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A ‘soap opera sequence’ is where you start a story in one email, create an ‘open loop, and leave it unresolved over one or more emails. This creates anticipation between emails.
A lot has been written about soap opera sequences as the ‘ultimate’ email strategy. My opinion is they need to be used judiciously.
However entertaining and interesting your emails are, only a small portion of subscribers will religiously read every email you send. If your emails nearly always form part of a serial, you run the risk of alienating readers who join part way through.
You can still create threads and open loops between your emails, but each email you send should stand on its own two feet. Meaning if somebody opens part 2 at random, it should completely make sense without going back to part 1.
The one exception I’ll make to this is immediately after a contact opts in. The safest place to use a ‘soap opera’ format is in the first emails a contact receives from you. Because soap opera sequences are naturally engaging, this has the added benefit of pouring cement around the relationship with a new subscriber.
In the first email you send to people, open a dramatic loop and leave the reader on a cliff-hanger. Then complete (or continue) the story in email two.
If you can get some to read the first two emails, it exponentially increases the chance of them reading more emails after that. It also begins to encourage a regular reading habit.
I’m making some updates to my copywriting book Simple Story Selling at the moment. A key idea in the book is the plot archetype structure, which you can read about here. The plot structure looks like this:
A key idea to understand is that the plot archetype is fractal, meaning it operates at multiple levels as you zoom in and out.
You can use this five phase pattern across an individual email, Facebook post or blog post. You can even use it within a paragraph, or a sentence even. But in my experience, it works in a deeper and more profound way over a full series rather than an individual communication.
The point of the plot archetype structure is to illustrate character change (sometimes called the ‘character arc’). To illustrate true character change, a character has to feel a call towards a goal or objective. They have to make some initial progress towards that goal, only to realise the true scale of the task at hand. There has to be some monumental struggle, which only can be resolved through a core realisation or character change.
It is the struggle and character change that is endlessly fascinating to us. In watching that process, we are drawn out of our own world, and into another. We learn something about the world or about ourselves, even if the story itself is fictional.
You can fit all five phases into a single email (I’ve included various examples in the appendix of the book), but generally it’s best to stretch the five phases across an entire email series. A full email series simply gives you a greater canvas to work with. An epic story will contain a simple plot, but detailed episodes.
If you want to keep things simple, you could make each email in the series a single plot phase. So email 1 is the call, where you were down on your luck, bored at work, or whatever the call was.
Email 2 could be initial progress. I made initial progress in my business as a Google Ads consultant, before realising that wasn’t the business I wanted to build.
Email 3 could be the struggle. A time when the wheels fell off the bus. A time when your spouse gave you that long sideways glance, which screams “when are you going to get a real job?”
Email 4 could be the realisation. The moment of clarity. The time you went hiking in the Andes (or wherever), and found inspiration from a completely unexpected source.
Email 5 could be the resolution. The happy ending, leading into your offer. The offer at this point is fairly obvious: you invite the reader to join you on the journey. If the reader is at the ‘call’ phase, then your offer will speak to them directly. Chances are they’ll say yes.
I find that unless you want to write very long emails, five emails still doesn’t give you all that much space. As each email should only contain one key thought or idea, I find it easier and more effective to split the five phases across 15 or 20 emails (my own core story series has 18 emails).
A series of that length allows you to include multiple ups and downs… multiple low points you overcame. In an archetypal story the struggle phase (phase 3) is often the longest phase. In Lord of the Rings it goes on forever.
Write about your struggles. Bleed a little. Show people your scars. That is what gets their attention the most, because they recognise their own struggles in yours.
I like the 15-part format because:
– It feels doable. If the groundwork has already been done I can write five emails in half a day. So writing 15 emails means three sessions of 5.
– You have implementation options. You can send an email a day for two weeks. You can send an email every weekday for three weeks. You can send an email every other day for a month. You can split test all of these options.
15 or 20 emails could easily be 10,000 words; long enough for a lead generation book by the time you’ve added in content.
Think also of the reader. I don’t think it is generally sensible to have an email series run for over a month, because at that point a book would be the preferred format. Readers will also become lost, or forget where you started. 30 days should be the maximum window for your email series.
In writing 15 emails, you’ll often find that some emails in your plan actually need to be two emails. Which is why my 15-part series ended up as 18 emails. By splitting a story over two emails you end up with a mini ‘soap opera sequence’.
More on which tomorrow…
My office is generally a hive of production: of emails, newsletters, books, Facebook ads, Google Ads, and whatever else.
From time to time it’s important to stop and take stock.
I’m currently compiling all of my daily emails into an annual. It’s been a rewarding process so far to sift through everything I’ve sent this year. When you look back, clearer trends start to emerge. It’s easy to forget what you’ve sent. Often there are emails that can be re-purposed into other formats.
I’ll be publishing all of this year’s emails in a single volume on Monday 24th December. It’ll be free in PDF format, and possibly on Amazon as a paperback. After that there won’t be any emails until Monday 7th January. In the meantime I’ll be working on an update to my copywriting book Simple Story Selling.
These emails, my print newsletter, and my books make up my body of work. Taking stock of your body of work from time to time is a valuable activity.
A useful question to ask at the end of the year is: what have you added to your body of work this year?
If the answer is “not much”, then a useful follow-up question is: what do you want to add to your body of work next year?
And then: what is the business case? Is there an obvious payoff right under your nose?
I recommend in my nurture email course that you keep a journal. Mine consists of date-ordered notes in Evernote (a web app), sometimes with pictures from that day.
Hand on heart, I don’t journal as often as I ought to. It’s one of the first things that gets pushed out when things get busy. Recently I’ve started to journal in the evening, instead of the morning. On my phone I just make a quick note of:
I’ll then add any photos to the note if I’ve taken any. The whole process takes under five minutes.
A lot of people recommend journaling by hand as soon as you wake up in the morning. Which to me sounds like a nice idea… if Hugo wasn’t chatting to himself at 6AM. If I didn’t need to change his nappy. If I didn’t need to then play with him for a while, and organise breakfast. Life has a habit of commandeering your day.
I’ve done a few stints of travelling in my time; the longest a six month trip to South America. My biggest regret from that trip is not keeping a regular journal as I went. I have some great stories from that time, but a lot of names and details have faded. Which is why you must journal.
A good story requires specific detail. You can only add specific details if they are on hand, which is why you must store them as you go. Journaling for me is a functional exercise, not a spiritual one.
It’s a matter of process really. But the more you journal, the better your input will be. The better your input, the better your writing will become. Even if you yourself don’t do the writing.
We all know that to build trust with an audience, we need to show up regularly. This is true in email, on Facebook, in LinkedIn groups, or wherever. You can’t just show up twice a year and expect good results.
The question then, is how. How should you produce all this content, without losing hours out of your day?
The answer comes down to repurposing and leverage.
These emails really are a prospecting exercise. I’ll often develop an email into a print newsletter or book section. Which makes newsletter and book writing a whole lot easier.
I also do 3-5 Facebook Live videos a week, talking about today’s email. There isn’t any additional content being created, I simply push ‘go live’ on Facebook, and talk about that day’s email for 5-10 minutes. I’ve already done the hard work by writing the email, so talking about it for five minutes isn’t much additional work. Really I’m leveraging the work I’ve already done in a different format.
A lot of the themes I write about cycle around over and over. There isn’t a new topic every day. I only really write about email marketing, Google Ads and storytelling. Although sometimes I go off-piste and write about something else.
(My list, my rules. Mwhaha.)
You already have all the content you need for a great email series, often stored away or in different formats. What usually is missing is a narrative to tie it together.
Just recently a client asked me about creating a series of blog posts from a few old reports they had. “Don’t just create a blog series,” was my advice, “convert it into a book, and pull blog posts out of the book content.”
If you’re going to do the work, leverage it into as many formats as possible. Then tie them all together with remarketing.
If you’d like to chat about leveraging your content, fill out the form here.
I had an interesting debate last week about whether it’s a good idea to have multiple writers work on a piece of copy.
The argument goes that multiple writers will step on each other’s toes, leading to work produced by committee with inconsistent tone and voice.
I don’t disagree with that assessment. I think as a rule one person should be responsible for your copy. The thing is, one copywriter spends a decent amount of time overwhelmed or stuck.
I’m proposing a new model. We’re all constrained by our own experience and perspective. I actually think it’s helpful to have multiple creative minds engaged with the ideas and research phase, as long as only one person selects the final approach.
It’s also helpful to have multiple people involved in the editing and sharpening process at the end, because we’re all too close to our own work. I’ll spot points of development in someone else’s writing that I’ll miss in my own.
With clear direction and robust ideas, plus sharp editing support, a single writer can do the writing part in the middle much faster without going off track. Everybody wins.
I’m back from two days in Chicago at Perry Marshall’s Paradigm Shift workshop. I’m going to write up my full notes from the workshop in this month’s Story Selling Insider newsletter. But today I’d like to give you a quick preview…
There are perhaps 50 places to advertise your business, and probably more. Social media – the way most people do it – is exhausting. The better approach is to pick four or five strategies that straddle audio, visual and written, and tie them together with remarketing.
The key is to test a huge range of different ads and offers using warm traffic, and quickly eliminate ads with poor click through rate. You might kill some ads before they even get any clicks.
Sure, so some ads you cull may turn out to have a low click through rate and high conversion rate. But that doesn’t matter – we’re trying to find the small number of ads that have high click through rates AND high conversion rates.
Using stories in your ads is a good idea, especially content that comes from real prospects and customers. The process we worked through with Perry is a way to produce thousands of ad ideas, harnessing the creative input of multiple people. Most advertisers test different variations of a control ad over and over. You can’t A/B split test your way to success.
This process HAS to be done with warm traffic. Cold traffic is brutally expensive to test with. Testing with remarketing is like placing your boat on a river, rather than the open ocean. This applies to your search ads too; not just display.
To limit your risk you want to prioritise the most recent traffic. Recent buyers, recent optins, recent site visitors, recent Facebook page engagement, recent video views. Uploading your best customers (not all customers) to Google and Facebook is a smart move. As is creating lookalike / similar audiences based on these lists.
YouTube is generally under-used or used badly; very few advertisers understand the remarketing applications.
A good question to ask with lead magnets is: can you invest more of the money you would have spent with Google or Facebook into the lead magnet itself? Perry had examples from Gary Bencivenga and Howard Gossage; somebody I’ve been talking about for a number of years now.
You won’t find an agency who will adopt this approach, unless perhaps you seek out someone who was in the room last week. (I can recommend a few serious agency people who were there).
That’s just a tiny snippet of my notes. I’ll publish the rest in Story Selling Insider later this month. If you’re not a subscriber, I’ll send you an invite later this week.
All modesty aside, if you follow along with my work this will be essential reading.
P.S. Some other ‘observations’…
1. I’m not even 5% happy enough to be a flight attendant. Those people are troopers.
2. I never realised quite how many billboards there are in America, displaying an endless stream of dross. To paraphrase Howard Gossage: if advertising were worth saving, billboards certainly wouldn’t be.
3. The highlight of the trip was probably going on a double decker train. Or maybe having deep dish pizza. Or sleeping for 11 hours when I arrived. I’m easily pleased…
4. The lowlight of the trip was paying $5.21 for a bottle of water in the airport. Thieving Bastards.
5. Nobody understands me in America. I ought to stick to writing, or come with subtitles.
The biggest question people ask about sending regular emails is:
“What the hell do I write about?”
Having plenty of things to write about is a function of:
(“Sorry dear!” you might hear me say… “I know it’s date night… but I gotta make a note of this before I forget…”)
Sufficient and varied input means the things you read, watch and listen to.
I know, I know. You’re too busy to read. You don’t have much time for videos. But facts are facts: if you want to show up in an interesting way, you have to make time. Even if means scanning a book you’ve been meaning to read while you wait for the kettle to boil.
You then need time to process that input – it’s difficult to write about something straight away without letting your mind chew over it for a while. You automatically do this when you’re asleep, but making time to walk helps too.
I regularly walk into the centre of Sheffield. The walk takes just over an hour. When I’m very busy I worry I don’t have time to walk, but the reality is I usually can’t afford not to walk. I need the walk to get clear on what I want to say.
The third part is to capture ideas as soon as they occur before they evaporate out of your head. I use a combination of Evernote / post-it notes / anything that comes to hand to write things down.
Keep paper by your bed, even if it means writing scrawl in the dark. If your ideas come in the shower, get some shower crayons and write on the wall. (Seriously).
All of this may sound loopy, but you’ll never run out of content ideas by doing this as you go. You have to think like a publisher. Researching and storing ideas ahead of time is the only way to avoid writer’s block.
There seems to be an idea when hiring a copywriter that:
Which of course, is ridiculous.
In the words of Dick Benson, you already have a company of subject matter experts. Why on earth would you want to hire another?
My own methodology for writing is somewhat different, and runs like this:
1. I interview your key subject matter experts, for potentially quite a long time; usually between 1 and 2 hours.
2. I get the interviews transcribed. Incidentally I use Rev.com, which is affordable and excellent. They even get my Northern mumbles mostly correct.
3. I sit in a nest of paper for an hour or two and pull everything apart. I don’t know why on the bed, but it feels more organic to spread everything out that way. Either that, or at heart I’m still a student. The goal is to pick out the key ideas, threads, stories and content that really matter.
4. I write up a communications plan of what I think the key message is, and how you should illustrate that message to new contacts.
The best way I can describe this is like picking a path through the weeds. Your story and any content that surrounds it is inherently messy. Effectively I try to pick a path through it that illustrates the transformation your readers want to achieve.
At this point, this is sometimes as far as things go. Even though I’m regularly told by agency owners that people just ‘want to have it all done for them’, some people do choose to take the plan and transcripts, and write the copy in-house.
Often with my training and guidance. Which for me is the best outcome, because it’s most empowering.
5. If I’m writing the copy, the plan becomes the blueprint for the email series, blog posts, Facebook posts, or whatever output we’re working on.
To write the copy I draw heavily from the transcripts. The words and expertise originally come from you. My role is to discard the mass of information that doesn’t matter, and instead mould it into a narrative.
It’s a bit like carving a dolphin out of a big block of wood. You start off in the first place by getting the wood. No wood = nothing to work with.
Then you take out large chunks you definitely won’t need. Then finally you whittle away until the dolphin shape emerges.
Anyway, that’s the process. Again, I’m told by agency people that the process ‘doesn’t matter’, and that people just want money in the bank.
Which may on some level be true. But I think it’s reassuring to know that there IS a process. Even if it does involve sitting in a nest of paper.
Committing to a regular publishing schedule is the best way to build trust with your list.
What happens quite often is that people commit to a schedule – maybe three emails per week or whatever. It goes well for a while. Then something goes wrong. A holiday happens. A big client engagement appears. Business gets in the way.
In other words, they lose their way and ‘fall off the wagon’. Often as they were just building some momentum.
If that sounds familiar I have some good news…
There is no wagon.
You don’t get left behind.
It’s more like wandering a step or two off the path. And when that happens, it’s only a step or two back on.
If you don’t keep up with your publishing schedule, you haven’t ‘failed’ anyone. You don’t need to grovel or apologise. You just need to get back on the path.
It’s something to consider when things inevitably go wrong.
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