While I was on maternity leave earlier this year, I found myself sitting on the couch with a cranky newborn, scrolling through the email app on my phone, and deleting marketing emails with abandon — several times a day.

I was ruthless.

If the subject line didn’t get my attention: DELETE.

If I opened it and felt like I was wasting my time with what was inside: DELETE.

If I wasn’t in the market for what the business was selling, or I simply didn’t care about that business anymore: DELETE.

If the writer used profanity as a ploy to get my attention (or to seem cool, maybe — either way, I’m personally not a huge fan of gratuitous profanity in marketing content … strategic profanity is another story): DELETE.

Part of this gutting of my inbox was that I knew I had only a few weeks with my newborn, and I wasn’t going to waste that time.

But part of it had to do with my mindset, too.

My brain was in a different mode. I wasn’t immersed in the marketing world like I am on a typical workday. Frankly, I didn’t care about marketing. I didn’t care to be marketed to in those weeks, either.

Once the new-baby honeymoon phase was coming to an end, however, and I started thinking about work again (and thus, thinking about marketing again), I got curious.

Because some emails I DID read.

I wondered — what was the difference between the emails I mercilessly deleted, and the emails I kept and read?


First and foremost, the message and the business had to be relevant to me.

An email from an executive inviting me to a database management webinar was interesting, but not relevant. A marketing email from a clothing retailer promoting maternity pants was no longer relevant. A newsletter from a spiritual life coach was not relevant (I’m not sure how I even ended up on some of these lists, to be honest … )

With some of these emails, I took the time to unsubscribe because I knew that what they were talking about just didn’t apply to me — at least, not anymore. Maybe they did at one point, but my life had changed. I can’t expect these companies to read my mind, and I’m not in the habit of emailing them with personal details of my life and times — so I did the kindest thing I could and took myself off their lists.

And with other emails, I just deleted them. I knew that at some point, I might want to hear from them again — just not right now. That database management webinar might be cool down the road when I’m doing research for a client.

Here is an example of an email I opened and happily read — an email from Brennan Dunn with the subject line “Now Open: Everything you need to get high-quality (and high-paying) clients”.

His email starts with:

Does your “system” (har har) for getting clients boil down to something like:

  • Sit back and wait for referrals
  • Maybe someone will fill out your website’s contact form (“does anyone actually ever look at my website…?”)
  • That *perfect*, high-dollar amount job will finally get posted on Upwork/Craigslist/something else (oh, and it’ll be easy to close)

Now, I might not be struggling with this exact issue right now — but many freelancers in my Content Lab audience might be. I always like to know what else is on the market that may help them, because my offerings are not a good fit for everyone, nor do I always have bandwidth to help someone who wants one of my 1:1 programs. If someone reaches out to me and I can’t help, whenever possible I send them to a resource that CAN help them. So now I know that Brennan is offering something that helps freelancers get clients, and I can keep him in mind as a resource.

Tone and Voice

Too casual? Delete.

Too salesy? Delete.

Conversational and genuinely trying to connect with me and be of value to me? I’m all ears! (Or eyes, I suppose.)

There’s no place in my inbox right now for street slang or heavy-handed sales pitches. Maybe that’s not the case for other people, but with little time and energy to spend, I want to feel like I’m reading an email from someone who GETS me, someone who speaks my language.

Actually, I’m going to backpedal a little bit, here. I just suggested that maybe some people were okay with overly casual or salesy marketing messages … but I don’t really believe that. I think the overly casual messages are trying too hard to be “friendly,” and savvy buyers don’t fall for it. And the overly salesy messages are too pushy, and savvy buyers won’t put up with that when there are other options on the market.

This isn’t even a fine line. It’s about understanding your audience — which starts with listening to your audience. With some of the emails I read during my leave, I could tell they had spoken to plenty of people just like me … because they met me exactly where I was.

Here is an example. This email comes from Ann Handley, and the subject line was “The #1 Place to Network, Take This New Grammar Quiz, Make Your Data Come Alive.” Her voice appears casual at first, but quickly moves into something a little more serious and helpful — which really resonates with me.

Buenos días, sunshine!
I usually talk about writing and marketing here. But this week I’m sharing something more fundamental.

I’ve just returned from Mexico City—a magical place with some of the finest people I’ve met.

And by “finest people” I mean “laughed at my jokes” and “forgave my earnest but awkward attempts at Spanish.”
I came away from my trip with this important realization:

The place to find the best career connections is at the airport.

Personally, I love connecting with people wherever I go. My personal connections (friends, family, colleagues, peers, partners, interesting acquaintances … ) have been everything to my business — and really, they’ve been everything to me in life. When Ann hit that note in her email, I was excited to keep reading. So this email was a double-whammy of voice and value for me.


There is no place for click-bait in email today. An email subject-line is a promise to the reader about what they’re going to get when they open the email.

If you break that promise — if your email subject line makes the reader feel deceived when they open the email — you have broken the connection with that reader. That relationship is unlikely to be repaired.

When I was scanning my inbox for items I could quickly delete without opening them, emails with vague and gimmicky subject lines were the first to go. If I couldn’t quickly tell the benefit of opening the email by reading the subject line, I deleted that sucker without mercy.

That didn’t necessarily mean that the emails left over all had subject lines that were juicy, intriguing or compelling — though that was true for some. But the emails that were left over were all clear about their benefit.

Here are a few examples:

  1. I made some new videos
  2. Last chance discount!
  3. [Feature] is here
  4. Complete guide to marketing automation
  5. I remember the day when …

Wrapping Up

Ultimately, the emails I kept and read while I was on maternity leave were the ones from companies I cared about or with offerings that mattered to me, written in a way that connected with me personally, and didn’t fill my inbox with pointless fluff. Now I’m back at work and helping my clients write emails and high-value marketing assets, and it’s more clear to me than ever that it’s critical we know who our customers are … and we write to them, not at them.