Lean In, or Lead In? How a few sentences can make or break your message.

An email arrives in your inbox. It has a gripping headline and you’re familiar with the sender.

So, you open the email. You glance at it for probably less than 5 seconds. And delete it.

Someone spent a lot of time (and money) creating those words, selecting images, choosing which email list to send it to. Then they put corresponding information on their website, with a call to action.

So what went wrong?

The Lead was F-d up.

My job dictates I keep on top of environmental communication trends, so I have various folders that I fill for inspiration and study with the really good stuff that comes my way.

One of those folders is called Good Leads.

For comparison, my Good Headlines folder has about three times as many emails as my Good Leads folder.

What does that tell us?

Writing a good lead is hard. It’s short. It has to work with the headline, but most importantly it has to get the reader to, well, keep reading. That’s the point of a lead.

Environmental donors, like a lot of potential donors, have a very low tolerance for poorly executed communications.

Here are some recent good examples of environmental leads.

Perhaps my favorite lead is an old-fashioned good storyThe Sierra Club routinely uses stories with great success. Here, on December 26, 2015, they led with a personal story

Dear Danielle,

That image below? That’s my moment. That’s where it happened for me — when I knew that I would spend my entire life fighting for this planet and the people and animals who call it home.

… And they also frequently use someone else’s story. On December 17, 2015, they combined it with a good headline, something not always used in the body of an email.

Sunlight for Sale

During the frigid Massachusetts winter of 2013, Tony Silvia’s checking account was hurting. He had paid several months’ worth of sky-high electricity bills to run air conditioners the previous summer. Then the weather had flipped, and the monthly cost of energy for electric heaters in his 1,600-square-foot house was pushing $275.

If your organization ends up in the news, take a cue from Eco-cycle and spin it, like they did on December 5, 2015. Take advantage of free publicity, even if it’s negative.

As the Climate Talks opened in Paris on Monday, I opened The Daily Camera  and The Times Call to read:

Eco-Cycle’s Missed Targets: What do you do when reduce, reuse, recycle doesn’t work?

If you’re lucky enough to have someone famous in your back pocket, for pete’s sake…use them! NRDC calls upon their famous friends with regularity because, well, it works. This email, sent on November 23, 2015 uses Robert Redford, a frequent voice among environmental issues. This lead is particularly strong because we get a brief glimpse into his very private life. Even environmentalists aren’t immune to good looks and star power.

As a husband, father, and grandfather, I worry about the devastating effects of climate change.

Climate change is contaminating our air and water, making us sick, and poisoning the planet we’ll be leaving for future generations.

But I do have hope.

The Smithsonian, while technically not an environmental organization, often has great leads and headlines. The email they sent on December 28th, 2015 immediately caught my attention with a shocking statement that also intrigued me, using the classic one-two punch of emotion and intellect in just four words…

The moon is shrinking.

I mean, the moon is shrinking!? Who doesn’t want to find out more about that?

The darker side of a shocking lead is my least favorite… fear tactics, doom and gloom, scary futuristic predictions.

But, when done right, fear can work as a really good lead because it often works in tandem with curiosity. Both fear and curiosity, when executed with finesse are hard to ignore as a reader. So, we end up reading on, accomplishing exactly what a lead is supposed to do.

Here are some scary leads…

From the Center for Biological Diversity on November 23, 2015…

When the ball drops and the year ends on Dec. 31, more than 82 million people will have been added to the planet in 2015. Hundreds of endangered species will have been crowded out, vanishing forever.

From the Sierra Club on October 29, 2015…

Did you know that producing electricity for the average household in the U.S. each year requires burning 8,079 pounds of coal, and using over 5,000 gallons of water? Just for your home.

From The Wilderness Society on October 26, 2015. Here they give us some scary information, while also engaging our intellect, a powerful combo.

Ever notice that some of the worst bills in Congress have misleading titles? The “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015,” H.R. 2647, would actually undermine bedrock environmental protections, increase unsustainable logging and limit public involvement. Worst of all, it would fail to fix the funding crisis that starves the Forest Service of the proper budget to manage the national forests. How does that foster resilient forests?

This one, from the Environmental Working Group on September 24, 2015 manages to both inspire fear and slay a super villain.

Imagine walking through the grocery store and having no way of telling which apples or potatoes have been genetically modified…

If the DARK Act passes the Senate, that could be our new reality. The bill – which passed the House of Representatives in July – aims to keep American consumers in the dark about what’s in our food and how it’s produced. It even allows foods with GMO ingredients to be labeled “natural”!

It’s Monsanto’s dream bill, Friend, and we have to put a stop to it before it’s too late.

Oceana continues the scary lead trend in an email on August 5, 2015, but they sweeten it a bit by using my name near the end of a sentence. By slipping in the Call for Action almost immediately, after they both scare and flatter me, it’s almost inevitable I pull out my wallet.

No one wants a dolphin to die in a net, Danielle. NO ONE.

But right now bottlenose dolphins face this real and terrifying threat.

Make a donation today to support our efforts to save dolphins from dying in wasteful drift gillnets >>

Inspiration, usually one of my favorite environmental communication tactics, is hard to pull off as a lead, and I have very few examples of it used correctly. In short, if you implement it in a lead, you show your hand too early. The good news has been imparted and we all celebrate by clicking Delete.

But, this inspirational lead from Conservation International on August 4, 2015 works because it also employs a story aspect, a cuteness factor (with a great visual of the little girl and a good email subject line titled “Cutest story you’ll hear today”). But the final hook is that the lead is almost the entire email. After reading it, you almost have to click-through to read the rest of the story.

Conservation International protects the vital forests, rivers, savannahs and oceans that people need to thrive. And we couldn’t do it without YOU and people like you who generously support CI.

Today, we’re celebrating all the everyday heroes that make CI’s work possible. One of them is an energetic third-grader named Addison, who recently turned her 9th birthday into a true fun-raiser (and fundraiser) for CI.

In general, inspirational leads must also arouse other emotions. Curiosity and guilt work well together as in the following lead from the National Wildlife Federation on June 25, 2015.

Last year, 13 baby wild bison were born on the vast native grasslands within Fort Peck’s Indian Reservation in Montana. The calves are direct descendants of only 100 wild bison to survive a relentless slaughter that ended around 1900.

You might call these calves the lucky 13.

Other inspirational emails pull me in with action and a utilization of all my senses, especially if it includes self-indulgence. The Appalachian Mountain Club does this flawlessly in an email from May 12, 2015.

A lakefront camp with dramatic views in Acadia National Park. A quiet White Mountain notch with less-traveled trails. A peaceful island in Lake Winnipesaukee with excellent paddling and swimming. Or even a base camp in the spectacular peaks of the western U.S.

I’ll finish with a final example that is also difficult to pull off.

This lead, from the Center for Biological Diversity on November 9, 2015 is funny. But also serious (proving once again that if you can combine emotions you’ll have a winner on your hands). This lead was accompanied by a quirky picture of a nice looking chap of reproductive age with a Mona Lisa smile on his face. Wonder what he did for his Valentine…

This Friday, Nov. 13 is World Vasectomy Day, and we’re challenging men to go all the way for the environment and pledge to get whacked for wildlife.

Perhaps the most important reason I see these leads working is that they focus on our emotions as readers. Lead

Emotions are strong players in connecting with potential donors and supporters, and each main emotion can be used in a variety of ways.

Of course, after all this, I have to stress that a great lead is simply one step in a long chain of important steps to get a supporter to ultimately click the Donate button. Even then you can lose them.

But it is an important step. After all, you’ve passed a few major hurdles. Someone signed up for your emails in the first place. Then they actually opened your email. Now they’re reading it.

The next step is up to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s