Email Marketing: How to Master the Campaign Platform of Kings

Image of mail postmarks

Persuasive email campaigns are a long studied art and science, of particular interest to copywriters.

If you’ve ever watched HBO’s hit series, Game of Thrones, you’ve seen key political figures try to outflank one another in bloody campaigns to win the highest office of the land, the Iron Throne.

In the show, based on the bestselling fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, ravens are used as messengers between heads of military camps who all live in a land sadly devoid of the Internet.

In real life, however, ravens have never been used as messengers because they lack a strong directional sense (they’re great at cleaning up road-kill though).

It was homing pigeons that were used in real military campaigns as far back as the 6th century BC, and even as recently as World War II, to carry important information back and forth over enemy lines.

What on earth do pigeons have to do with email marketing?

Believe it or not, they are strangely tied to campaigns of influence that have been waged for the hearts and minds of the public for ages. Check it out …

Campaign [kam-peyn] noun
A concerted effort to accomplish a goal.

One early definition of the word campaign — as used by military generals — was a simple command to “take the field.”

Only later did it take on the more familiar political meaning of a set of organizing efforts of swaying public opinion.

Is it a coincidence that marketers use the word campaign so often, as in “ad campaign” or “email campaign?”

Absolutely not, since what we do as writers of “campaigns” is use our concentrated powers of the English language to persuade with words.

Nations have been won and lost with words, and great writers throughout history have paid close attention to this indestructible truth.

Philosophers, kings, and copywriters all use these methods

As attention spans shrink, we — the writers, the makers of the Internet — constantly seek more effective ways of connecting with our respective audiences.

But we often overlook the simplest and most effective means of communication we possess as online publishers: a direct, personal and valuable message.

I’m not arguing for a shift to a pigeon-fueled marketing campaign (too messy), but I am lobbying for the simplicity and grace of email for communicating effectively and efficiently with your clients and customers.

Fact: Campaigns of influence have been waged since the beginning of the written word.

Aristotle (circa 300 B.C.) was a pretty influential guy who wrote a little treatise called Rhetoric that pretty much changed the world forever.

Loosely defined, rhetoric is the art of one person trying to persuade another

And Aristotle classified the three most important things that all effective persuasive arguments should possess:

Ethos, pathos, and logos make up the backbone of any persuasive argument, and turn the wheels of the human mind, the language of desire.

Esteemed ad-man Eugene Schwartz wrote:

Advertising is the literature of desire. It is society’s encyclopedia of dreams … advertising gives form and content to desire.

We are all so wrapped up in the inner workings of our minds, our desires and problems, that we often lose sight of the basic building blocks of our civilization.

On each of the many screens laid out before us — desktop, notebook, or smartphone — stories are told with every click of the mouse, the very language of online persuasion.

Alexander the Great was a student of persuasion

What would one of the greatest rulers of all time have taken on his campaigns to win the hearts and minds of his vast empire?

Rhetoric, as taught to him by his famed teacher Aristotle.

Not only would the armies of Alexander the Great use war pigeons to communicate, but Alexander learned the basic building blocks of persuasion taught to all great leaders in perpetuity.

Is it strange that he went on to become one of the most-studied conquerors in history with an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to Tibet?

No, because Aristotle prepped him well for battle with three secret weapons that all influential email campaigns should be equipped with:

  1. Ethos — Selling yourself: This is the first step of establishing your credibility as an online publisher. Someone who is an expert in their field or simply exhibits a vast amount of knowledge on a subject is considered trustworthy (you have perceived intelligence, reliability and authority). As a content marketer, job one is becoming the likable expert in your field in order create valued content that people click and share. Killer content builds your credibility over time.
  2. Pathos — Swaying emotions: Often achieved with metaphors, storytelling, or evoking strong emotions from your audience. Seen as the earliest breakdown of human psychology. When your readers are swayed by your powers of storytelling they are more likely to opt-in to your email list to deepen the conversation. This gives content marketers permission to offer even more valuable content, make offers, tell more stories, and share products and services with them to improve their lives. Just beware — Pathos without its companions Ethos and Logos can quickly degenerate into cheap hype.
  3. Logos — Advancing your argument through solid reasoning: Includes use of statistics, logic or specificity. Examples are often drawn from history (sound familiar?), mythology or hypothetical situations to create conclusions. Also deductive reasoning lets the audience solve the puzzle themselves by simply providing all the pieces for them. Cookie content that establishes a relationship of trust with your audience is built on the value of your expertise. Often this is in the form of social proof, testimonials, and lots of good ol’ bullets that nail down the benefits of your offer.

Was Aristotle the father of modern marketing? Perhaps. But he was also the progenitor of the modern political argument that has shaped much of the world as we know it.

A modern student of rhetoric takes the stage

Fast forward to the present, where a controversial president — well-versed in the school of rhetoric — hires a well-regarded copywriter to help retain his throne.

Did Obama use war pigeons? In a sense, he did.

He built his re-election around one of the most technologically savvy email campaigns in history.

And he hired a kick-ass copywriter to help it all come together, Jim Messina.

Messina in turn found another trusted ad-man, Joe Rospars, to spearhead an email marketing and social media campaign that would go into the record books by raising almost $700 million.

The team heavily A/B tested everything from subject lines to content strategies to hone their results to perfection.

Test, analyze, change, resend.

That was their email strategy, in a nutshell.

Rigorous experimentation and analysis revealed some pretty surprising things:

  1. Their assumptions about what they thought would be successful was usually wrong.
  2. A casual tone always worked best.
  3. The simpler the emails were, the better the result.

The results were unprecedented. One email alone raised $3 million.

Here’s an example of one of the Obama campaign emails:

Friend —

You’re in for 2012: Welcome, and thanks.

Now forget everything you know about politics.

Because I can tell you that the coming months will be like nothing you’ve seen from a campaign. If we’re going to win, we have to be tougher, smarter, and more innovative than ever before.

The President has a job to do, so he’s asking each of us to take the lead in shaping this effort.

That work begins now in your community.

Sign up to volunteer today.

Your leadership today will help build this campaign over the next few months and right up to November 6th.

You may be asked to recruit other volunteers, register voters, or talk to your friends and neighbors about what they hope to see from this campaign. You may sign up to volunteer today and end up leading a canvass this summer.

I got my start empowering residents in mobile home communities in Missoula, Montana — a long way from Washington, D.C. As an organizer, I know it all starts in our own backyards. Committing to a campaign is a huge first step, but it’s the decisions we make from that point on that determine success.

Whether you’re a first-time supporter or a veteran volunteer, this campaign belongs to you. You own it, and you power it.

This is an exciting time to get involved — sign up to be a volunteer today:

Let’s go,

Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America

Can you see why this would work?

Granted, that email was written for a specific audience regarding a specific political campaign, and probably vastly different than what would work in the context of your audience and topic.

But, Lisa Nirell broke down very well — in an article for Fast Company — how Obama’s email marketing pushed all the right buttons.

  1. He speaks directly to his ideal reader: Keep in mind, that email wasn’t written for Copyblogger subscribers. It was written for their list, an audience that knows, likes and trusts the candidate. Simplistically copying an approach that’s been crafted for another list will never get you the results you want.
  2. He gets to the point quickly: A good email marketer knows how to grab attention fast in order to capitalize on the short attention span of a reader. Copywriting 101 is in full effect here, and it’s pretty easy to spot.
  3. He tells a story that his audience can relate to: If you are making yourself a valuable and relatable friend in the inbox that readers want to connect with, you’re conveying authority and friendliness that builds that trust so that you can make an offer they can’t refuse.
  4. His message is succinct and to the point: Easy reading is really hard writing (said every copywriter ever). This was probably vetted and edited at least a dozen times before it was sent. You must edit and re-edit so that your message is crystal clear.

Joe Rospars was called the “Karl Rove of the internet,” and he was surely inspired by that Republican consultant’s own successful direct mail campaigns for President George W. Bush.

Together, the Obama re-election team constructed some incredibly advanced methods of persuasion, all built on a rock-solid technological platform that will probably change how campaigns are run in the future.

Their workhorse was the simplicity and effectiveness of the persuasive email campaign.

The thread from Alexander the Great to President Obama to you …

They both had access to cost-effective means of communication with their constituencies, and they both employed the foundational tenets of rhetoric.

The backbone of any great email (or content marketing) campaign is built on the framework of persuasion, a la Aristotle, and developed over thousands of years.

Brian Clark expanded on the 10 Timeless Persuasive Writing Techniques that can absolutely be applied to persuasive email campaigns today …

  • Repetition: Repeat but don’t be repetitive. Make your point in several ways (a well-known strategy of rhetoric).
  • State reasons why: The psychology of because primes your audience for action.
  • Consistency: Right in line with the ethos of establishing your integrity online. Show up and be useful!
  • Social Proof: The driving nature of acceptance and belonging.
  • Comparisons: Metaphors, similes, and analogies that relate to things generally accepted as true.
  • Agitate and solve: Describe the problem, then offer a solution. Classic Marketing 101.
  • Prognosticate: Give a glimpse of the future based on solid evidence.
  • Go tribal: Seth Godin’s school of giving someone an exclusive opportunity to be a part of something great.
  • Address objections: Rhetoric 101: Do your research so you know your audience’s objections before they do.
  • Storytelling: Sound like a broken record yet?

In Sam Leith’s short piece for the NYTimes on rhetoric he outlines the classic art of persuasion.

The persuasive technique of rhetoric that stands out to me the most?

Sprezzatura: The naturalness of a well-crafted argument

In other words, the more sentences relate to one another as a whole, the less likely your reader will notice the writing and be absorbed by the story.

Leith expands on his study of rhetoric in his book Words Like Loaded Pistols (a must for all word-geeks), and reminds us:

We exchange information because it is either useful or delightful, because it does something for us … language happens because humans are desire machines, and what knots desire and language is rhetoric.

As copywriters we strive for a naturalness that doesn’t distract, writing that is a clear pane of glass containing no smudges.

Good emails need to be seamless to work well

At a time when email is as prevalent as ever, its power is hard to ignore. According to recent marketing surveys:

  • 80% of us claim to receive marketing messages alongside our personal emails on a daily basis.
  • 70% of us make use of a coupon or discount we learned about from email.
  • 60% of us say that receiving special offers is the top reason for subscribing to an email list from a business.

Your influence is built on trust

At Copyblogger we harp on the first step in any effective email marketing campaign: establish your authority by becoming the likable expert for your audience.

With a commitment to building a relevant and targeted email list, you can deliver the authority and trust to your expectant fans, and develop a long-term conversation that eventually grows your business.

A new year always presents the opportunity to start fresh with more effective content marketing strategies.

With a solid platform to work on, and your own website that isn’t built on someone else’s soil, email is easily the most effective means by which to connect with your audience and grow your brand.

In my previous post for Email Marketing that Works I hit on just a few of the extremely successful email marketers who have sky-rocketed their businesses online.

In retrospect, the strategies for successful email marketing aren’t secrets at all, and the ROI is pretty irresistible.

Long story, quick takeaway …

We have a wealth of resources here on the site to help whenever you need it, starting with Email Marketing 101.

Effective email marketing campaigns begin with a kick-ass strategy and one other very important thing … your first email.

Get writing!

And if you spotted some examples of rhetoric in my arguments above, drop them into the comments.

Cheers to 2013, a great year ahead for online writers!

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Reader Comments (36)

  1. says

    Hi Kelton,

    Hats off for a very informative piece and one that has got me even more interested in watching Game of Thrones (My New Year Resolution).

    I’m an avid student of what has gone before in order to get to where we are now and with that said, I regularly study the strategies and practice of what made direct mail such a force. Email is just another medium for delivery and can often get lost in the clutter, unlike the personal letter through the post box, which is why more attention to detail is needed to succeed in that space.

    In a way it does begin by giving your audience a reason to look out for your particular emails but is that really enough?

    I am particulary keen to know how to get my hands on the emails used in the Obama campaign that pulled the astounding $700 million as there has to be a few gems lying around in there. Thanks for the above one too!

    • says

      Thank you Shola, glad you found it useful! Not sure I understand your question, but I would hazard a guess that one of your copywriting friends has a swipe file out there with some of those emails in it:) Maybe even someone reading this post today… if it’s out there it will pop up.

  2. says

    Hi Kelton,

    Fascinating article. Loved the history lesson ~ it provided an excellent story to engage and deliver this valuable content. It blows me away how savvy Obama’s administration is.

    Email is King.

  3. says

    Much of the time and effort I put into my content, whether marketing emails or other material, goes into making the copy as easy to read as possible. Obviously the simpler something is to read, the more likely someone is going to read it.
    As for the email subject line, I even put careful attention into the subject lines of everyday emails to clients. That way, they’re less likely to ignore my messages and leave them unattended for days on end.

    • says

      Good tip for sure Kevin. Crystal clear language is key. I need to get better at writing email subject lines to my co-workers too:) I tend to go for the “bad pun”.

  4. says

    Killer article! Love how you tied history in so naturally. You just pumped me up for another day of writing an autoresponder series I’ve been working on – thanks!


  5. says

    Hi Kelton,

    Incredible post! I noticed you are a screenwriter and novelist as well as blogger. I am actually writing my first screenplay with my twin brother? Do you have any suggestions for good screenwriting tips, resources, or must dos? I am also an aspiring novelist – any suggestions for great novel writing resources as well? As part of my New Year’s resolution I have committed to learning as much as I can about the art of storytelling so any suggestions that you or any other reader could give me would be much appreciated.

    As for the post, I absolutely loved the epic historical and theatrical references – from Aristotle and Alexander to World War II and Game of Thrones. How do you find, decide, and draw on so many different contexts and stories? They are so powerful! One of my college professors always said that people may forget the lecture but they don’t forget the stories and he couldn’t have been more right.

    I also loved all the links you included throughout the email as well. You have definitely conveyed the notion that you are a subject matter expert. Well done and thanks for the inspiration!

    • says

      Wow Hunter, thanks for tuning in! If I’m correct, this is a rhetorical question. J/K

      A) Screenwriting is not unlike copywriting. There are some pretty tried and tested rules for creating great drama. Studying the greats is important. Robert McKee wrote a little tome called Story that is a good start. Any script by David Mamet will help you understand why. Read the script, then watch the movie. Economy of language and good pacing equal the Zen of Screenwriting. Standard Script Formats by Cole/Haag will help with formatting, and a killer scriptwriting app/program is important. If it’s not formatted to industry specs, no one will read it. Good luck!

      B)If you want to be a novelist, write a novel. Get up each day and write as much as you can. Someone famous once said “Write the book you want to read.” Henry Miller’s commandments are also good. They’re floating around out there somewhere.

      C)My inspiration for blog posts comes from everywhere, my “mad scientist” co-workers on the editorial squad, my swipe-file (secret of course), and every writer out there on the web who is putting in the time and energy to inform and inspire. Thanks go to them:) Research, research, research, incubate, sit, write until something good comes out.

      Hope that helps!

      • says


        Well, thank you for taking the time to put out such great, helpful content!

        Ooops, haha, looks like I put a “?” instead of “!” – I am definitely writing the screenplay and contrary to what my comment says, I am not confused about that :) Guess I need to keep working on those editing skills.

        Your suggestions are exactly what I am looking for, thank you so much. I am jumping on Amazon right now!

        Hope you had a great holiday season and best of wishes to you!

  6. says

    As always an excellent and well researched article.

    Have you written anything about “turn-off” keywords or phrases? As an example, your mention of Mr KR surely made many of us, your readers, loose focus on your message.

    How could a writer stay away from very negative references which could cause the -impatient- reader abort/abandon your text?

    Thanks from Miami!

    • says

      The mere mention of Karl Rove in passing distracted you that much? Sounds like a completely different issue.

      The answer is, a writer never wants to stay away from objectionable references. To do that is to create watered-down crap that appeals to no one at all.

      • says

        Kelton and Brian, you are right. Staying away from strong references would be handicapping and watering-down one’s writing. Now you can be certain that at least one person learned a very valuable lesson from your article.

        P.S. Brian, thanks for taking the time to reply and best of lucks with your new real estate venture in Boulder!

    • says

      Despite his personal beliefs or political affiliations, Karl Rove was a copywriter who was good at his job.

      Alexander the Great, despite his historical notoriety or the fact that he was played by Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone’s movie, was technically a murderer. He fought in battle in front of his men to show his worth as their leader. He probably beheaded some dudes, in other words. Some might find that objectionable.

  7. says

    I’d like to share a simple tip for repeating the points you really want to drive home, especially for when you’re trying to do it online: summarize! If you’re passionate about the topic you’re writing about, then it’s easy to write entire book reports on certain facets of it and that’s okay… as long as you summarize the points you made at the end of your content so people re-remember them. After all, YOU may easily remember everything you wanted to say and have said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your audience will. So, summarize and (if possible) draw a conclusion at the end of all your content.

  8. says

    Wow, what a history lesson. It’s interesting to note that these techniques date back to circa 300 B.C. and they are still at work today. With attention spans growing shorter by the day, I wonder what effective techniques will be used in the near future.

  9. says

    Kelton, terrific piece. I greatly enjoyed it, especially the historical perspective on rhetoric and how it has been used throughout the years to wage effective marketing campaigns.

    From a rhetorical strategy perspective, I especially liked the question “Can you see why this would work?” after the Obama email. Because I’ll admit, after reading the first few lines of it, I skimmed the rest. Getting to your question compelled me to go back and read it through a few times to be sure that I could answer the question. Doing that helped to make your point without really TELLING me specifically what the point was. With the foundation of what had come before, I was able to pick out from the Obama email what made it successful. So kudos to you for that.

    Also, I can never read this line enough: “Easy reading is really hard writing.” I’ve read it numerous times in Copyblogger posts, and it’s always a great reminder.

    • says

      Thanks Jerod! Rhetorical questions do their job sometimes:) Good breakdown. I think Nathaniel Hawthorne would get some pretty good Author Rank from Copyblogger… if he were alive.

  10. Thomas says

    Interesting article and yet once again as within the entire scope of marketing little or no emphasis is placed on actually telling the truth or being authentic. You win the gold metal by persuading, manipulating people to get the response you want.If you get the prize that is all that really matters. There’s a lot of arrogance in the world of marketing & sales and yet it is the 50000 pound elephant that no one wants to talk about, but hey we got the sale, the vote, the subscription etc…

    • says

      You should spend more time here.

      Marketing based on misrepresentation tempts people who aren’t very skilled representing products that aren’t very good. Because customers are so connected now, this is always a short-term approach. Lousy products get revealed, and lies get uncovered. Yes, it works sometimes, in some situations, but it isn’t what we teach.

      • Thomas says

        I spend too much time here :) and wasn’t directing my comment to Copyblogger per se but the marketing world in general. But it is essentially pretty easy to fool people and I know plenty of companys large and small who do it successfully on a regualr basis and have for years.Nothng new here just part of the human condition I suppose. Not to say they don’t provide value of some sort but being in the advertising world I’m sure you know that branding is tied to emotion which is used to direct people away fom any meaningful thought process based on some sort of crtitical thinking. To me that is as dishonest as an out and out lie. There are many lines to cross or not as marketers and it takes a clear vision to know when you are approaching that line. That is not always an easy thing. Anyways that’s my 2ยข worht for the day.

    • says

      I’ll echo Sonia’s comment. The underlying idea behind everything at Copyblogger is that authority matters, and authority is based on trust and credibility. You don’t get that by slangin’ snake oil or misrepresenting products. You do it by creating kickass stuff and then crafting compelling content that clearly enunciates the benefits of the products and what needs they will fill. It’s the only way.

  11. says

    A wonderful history lesson – in fact I’ve forwarded this article to my son’s high school rhetoric teacher to consider having the students read/study this as a practical application to the uses of ethos, pathos and logos outside of a textbook.

    I also enjoyed the irony you placed in item #4 that reads “You must editing and re-edit so that your message is crystal clear.”

    Intended or not, I still got a chuckle ๐Ÿ˜‰


  12. says

    This could not have come at a better time for me. I have been ignoring my email list for way too long and have set time this coming week to get things up and running. There is a lot of great information in here to get me started, and I better pick up some Aristotle.

  13. says

    Great article…Everything old is new again? I love the example of the Obama campaign. As you say, the writing was probably edited dozens of time, yet it comes off as a casual, though persuasive, personal note. Passion is an important part of persuasion.

  14. says

    While there was some useful information here, you could have left out the 75% that was nothing but filler and made this a much more effective post.

  15. says

    I LOVE history and of course I loved how you tied it into your article. Gives me some ideas for my next blog post. BTW, sweet article. I really enjoyed the read!



  16. says

    If there’s just thing you get to takeaway from this article, use the Story part. Tell a story and tell it well. This works for email and it works for presentations too…

  17. Eric Davis says

    Great, succinct and useful information. I’ll keep it in mind for my next campaign.
    Except that it’s Joe Rospars, not Rospar. I first met him through the Dean campaign in mid-2003. An amazing guy, a true innovator.

  18. says

    What a unique way of writing….hat’s off man!
    Actually i hate history at my college. But i felt happy and interesting while reading this history part.

    Hope too see more articles from you.


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