellent, but….’

I read their e-text. The sequence of thoughts was close, but not perfect; the choice of words was acceptable, but you couldn’t call it inspired; and the call to action, while clear, just wasn’t compelling enough to make a reader want to click through as the CTA asked. The e-mail screamed of needing one more draft to turn it into a piece someone could be pleased with, if not proud.

‘It’s not bad,’ I said. ‘But….’

‘…It’s not good either,’ finished Citizen Shane. ‘What’s with so many of these guys when it comes to their e-mails?’

‘It’s videotape all over again,’ I mused, then explained my analogy.

When videotape came out, numerous agencies and production houses started using it, instead of film, for TV commercials. It gained a lot of adherents because it was more immediate and less expensive than film and, because it was new, it was considered much sexier.

So, what was the result of this new, faster, easier, cheaper technology? A lot of second-rate commercials. They weren’t poor because of the technology per se, but because so many of the people making commercials with it only put in half their usual effort in planning and evaluating their work.

Film: that’s expensive and takes time, so I’d better really put some thought into this production, they’d say to themselves. Videotape: hey, it’s so cheap and quick I can bang this puppy out and not even break a sweat.

So they didn’t put in the same effort as they would have with film. And the results showed.

Now, we have e-mail, which also is much quicker, easier and cheaper than its established alternatives. But have people learned the attention-to-quality lesson from their videotape production predecessors?

Too often, the answer is no. And that’s costly, because sloppily crafted e-mails not only fail to generate the greatest possible results, they erode a company or product’s brand image, one that has probably cost a fortune to build. It’s like spending a bundle on new clothes in order to impress someone, then neglecting to comb your hair and brush your teeth.

The need for more care in writing e-mails was driven home to me a few days ago, yet again, when I received an e-mail from the Vancouver Canucks. On the opening page, it said I had the chance to win a prize if I gave them the e-mail addresses of three friends. When I clicked through to the next page, it said I had to provide five addresses. When I went to do that, I found there was only room for three. Once I filled in the all three blanks and hit ‘submit,’ I was thanked…and asked if I was sure I’d sent five. (‘No, I didn’t give you five,’ I shouted in cyber-frustration. ‘You only gave me room for three!’) This e-mail, like so many, begged one question: who the hell proofread it?

Because the Canucks’ missive included an audio/video segment, it would have cost a fair bit to produce, so there’s no question it would have been worth a few extra minutes’ time to proof the text properly.

But the inexpensive-to-produce e-mails that Citizen Shane received were equally deserving of one more read-through. After all, an e-mail with bells and whistles can sometimes have a better chance of success than a low-budget version, but the reverse doesn’t hold true – a cheap e-mail can cause equally as much damage to a brand as an expensive one.

Just ask anyone who’s produced a commercial on videotape in half the usual time.

Bob Knight of Knight & Associates both creates and critiques direct marketing, integrated and e-campaigns, including those involving e-mails. You can reach him, with or without a properly proofread message, at b_knight@telus.net.