Writing Emails That People Actually Read

Email marketing is like the Terminator: just when you think it’s dead, it regenerates a limb and comes back stronger. With Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) for Email entering the fold—one could argue, the best thing to happen to email since automatic out-of-office replies—email is BACK. Or, er, still here.

Though AMP is changing the anatomy of emails and adding more functionality to them (more on AMP to come in 2019), it’s important not to lose sight of why we create email campaigns in the first place: to get people to do something. Here are some tips to get your audience to read and engage with your emails, from subject line to call to action (CTA).

Subject line

The subject line needs to attract attention and entice the reader. It should be short and descriptive, ideally no more than four to seven words or 40 characters. Marketo found that four words worked best for open rates, but seven words worked best for overall engagement.

The subject line should speak to the content without giving too much away—like a movie trailer or lingerie. It can include an offer as long as it doesn’t contain spam-like characteristics, such as excessive punctuation or phrases like “Be amazed,” “Act now,” or “Earn $5,000 a week in your underpants.”


A snippet (also known as a preheader) is not just a fun word to say. It’s a powerful tool used to improve engagement. Where the subject line says what the email is about, the snippet provides all the incentive for the reader to open up and read further. It should both inform and create a sense of urgency to take the desired action. Because it’s more action focused, I think of the snippet as the pre-CTA, rather than the preheader.

On average, you have three seconds to grab readers’ attention, so the first five to eight words of the snippet are the most important.

Examples of subject line and snippet combos:

Subject line: Welcome to Google Play
Snippet: Here’s a little something to get you started.

Subject line: Lauren, welcome to your personal fitness app
Snippet: Try it free for six months.


According to Copyblogger, 80% of your visitors will read your email headline, but only 20% will go on to finish the email. The headline should, in as few words as possible, clarify your core message. It should have a maximum of 26 characters per line—up to two lines—and avoid periods (aka full stops).

Body copy

There aren’t many rules when it comes to body copy. Generally, you want to write in a conversational, friendly tone and guide your audience down to the CTA. Try to use the active voice, lead with verbs, and vary your sentence length to improve readability.


The call to action (CTA) should be concise and lead with a verb. There should never be more than two types of CTAs in an email (excluding in-line links). At Firewood, we generally offer something clickable in every scroll and bookend CTAs at the top and bottom of the email. This gives the reader more control over how they digest the content.

CTAs can usually be broken down into three categories:

  • Simple and effective CTAs (e.g., Sign Up, Click Here, Subscribe, Get Started)
  • CTAs with phrases (e.g., Send Me Specials Now, Let’s start a new project)
  • CTAs with multiple buttons on one page (e.g., Go Pro | Start Free Trial, Yes Please | No Thanks)

As with other parts of the email, the words you choose in the CTA have to be right for your audience and type of email (e.g., lifecycle, promotional). If you’re writing a lifecycle email to a returning customer, for example, the CTA “Get started” probably won’t resonate.


You may be thinking, WTF is this acronym?

It stands for ‘‘What’s in it for them?” In this case, “them” refers to members of the target audience. Once you answer this question, it’s much easier to get into their minds (or shoes), inject some personality, and write emails that not only get read, but get results.