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20 email marketing tips from 70 years ago

We in the email marketing field like to think of ourselves as mavericks.

Image credit: Paramount Pictures


No, not that Maverick.

But mavericks nonetheless.

We recoil at the idea that a man who predates the internet could have already thought of pretty much everything we will ever think of.

But one did.

Meet Robert Collier, who could’ve talked Tom Cruise out of Scientology with one well crafted letter, and sold him 200 pairs of lifts for his shoes while he was at it.

You see, before the internet existed written communications had to be sent manually from place to place using something called “mail”, and some folks used this medium to make money.

Image credit: ABC


Amazing, we know.

Yet somehow, people made money sending marketing correspondence through this archaic medium.

Robert Collier was one of those men.

In fact, he was one of the best.

His contributions to the field of copywriting have echoed across the decades and continue to influence many marketers today.

Or, at least, they should…

The field of “direct mail marketing” was based on the exactly the same concepts that email marketing is. It was just a little slower.

Collier’s opus “The Robert Collier Letter Book” proves, upon inspection, to be just as prescient for email marketers today as it must have to direct mail marketers when it was written (1937).

Just take a look at this excerpt from Fred Stone, one of Collier’s contemporaries, from the book’s forward:

“I suppose their must be plenty of excitement in turning over to the “big boss” an order for $50,000 worth of something from one customer, but I doubt whether it can be compared with the feeling that you have influenced through your own eloquence a thousand minds to do something you wanted them to do, so that they all responded with signatures, in one day, backed by healthy pocketbooks” – Fred Stone

Any email marketer will know exactly what he means.

The basic question that Collier’s “Letters” book set out to ask is the same question thousands of blog posts every year set out to answer about email marketing today.

“What is there about some letters that makes them so much more effective than others?”

Good question.

So set aside your scepticism, change the word “letter” to the word “email” in your minds, forgive the male-centricism which was accepted practice at the time, and gaze into the mind of our forefather, Robert Collier.

20 email marketing tips from 70 years ago: brought to you by Robert Collier

1. “Study your reader first- your product second. If you understand his reactions, and present those phases of your product that relate to his needs, then you cannot help but write a good letter.” 

2. “It’s a matter of bait, that’s all. The youngster knew what the fish would bite on, and he gave it to them. Result? A mess of fine fish for dinner. The “sportsman” offered them what he had been led to believe fish ought to have – and they turned up their fishy noses at it.” 

3. “Thousands of articles have been written about the way to use letters to bring you what you want, but the meat of them all can be compressed into two sentences: What is the bait that will tempt your reader? How can you tie up the thing you have to offer with that bait?”

4. “You see, your reader glancing over his mail is much like a man in a speeding train. Something catches his eye and he turns for a better look. You have his attention. But attention alone gets you nowhere. The something must stand closer inspection, it must win his interest, otherwise his attention is lost- and once lost, it is twice as hard to win the second time.”

5. “Before you put pen to paper, before you ring for your stenographer, decide in your own mind what effect you want to produce on your reader- what feeling you must arouse in him.”

6. “What the world wants, and has wanted since the beginning, is news- something to flag its jaded interest, something to stir its emotions. Tell a man something new and you have his attention. Give it a personal twist or show its relation to his business and you have his interest.”

7. “There is one type of letter that is always interesting news, provided the product you are offering has an established market. That type is the price-reduction, money-saving offer.”

8. “Of course, there are ways of flagging the reader’s interest even before he gets to the first line of your letter. Putting a catch-phrase on the outside of the envelope is one… These helped to get the reader inside the envelope. Their purpose was the same as the newspaper headline- to arouse the reader’s curiosity and make him go further into the story.”

9. “The mind thinks in pictures, you know. One good illustration is worth a thousand words. But one clear picture built up in the reader’s mind by your own words is worth a thousand drawings, for the reader colors that picture with his own imagination, which is more potent than all the brushes of all the world’s artists.”

10. “Thousands of sales have been lost, millions of dollars worth of business have failed to materialize, solely because so few letter writers have that knack of visualizing a proposition- of painting it in words so the reader can see it as they see it.”

11. “Most people are like automobiles. They can be pushed or pulled along, or they can be moved to action by starting their own motive power from within. In either case, you must provide the fuel. And the only fuel that will start the sort of action you want from within is desire. Arousing that desire in your reader is known as the gentle art of persuasion.”

12. “Description of your product is necessary. But description, no matter how interestingly done, will never sell your product by the thousands. It is what it will do for the one who buys it that counts!”

13. “There are six prime motives of human action: love, gain, duty, pride, self-indulgence, and self-preservation. And frequently they are so mixed together that it is hard to tell which to work on more strongly.”

14. “We are credulous people, but we have become so accustomed to hearing everyone claim that his product is the best in the world, or the cheapest, that we take all such statements with a grain of salt.”

15. “There is just one reason why anyone ever reads a letter you send him. He expects a reward. That is the key to holding his interest. All through your letter you keep leading him on, constantly feeding his interest, but always holding back something for the climax.”

16. “There are only two reasons why your reader will do as you tell him in your letter. The first is that you made him want something so badly that of his own inertia he reaches out for your order card to get it. The other is that you have aroused in him the fear that he will lose something worthwhile if he does not do as you say.”

17. “Finally, tell him what to do. Don’t leave it to him to decide. We are all mentally lazy, you know, so dictate his action for him- get your suggester to working on him. If he is to do certain things, describe them. Tell him to put his name on the enclosed card, stamp and mail, or pin his cheque or dollar bill to this letter and return it in the enclosed envelope.”

18. “It has been proved that seven times out of ten your average businessman will read the opening paragraph of an ordinary letter that is palpably not from a customer, take a cursory glance at the middle, and then jump to the last paragraph to see what it is all about, and how much it costs. So it is essential that you put a hook into that last paragraph.”

19. “Rules, however, are merely the start. They are the mechanics of a letter. Real letter-writing only starts there. It is getting the feel of your message that counts.” 

20. “But do not imagine we were resting on our laurels, or out playing golf all this time. We realized it would not be long until someone caught up to where we were then, so we tried to keep at least one good jump ahead.”

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Trevor Beers, Senior Language Technician, Phrasee

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