I Sent Only 100-Word Emails for One Year and Here’s What Happened

Last year, my wife Lindsay and I launched a writing experiment together. As busy parents trying to raise two young girls, we wanted a way to capture our thoughts and reflect on life rather than just watch it pass by.

We decided to send 100-word emails three times a week for one year straight.

Why such short emails? Nowadays, people have the attention span of a goldfish. Litmus, an email testing tool site, found that the average time spent reading an email is 11.1 seconds. That’s it!

With Twitter, texting, and skimmable Facebook feeds, people are no longer accustomed to reading long-winded posts. You need to grab people’s attention—fast.

That’s why Lindsay and I promised our readers quick, to-the-point short emails that could be read in one minute or less. We assumed subscribers would regularly open and engage with these shorter emails.

We hosted the email list sign up form at 100-words.com. When people signed up, they received a 100-word welcome email that set the expectations for the series. It looked like this:

100-word email length

(You can find the archive of all the 100-word emails here.)

The very first email went out on January 2, 2017. Here were the outcomes of our little year-long experiment.

1. We are better writers now.

At first, it seemed easy to write 100 words. Then, suddenly, you’re staring at 500 words on the screen. 

That’s when the real work begins.

Lindsay and I had to be tough editors to get exactly 100 words every single time. We had to be concise (which was hard for us—we’re both ramblers!) without stripping away any context.

Over the course of 12 months, this got easier and easier. Now, whenever I write, I carefully choose my words. If I can write a sentence in 10 words instead of 15, I do it. I’m a more succinct communicator since ending this experiment.

(Try it for yourself! Go to wordcounter.net and begin typing a sentence. See how how quickly 100 words can flow from your keyboard to the screen?)  

2. Our open rates were extremely high.

The typical open rate—the measure of subscribers that opened your message—will vary depending on your industry, but 20% to 40% is the average. Our average open rate was 57%.

Our high open rates were due in part to our small list (approximately 80 people because we didn’t do much promotion). As your list size goes up, your open rate typically falls.

But our high open rates was also due to our short-and-to-the-point content. Our subscribers knew exactly what to expect from us. We never wavered. We never sent a 90-word email or a 105-word email. We never tried to sell them anything. We never took advantage of the fact that we were invited into their inboxes.

Every single individual on that list was important to us. At the end of the day, I’d rather have 80 highly engaged subscribers than 1,000 that never open or read our emails.

(Is it time to purge your list of subscribers? Find out here.)

3. We had a low unsubscribe rate.

Because our emails were just 100 words and super conversational, we ended up building relationships with a large portion of people on our list. Many of our readers would email us back and give us their thoughts, suggestions, feedback, and advice. If we missed a post, they would email us to ask why we were slacking. (They kept us motivated!) We only had a handful of people unsubscribe over the course of the year.

I was recently reminded of a video by American author and marketing guru Seth Godin. In it, he says, “permission is the privilege of being looked forward to and being missed if you were gone.”

I think this list of subscribers gave us that level of permission! They invited us into their inbox. They liked our content, opened it, engaged with it, and continued to invite us back week after week for an entire year. When you get to that point with your audience, you know you’re doing something right. 

4. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

At the bottom of our emails, we always included a hyperlinked question “Did you like this email?” If the reader clicked the link, they were taken to a form to tell us why.

These micro actions allowed for a feedback loop. People clicked through and left their reactions to our musings. They told us they looked forward to the short, snackable content every week, and their comments sometimes spurred new email topic ideas.

Plus, the affirmations helped keep us energized to make it the full 12 months.

If you want to set up something similar on your own emails, you can embed a sentiment widget. It allows you to track feedback on every message and learn what your audience likes and dislikes about your content. It’s a great way to constantly hone your emails and improve your open and click-through rates. Click here to learn how to embed your own sentiment widget.

Should you shorten the length of your emails?

One hundred words is an aggressive constraint, but it really forces you to edit yourself. Turns out, you don’t need as many words as you think you do to write well.

Now, I’m not saying you need to commit to a year of 100-word musings. But give it a try every now and then. For instance, if you send a weekly newsletter, keep your intro to 100 words or less. Your readers may appreciate the brevity.

You can also send 100-word emails over a shorter timeframe, like two weeks or one month. Then track open and click-through rates and sentiment widget feedback to see if there’s a change in your subscribers’ behavior. They may start interacting more with your content than they did when it was longer.

If you’re looking for more email writing tips, check out this FREE What to Write course. You’ll get 45+ email content templates to help you craft the perfect message every single time.

16 Comments

  1. Ajay

    2/15/2018 1:11 pm

    Hi Michael

    When I read the headline, I knew there is some director behind this article. It’s same like making films you have to cover your script in Very few words which can make an impact.

    It is really hard to convey your message in 100 words. But it will definitely make an impact. Let me try..

  2. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 9:09 am

    Haha, yes, definitely always trying to experiment within some sort of constraints. Brevity is beautiful!

  3. Joanna "Nicci Tina" Free

    2/15/2018 4:13 pm

    I love this, thank you, and notice that I, too, will sometimes delete messages without reading or even opening them if they tend to be too long. That used to feel shallow – now it just feels wise!

    Time is precious, nonrenewable and I want to use it to create my best possible life.

  4. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 9:08 am

    I love that you’ve identified that time savings. As email marketers we need to remember to respect other’s time, it’s a responsibility that we shouldn’t take lightly.

  5. Ron Ryan

    2/15/2018 8:53 pm

    I have this quote by William Safire on my wall.
    “Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think… if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts. Put them in order, give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce. The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts.”

  6. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 9:05 am

    This is amazing Ron! Thanks for sharing, I may also print this one out!

  7. D Patel

    2/16/2018 1:10 am

    Hi Michael
    Excellent guidance, we really need very good email series for different marketing need, if you can provide us such ready templates or any services, that will be a like magic for us.

    Thanks
    regards
    dev

  8. WalmartOne

    2/17/2018 1:12 pm

    awesome share mate.

  9. Neil

    2/18/2018 6:50 pm

    Hi Michael,
    That’s a really interesting test. I am genuinely surprised by the increase in open rates and decrease in unsubscribe rates. There must be a lot of people out there who are time poor and want an email to get to the point as quickly as possible. So much for the “long copy” concept of getting conversions!

  10. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 9:01 am

    Hey Neil,
    Long copy probably still works in many instances. This was just a case study on something we experimented with and found success. Test test test with your audience, that’s the best way to know.

  11. robert pavlik

    2/19/2018 9:55 am

    True.
    “I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter.”
    —Blaise Pascal, 1656

  12. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 8:55 am

    LOVE this quote!!

  13. DNN

    2/19/2018 11:10 am

    Hopefully those 100-word emails contain enough informative content to convert email readers into repeat sales.

  14. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 8:55 am

    For this project we weren’t selling anything, but I do think that 100 really intentional words could create a trail of repeat sales. It’s definitely a self imposed constraint that may not suit every need tho.

  15. Def

    2/19/2018 9:19 pm

    Oh yes, I do love the Wordcounter website and no matter where (texting, creating followup series) once my fingers hit the keyboard, they cant stop moving! So indeed by time I look, I def have typed more than 100 words.

    I think the open rates were higher than average for Michael & Lindsay Smith because the fallacy of “oh just write good subject lines” is just that – a fallacy! Like many, the first thing you do when opening your emails is to look at the FROM field with the delete button accompanying you!

    When you see names you recognise and remember the last email content was worth your time in reading, those ones get a skip until all the ‘undesirables’ are deleted. Then, and only then, do you go back and look at the subject lines or do this later or actually open. [Hmm… WordCounter says this is 156 words so best stop here!]

  16. Michael Smith

    2/20/2018 8:53 am

    Hahaha, love your wordcounter banter! I hadn’t considered the From name for this project, but I think you are definitely right that there is something to that. Trusted names are always more welcome in an inbox.

Leave a Comment