Email copywriting: an interview with Ivan Levison

June 1, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Interviews 

Email Copywriter Ivan LevisonI’ve known Ivan Levison for many years. Ivan is a prime example of how you can carve out a niche for yourself and make a nice living by staying focused on what you do best.

In Ivan’s case, this is writing email for clients large and small. In fact, if you Google “email copywriting,” Ivan is the first result you get.

Recently, I talked to Ivan about his copywriting business. Just like the email he writes for clients, his answers are crisp and to-the-point.


Dean: How long have you been a freelance copywriter? If you’re like me, you used to send copy to clients by carrier pigeon.

Ivan: I’ve been a freelancer for 31 years. Yes, I used to drive down and see clients and read them my copy then make another trip for the rewrites. The fax and then email changed all that. I’d say these technologies have doubled my income.

Dean: Tell us a little about your background. Seems like all the good copywriters I know took an interesting path to their current profession. I used to be a TV producer for NBC, for example.

Ivan: MANY years ago I was a teacher and enjoyed it but wasn’t making any money. I read Jerry Della Femina’s terrific advertising book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising Wars, and I thought that would be fun. So I broke into advertising as a junior copywriter at a big San Francisco agency.

Dean: Your primary specialty is email copywriting. Is email still a thriving marketing medium? Seems like all the talk (or hype) is about social media these days.

Ivan: Yes. Email still is thriving. Email copywriting is about half of my business. I don’t really get into the social media thing. I’m sure it’s
important but I stick to my niche!

Dean: When a client hires you to write email, what does that involve? Is it just the email message or does it also include other elements?

Ivan: It’s actually the email messaging only. I of course provide subject lines and a landing page if it’s required.

Dean: How is writing email different from writing a print ad or a direct mail letter?

Ivan: It’s a matter of the environment. direct mail and email share many crucial similarities. But there are BIG differences too,
and if you write both exactly the same way and expect
great results, you could be in trouble.

Dean: Can you give us an example?

Ivan: Sure. Some time ago, TigerSoftware sent Word Finder Plus
customers a letter by snail mail that started this way:

Dear Registered User: Consider this: No two words in the English language have precisely the same meaning. That’s the beauty of the language — and the challenge … If you write letters, reports, proposals, speeches, ads, articles, essays — anything — the private offer on the all-new Word Finder Plus is being made especially for

Now, on paper, this lead-in could work just fine. In email, it would crash and burn.

Dean: Why?

Ivan: Because when you pick up a letter in your hand, you’re at your desk in the office, or sitting comfortably at home. You’re somewhat at ease, somewhat receptive and relaxed. You’re in your “let’s go through the mail” zone.

Sure, you throw out the junk mail. But you’ll sometimes give a letter 10 seconds (a LOT of time!) to see what it’s about. This means that a letter’s lead-in paragraph, like the one above, at least has a shot.

But what about email? Do people go through it the same way they do paper letters? As they say in New York, “fuhGEDaboudit!” Their in-box is jammed and full of spam. They’re under the gun and moving quickly.

If someone starts an email by telling them that “no two words in the
English language have precisely the same meaning. That’s the beauty of the language — and the challenge … ” they’re history!

Dean: So email copywriting demands that you grab people’s attention quickly.

Ivan: Right. Then move IMMEDIATELY TO THE OFFER. Here’s an example of an email lead-in that I wrote for Intuit (to promote the old Quicken Deluxe):

Interested in tracking stocks and mutual funds? Want to spend more time investing and less time searching for data?

You need INVESTOR INSIGHT! Now you can try it absolutely FREE FOR 30 DAYS without risk or obligation!

See what I mean? In email you have to jump in very quickly!

Dean: That’s nice work. Clean, quick, and to-the-point. Why did you choose to specialize in email?

Ivan: It’s hot and there’s a demand for people who know how to make it work. I also enjoy working in short forms. More fun than writing War and Peace.

Dean: I like writing radio for the same reason. It’s short work. Other than email, do you have other specialties?

Ivan: I write letters, direct mail packages, and Home Page copy. That’s it.

Dean: I admire how focused you are. I’m reading a lot about integrating email with Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. What’s your take on that?

Ivan: Not my area I’m afraid. It should be but I’m just not into it.

Dean: In my experience, the real power of email is driving people to websites. Is that the case for you as well?

Ivan: Yes, but also getting people to download guides, White Papers, reports, etc. That’s a lot of what I do.

Dean: What is the most difficult part of writing email for your clients?

Ivan: I honestly don’t think any part of it is that tough. Not after 31 years of experience.

Dean: Where do people generally go wrong with their email? What’s the most common mistake?

Ivan: Handling the email as if it’s a letter. For the most part you have to keep emails relatively short and crisp. No one has time to read a tremendous amount, though this is not always true. It depends on the category.

Dean: How do you get clients? Direct mail? Word of mouth? Cold calls?

Ivan: A LOT of my business comes from my website. I have high Google rankings and that is invaluable. I also publish a monthly newsletter which is a great source of business.

Dean: [laughs]You gotta love the Internet. I have first page rankings for “direct mail copywriter” and related searches. I guess great minds think alike, eh? Ivan, when you’re not wowing clients with your email magic, what do you do? Any hobbies or enthusiasms?

Ivan: No special hobbies I’m afraid. My business is my hobby.

Dean: If you could give freelancers just one solid piece of advice for writing effective email, what would it be?

Ivan: Keep it short, lively, and to the point. We’re writing emails, not letters.

Dean: Great tip. Thanks for spending a little time with us, Ivan. As always, you’ve been an inspiration.

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  5. Web copywriting: an interview with James Chartrand

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    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Mack, John Domzalski. John Domzalski said: Email copywriting: an interview with Ivan Levison: I’ve known Ivan Levison for many years. Ivan is a prime e… [...]

    [...] Email copywriting: an interview with Ivan Levison Published: June 1, 2010 Source: Pro Copy Tips I’ve known Ivan Levison for many years. Ivan is a prime example of how you can carve out a niche for yourself and make a nice living by staying focused on what you do best. In Ivan’s case, this is writing e… [...]