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How do we know a marketing email when we see one? Is our decision based on what a marketing email looks like, or is it based on the linguistic features in the text? Marketing emails exist somewhere between the genres of email anmed direct marketing. They have features in common with both of these genres, but they also have their own distinct features. In this study, I analyze 793 emails from 17 companies. I develop and present a frame model for analyzing the layout of marketing emails. I then perform a rhetorical move analysis on each frame in the model, which points to the schemas in email marketing. The results show that email marketing does not use lexico-grammatical features that are common in other forms of email and computer-mediated communication. The results of the study also show that rhetorical moves are most common in the subject line and marketing frames, although email allows marketers to place rhetorical moves in other places as well.


You probably think that you do not like email marketing. But compared to marketing via social media, text messaging, direct mail and telephone, you like email marketing just fine (An, 2016). Email marketers know this, and so in 2019 they sent over 290 billion emails per day, some of which were addressed to you (Radicati Group, 2019). You are probably signed up to receive emails from a few companies. Chances are that they will send you an email while you are reading this article. But how do you know that an email is from a company and not a friend or co-worker? Do you recognize it based on what it looks like? Or do you recognize the language as that of a marketing email? The popularity of the email medium has motivated linguists to investigate the internal structure of personal and professional emails (Abbasian & Tahririan, 2008; Baron, 2002, 2009; Barron, 2006; Crystal, 2001; Gains, 1999; Goddard & Geesin, 2011), but marketing emails have been overlooked. Yet an analysis of email marketing texts – which are a staple of the medium – can show how they are constructed in order to convey meaning and (most importantly) to get people to act, i.e., spend money on a product or service. This has implications beyond the fields of linguistics and computer-mediated communication, because understanding a genre can help its practitioners better use and adapt its function(s).

To address the questions posed above, I first describe email marketing as a genre, then develop and present a frame model analyzing marketing emails. A rhetorical move analysis is performed on each frame to see how it operates to contribute to the promotional goal of marketing emails in a corpus of 793 emails from 17 companies. Linguistic features are discussed throughout the analysis, including non-standard variations and writing styles. The study shows that email marketing is not like personal or professional email in either its layout or its linguistic features, nor is email marketing simply a direct mapping of paper-based marketing to an electronic medium. Rather, email marketing has elements of both the broader email genre and the direct marketing genre, as well as its own characteristic features.


Recognizing a Genre

The definition of genre usually includes some consideration of the form of a document, its expected content, its intended communicative purpose, and its recognition as a genre by a discourse community. A genre can be defined as a collection of texts based on text-external criteria, in contrast to a text type, which is a collection based on text-internal criteria alone (Biber, 1989; Lee, 2001). Different parts of a single text can be analyzed as being of different text types, i.e., a passage of a larger text (Aumüller, 2014). Text types can be grouped by their shared linguistic features and can cross genres, whereas the texts in a genre can differ greatly in their linguistic features (Paltridge, 1996). Furthermore, readers have expectations about the combination of the functional and structural features of genres, or what the texts in a genre are designed to do and what they look like. Readers also largely agree about which texts belong to which genres (Claridge, 2012; Lee, 2001). In this article, therefore, email is considered a genre rather than a text type. Email has a communicative function and a form inherited from letter writing, its genre antecedent. The various kinds of emails, such as professional email (those written for work) and personal email (those written to family and friends) are sub-genres of email. However, this raises the question of where to situate email marketing.

The fact that email marketing (EM) texts are written to sell a product or service to the reader is so obvious that it hardly seems worth mentioning.1 But since a text’s purpose plays a significant role in its linguistic realization and is essential to its genre identification (Barron, 2006; Bhatia, 1993; Leech, 1966; Swales, 1990), it is important to remember that the entire creation process is focused on the EM’s communicative purpose. Moreover, since it is hard to imagine an email user who is not familiar with EM, we could say that the readers of EM recognize them as a genre, not because they are a discourse community but because they recognize the purpose of EM.

The recognition of EM as a genre also influences readers’ expectations of form when they encounter a marketing email (see 11). It is possible to construct a model of a marketing email based on visual layout (see section 3). Adhering to this model should then feed into readers’ acceptance of the EM genre, because they recognize when an email follows their expectations of the genre.

Figure 1. Elements used in readers’ recognition and acceptance of EM as a genre. Each element influences another.

Where to Situate the Email Marketing (Sub)genre?

Researchers have noted that many CMC genres have migrated online from their antecedents in spoken or paper-based media (Heyd, 2008). However, digital genres are less fixed than traditional genres (Kwasnik & Crowston, 2005). For example, EM does not include all of the features of personal or professional email communication (such as nested threading of previous emails). CMC genres are therefore sometimes referred to as bridging or hybrid genres (Herring et al., 2005). Heyd recognizes a hierarchy of macro- and microgenres. Macrogenres are defined with functional characteristics, such as communicative purpose, while microgenres are “different formal instantiations of subgenres which share a set of communicative purposes, and consequently have a common genre antecedent” (Heyd, 2008, p. 201). Although this hierarchy allows personal and professional emails to be a subgenre of email, it precludes marketing emails from also being a subgenre because marketing emails and personal/professional emails neither “share a set of communicative purposes” nor “have a common genre antecedent” (see Figure 2). Essentially, the functions of the macrogenres of these types of email are different: marketing email functions to sell a product (a promotional function), while personal/professional email functions to send information (a communicative function).

Figure 2. Visualization of the genre model showing where email marketing can be placed

Yates and Orlikowski (1992) also recognize the benefit of using a flexible approach which incorporates a hierarchy of genres and subgenres. However, they warn against confusing the concept of genre with medium (Yates & Orlikowski 1992). Marketing emails share a medium with personal and professional emails, but they do not share a macrogenre, i.e., marketing emails have different purposes and antecedents than email microgenres. Nevertheless, Askehave and Nielsen (2005) have suggested incorporating medium into genre analysis, especially with online media, where technological factors influence the creation and interpretation of CMC genres. This is the case in EM, where, for example, the creators must place hyperlinks to the product in the body of an email. The email medium also affects the genre in determining how the marketing emails are used (Askehave & Nielsen, 2005). EM could be considered a subgenre of direct marketing. Hyperlinks in EM, however, are a medium characteristic that could justify changing its genre status into a subgenre of the email genre, as indicated in Figure 2. EM, therefore, is a subgenre which overlaps the genres of direct marketing and email, being partly both and partly neither. Direct mail is clearly the subgenre’s paper antecedent, but EM as a subgenre cannot be removed from the email genre.

One of the first move analyses of email derived a basic email schema and identified acts that occurred in each move of the schema in two academic discussion lists (Herring, 1996). Another early study emphasized the importance of communicative purpose over discourse community and form in genre identification (Gains, 1999). Gains (1999) allows for the possibility of subgenres within email, but questions whether anything differentiates emails from their paper-based antecedents (besides their being electronic). Here is where we can see that the use of hyperlinks in EM is not trivial, because they make the purchasing of the product marketed in the email more efficient. The possibility to immediately take action with hyperlinks is also an element of the marketing emails that readers are aware of (Tyrkkö, 2010). With EM, the shared purpose of the emails is enough to at least group them as communicative events of the same type, while the use of the electronic medium is what differentiates them into a subgenre separate from direct marketing (Cheung, 2008).

It is therefore helpful to disconnect personal and professional email from marketing email. Bawarshi and Reiff (2010) show that the email system contributes to constructing new genres by including preceding messages in a chain-like fashion (called a thread). But EM does not do this in the same way that other emails do. Some marketing emails come from addresses which are monitored, but others come from “no-reply” addresses, which are not monitored by anyone. The use of a no-reply address makes EM unidirectional from sender to reader. In cases where someone is reading the replies and responds, they will switch over to another email address. That is, the company’s response will not come from the same email address as the original marketing email.

The Language of Email (Marketing)

Previous research has noted that email language displays a wide range of variation (Crystal, 2001; Goddard & Geesin, 2011). The style has been found to be informal, especially in the use of greetings and farewells (Crystal, 2001; Gains, 1999; Goddard & Geesin, 2001). Some have claimed that the language of email is more similar to speech than traditional paper-based texts (Abbasian & Tahririan, 2008; Baron, 2002, 2009), or that it shares lexico-grammatical features found in spoken discourse rather than formal writing, such as incomplete sentences, conversation cadences, and non-standard ways of emphasizing words. While this is true for personal and/or professional emails, we should not assume the same for EM language. In fact, non-standard features such as misspellings are an interesting case because they cannot be tied to speech (Tagliamonte, 2016). Instead, misspellings represent a type of informality in writing. Crystal (2001, p. 123) shows how there are intentional misspellings in informal CMC, such as “Helllllloooooooo!” Since marketing emails are edited multiple times before they are sent, any misspellings should be considered as intentional as the standard spellings in the text.

In terms of how formal email language should be, email writing guides present conflicting views. The guides tend to celebrate the informal nature of email language while simultaneously advising people to use formal writing conventions (Baron, 2002; Crystal, 2001). In EM, McVeigh (2017) found that non-standard variations in subject lines are not as common as in other forms of email. The subject line is one of the most important features of email, but it has not been well addressed in previous research. The few studies which discuss subject lines stress that they are used primarily to entice the reader to open the message (Barron, 2006; Crystal, 2001; Goddard & Geesin, 2011), typically by identifying the topic of the body text. McVeigh (2017) showed that exclamation points are frequently used in EM subject lines and that marketers make use of email software to automatically append readers’ names to subject lines.

Email marketing guides stress the possibility to target marketing emails to certain groups better than ever before; thus we might expect that the language used by the companies will be different – that is, that the marketers tailor the marketing language to their target demographics. This seems obvious, especially since a cursory glance at the marketing of different products seems to show a range of styles. However, based on previous studies of email language and given email marketing guides’ insistence on using standard English, there might not be major differences in the language used across companies. Although they are promoting different products, the writing styles of the companies in this study could also be similar because there are large overlaps among the groups being marketed to.

Making Moves, Conforming to Forms, and Working with Frames

The frame model presented in this article is the highest level of analysis. A frame is a visually delineated section of an email. The frame model includes schemas and rhetorical moves. Schemas are the overarching purposes of each frame. Rhetorical moves refer to the functions that the language in each frame intends to accomplish. The schema approach has been used in discourse studies that classify CMC as sequences of moves (e.g., Condon & Cech, 1996) or as a complement to distinguishing between genres or modes of CMC (Herring, 2007). Discourse schemas and moves are usually identified based on lexico-grammatical features, rhetorical/communicative function, textual layout, or any combination of these elements (Askehave & Nielsen, 2005).

Form refers to the layout of a document, as well as how it influences the creation and interpretation of a document. Toms (2001, 22) says that in order to be useful, documents must “conform to the regular and logical pattern of elements (the shape of information) expressed by a discourse community”. For EM, this conforming is at least partly imposed by the medium: the subject line language must be put in the subject line field, etc. But conforming to a pattern of elements is also partly following genre conventions. Clark et al. (2008) write that certain types of non-conversational emails (such as marketing emails) are highly visual, layered or sectioned, and repetitive. They found that layout and form are important elements used by readers to distinguish between different types of email. Supporting Clark et al. (2008), McVeigh (2018) showed that EM is not merely repetitive, but that marketers follow a template when creating copy.

The use and organization of frames in a document is important because it allows readers to connect the visual cues with a document’s semantic content to recognize its purpose and function (Toms & Campbell, 1999). When readers are aware of the type of email genre that they are reading, they seem to compare their expectations of the layout with the visual cues of the email to recognize its purpose (Clark et al., 2008). In EM, this process is most straightforward in viewing the email body, where the frames of the email are clearly delineated and presented to look like EM. There are also, however, visual cues in subject lines which may cause readers to identify an email as an instance of the EM genre. These visual cues include non-standard linguistic features (McVeigh, 2017) and, potentially, the use of emoji, in addition to the name of the company in the ‘From’ field (see Section 6).

Figure 3. Screenshot of an inbox and an email with visual genre cues highlighted in red


The frame model presented in this article takes a broad view of marketing emails and splits them into frames based on visual and content cues. After the frames are recognized, the schemas inside each frame are described. These schemas show the sequence in which the rhetorical moves occur. The schemas also inform the purpose of each frame (see Section 6).

Form analysis was used to create a frame model of the emails in the corpus. First, four frames were recognized as being used in each of the emails: (1) Subject line, (2) Opening frame, (3) Marketing frame, and (4) Closing frame. The frames were distinguished from each other through both technological and visual means. The Subject line frame is necessarily set off from the rest of the email by the software and email client. Next, the Opening frame starts at the top of the email body and is clearly visually separated with lines or a change in background color/image. The Marketing frames are also set off from the other frames with similar visual cues (as well as with different hyperlinks when the entire marketing frame is hyperlinked). Finally, the Closing frame is delineated from the last marketing frame by a line or change in the background color or image. Each frame in the model is general enough to be adapted across the emails in the corpus and detailed enough to show the clearly different visual and generic sections of EM. That is, the frames are foundational layers upon which a number of visual elements can be placed. For example, every email has an Opening frame, but the background color, font size, whether to include the company logo, etc. are choices that the creators of each marketing email can make on top of the Opening frame.

After recognizing the frames, a move structure analysis was performed to identify which moves occur in which frames. Bhatia’s (1993) analysis of sales promotion letters was taken as the basis for the move structure analysis. Sales promotion letters are similar to direct marketing, the genre antecedent of EM. The moves proposed by Bhatia are:

1. Establishing credentials
2. Introducing the offer
3. Offering incentives
4. Enclosing documents
5. Soliciting response
6. Using pressure tactics
7. Ending politely

Several previous studies of CMC have found it necessary to adapt Bhatia’s (1993) move structure framework by adding moves when needed and removing moves which were not found, as well as recognizing that some moves are obligatory and some are optional (Abbasian & Tahririan, 2008; Barron, 2006; Leelertphan, 2017). In Bhatia’s (1993) analysis, moves 1, 2 and 5 appeared to be obligatory. I identified each move in this study based on a combination of lexical, visual, and technological analysis. For example, language was often used to offer incentives (move 3) and establish a company/product’s credentials (move 1), while the products are visually separate from each other when they are introduced (move 2), and the various hyperlinks to places to purchase each product were counted (move 5). The numbering of the moves does not correspond to the order in which they must appear in a promotional document, however. For clarity’s sake, therefore, the moves will be referred to henceforth by name rather than by number. When these seven moves were applied to the marketing emails, I found that two of them were not present in the corpus. The “Enclosing documents” move was not used because none of the marketing emails have attachments. The “Ending politely” move was not used either, despite being found in most sales promotion letters analyzed by Bhatia (1993).

I also found that two moves needed to be added to the analysis: Move A “Boilerplate material” and Move B “Terms and conditions.” There are several elements in Move A:

1) Links to the main sections of the website
2) Social media links
3) Contact Us links
4) Unsubscribe link
5) Link to user account page

Of these elements, the fourth one is required by law (FTC, 2018). Email marketers must offer their readers an easy way to unsubscribe from the emails. Move B “Terms and conditions” is not an obligatory move. It was added as separate from Move A because of the restricted nature of its placement at the bottom of the email. The resulting model of a marketing email can be seen in Figure 4 and is discussed in more detail in Section 5 below.

Figure 4. Model of the frames and moves in marketing emails


The EM corpus consists of emails from 17 companies in five different industries. I used marketing research from an EM firm (Constant Contact, 2017) to identify industries with the best and worst click-to-open rates (CTOR). CTOR is the ratio of the number of people who clicked on a hyperlink in the email body to the number of people who opened the email. It is an established way within the marketing industry of measuring a marketing email’s success. I signed up for emails from companies that would fall into the industries with the three highest and lowest CTORs. I chose companies which are acknowledged leaders in their industries, operate nationally in the US, and were expected to supply a good amount of emails. The emails from 11 of the companies were collected over a six-month period (August-February 2017-2018), and the emails from the remaining six were collected over a five-month period (October-February 2017-2018). The industries, listed from highest to lowest CTOR, and the companies can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. The industries and companies analyzed in this study, the numbers of emails that they sent, and the average number of days between emails

A Gmail account was created to sign up for the marketing emails, and Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client was used to view and download the emails for analysis. Signing up for the emails was usually a straightforward process of entering my email address into a field on a company’s website. Some companies required me to create an account with them. The publishing industry companies asked me which genres of books I would like to receive emails about, and I chose every option. Finally, the two restaurant chains (LongHorn Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse) requested a street address to be associated with my account.


The analysis that follows is conducted on each frame in succession, and the moves are listed in order of descending frequency. The frames are separated from each other by both technical means (such as between the Subject Line and the Opening frame, which is part of the email body) and by presentational means (which is how the final three frames in the email body are separated from each other). The Marketing frame is the only frame which can occur more than once in the email body. Emails were given an ID of “Company_Email#”, so “Penguin_1” is the ID for the first email from the Penguin company, “Penguin_2” is the second, and so on. Subject Line

The subject line frame is the first frame that readers see. For 13 of the companies, the first email that arrived had a subject line which either thanked me for subscribing (hence the “Thanks for subscribing!” part of the title of this paper, which comes from UPS) or asked me to confirm my subscription. The four rhetorical moves which occur in the Subject line frame in the corpus are Introducing the offer, Offering incentives, Using pressure tactics, and Establishing credentials. Email software allows this frame to be viewed without also viewing the other frames, e.g., in the receiver’s inbox (Figure 3). When the email is opened, it appears at the top of the other frames. The subject line plays an important role in the success of the marketing email by engaging the reader to open the text, where they can be directed to purchase the product.

“Introducing the Offer”

“Introducing the offer” occurs in the subject lines of every company, making it the most common move across the sub-corpora. In the three Real Estate companies, “Introducing the offer” is the only move in the subject lines, and each reuses the same respective subject lines (Table 2). The language is rather generic, but they still accomplish “Introducing the offer,” since specificity is not a requirement.

Table 2. Recurring subject line examples from the Real Estate industry

In the Publishing industry, the “Introducing the offer” move often occurs by referring to people or the title of a work (Table 3). For example, 27 of the 56 subject lines in the Macmillan sub-corpus include a title, author, or character associated with the product(s) on offer in the email. HarperCollins lists this information in 43 of 82 subject lines, and Hachette does so in 4 of 12. Although less specific in this regard than the other publishers, Penguin also uses this move by listing names, titles and, in one case, the fact that the books on offer were written by a Nobel Prize Laureate (Penguin_14).

Table 3. Examples of how the "Introducing the offer" move is used in the subject lines of email from companies in the Publishing industry

In the other industries, the “Introducing the offer” move makes specific reference to the product in the email (Table 4). The move is frequently made alongside sales figures or other numbers to give the impression of how large the offer is. Numbers, though, are also indications of “Offering incentives” (see below). The strategy of making specific reference to the product cuts across the industries.

Table 4. Examples of the "Introducing the offer" move in subject lines from companies in the corpus

“Offering Incentives”

The next most common move, occurring in the subject lines of 13 companies and in every industry except Real Estate, is “Offering incentives” (see Table 5). The subject lines which include numbers and discounts often do double duty by featuring this move together with the “Introducing the offer” move. For example, a subject line which gives a percentage discount (“Offering incentives”) will also have to name the product that is discounted (“Introducing the offer” move). Companies can directly place the product’s price in the subject line, as the following companies do: Macmillan, HarperCollins, Texas Roadhouse, LongHorn, CVS and Walgreens. Alternatively, they can simply state that inside the email is a coupon, discount, etc.

Table 5. Examples of the "Offering incentives" move in subject lines from the corpus

“Using Pressure Tactics”

The “Using pressure tactics” move was employed by 12 of the 17 companies. This move usually occurs when the subject line mentions a deadline on a sale, but it also appears in subject lines which make the end of an offer seem impending by using words such as now, hurry, and ends soon. Some of the companies show cleverness in using this move, particularly LongHorn_28 and FCHair_6, which accomplish the move without using a deadline or an imperative phrase (see Table 6). The only industry which did not use this move is Real Estate.

Table 6. Examples of the "Using pressure tactics" move in subject lines from the corpus. The pressure tactics are bolded.

As Tables 2-6 show, the subject lines exhibit various forms of textual variation. Email software, however, greatly restricts the variations which marketers can use. For example, if email marketers want to emphasize a word or phrase, they can essentially only place it in all caps. This practice occurs in 10 of the sub-corpora, but only in three of them with any consistency: the Walgreens sub-corpus (43/102 subject lines), Rolling Stone Offers sub-corpus (6/12), and to a lesser extent the UPS sub-corpus (10/55). The remaining seven companies place a word or phrase in all caps in four or fewer subject lines. There are no subject lines in the corpus which are in written in no caps, or in all lowercase.

Non-standard punctuation and spelling have been observed in email marketing (McVeigh, 2017), but relatively few subject lines in the corpus have these:

BLACK FRIDAY: Give them what they really want -- All. Year. Long! (RSOffers_8)

Last-chance (!!!) Beauty sale, 25% OFF (Walgreens_12)

You’re gonna need a bigger bookshelf… (Penguin_2)

Does your hair make you wanna scream? (FCHair_6)

Winter winds whippin'? Soothe during our Skin Care sale (Walgreens_19)

The first example makes use of the popular CMC practice of using punctuation for emphasis, while the second uses multiple exclamation points. The final three represent examples of informal language used by the marketers. There were four examples of neologisms in the corpus, which were not counted as being non-standard variations: “Giftmas” (UPS_22), “Instafreebie” (Harper_69), “Insta-worthy” (Macmillan_14), and “Spooktacular” (Simon_5). These show that marketers sometimes make use of puns, especially around holidays. Additionally, UPS uses “biz” for “business” in 10 subject lines.2

Eleven of the companies put all of their subject lines in title case, while the rest do so rarely or not at all. Clause-final punctuation also varies. Eleven companies use exclamation points in at least some of their subject lines, while only three of the companies use sentence-final periods. Email software allows marketers to automatically append the reader’s name to the subject line, but in my corpus only three companies did this and of these, only Delta did so with any consistency (in 13 of their 19 emails). Finally, email software will now display emoji in the subject line, and companies are tentatively adopting this practice. Emoji appear in the subject lines of every industry except for Real Estate. The companies which have emoji in their subject lines use them sparingly – usually in only a couple of the subject lines – and those that do use only one emoji. LongHorn leads in emoji usage, with 12/31 of their subject lines including emoji. Table 7 illustrates subject lines with emoji.

Table 7. Examples of emoji used in subject lines in the corpus

“Establishing Credentials”

Some companies use the “Establishing credentials” move in their subject lines. This move is commonly achieved by using words such as “trusted” and “acclaimed” (in the case of Walgreens_58 the credentials are imaginary, see Table 8 below). “Establishing credentials” is also done by referring to popular authors, celebrities or highly-regarded organizations.

Table 8. Examples of the "Establishing credentials" move in the subject lines in the corpus. The credentials is in bold

In terms of the subject line frame overall, however, “Establishing credentials” only occurs in 8 of the 17 companies. Even for the companies that use this move, it is used infrequently in their subject lines. Opening Frame

Table 9. The number of times each move is used in the Opening frames. Moves 4 and 7 do not occur at all.

Table 9 shows the frequency of each move in the Opening frames of the corpus. The Opening frame is essentially the placeholder for top boilerplate material and some banner text, but it also helps to contextualize the opening of the email. This contextualization can be seen clearly in the emails from publishing company Harper Collins, where the opening frame of the email resembles a scroll (Figure 5):

Figure 5. Example of the Opening frame in HarperCollins_47

The top boilerplate material can contain a link to the company’s website. This link is placed behind the company logo in the emails from 15 companies. Seven companies also have links to other sections of their website in this frame. For example, the restaurant chain LongHorn Steakhouse links to their menu and locations, while Simon & Schuster links to their new releases and best sellers (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Emails showing other links in the top boilerplate material. LongHorn_18 (left) and Simon_13 (right)

Many of the companies show variation in this frame. The logo image usually remains the same and in the same position, but the font and background colors, as well as the hyperlinked texts, occasionally change.

Another element of this frame is a banner text placed at the very top of the email in small and sometimes grayed-out text. This text frequently rephrases or restates the subject line, and therefore it can include the same moves. A common aspect of the banner is a view-in-browser text. This text is worded in various ways, but it gives readers a hyperlink which opens the advertisement in their browser. Although this text is hard to notice, it is used to get around email clients which do not download images by default. It also shows how EM can place the “Soliciting response” move very early in the advertisement. As this text in EM can be hyperlinked, this is an action that cannot be done so easily in traditional print or direct mail marketing.

Marketing Frame(s)

The next frame is the only obligatory frame in EM besides the subject line frame.3 All of the emails have at least one marketing frame, and very often there are multiple marketing frames in an email (see Table 10).

Table 10. The total number of marketing frames in the corpus and the number of moves which occur in the marketing frames.

Visually, the designs of the marketing frames show a great amount of variation. The size and placement/alignment of the frame can be changed, as can the colors and fonts. The marketing frame can use any combination of images and text, but the most common practice is to place the text adjacent to an image of the product. However, many of the products, such as books and retail goods, feature text on their packaging. There is also variation in the kinds of images used (photographs, illustrations, and animations) and the amount of marketing text used. These presentation elements notwithstanding, the marketing frame is remarkably consistent across the emails in terms of which moves occur in it. Figure 7 shows how much the companies vary the number of marketing frames in their emails.

Figure 7. Distribution in the number of marketing frames in each company’s emails

“Soliciting response” is the opening move in the marketing frame when the entire frame is hyperlinked. This is the practice in the emails from 14 companies; Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster do not hyperlink the entire first marketing frame, and Macmillan shows variation in this practice. The language of the marketing frames may exhibit the “Introducing the offer” move or the “Using pressure tactics” move, which means that these moves can overlap with the “Soliciting response” move. In the cases where the entire first marketing frame is not hyperlinked, “Soliciting response” does not appear as the opening move in the Marketing frame.

Every company except Century 21 uses all caps in their email bodies. Two of those companies use all caps in a limited capacity, infrequently in the marketing frames (Keller Williams), or in some of the call to action buttons (CVS). The other companies use all caps so often in their marketing frames that it seems to be the norm.

“Introducing the Offer”

The “Introducing the offer” move can be made with an image, a text or a combination of both. In practice, however, the combination of image and text is by far the most common way that the offer is introduced. There were a few marketing frames which only used text to introduce the offer (especially in FCHair), but no marketing frames only used an image. A good example of text being laid over an image and the two working together to introduce the product is the restaurant industry, where the marketing frames often show an image of food with text explaining the offer (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Emails showing the "Introducing the offer" move by placing text on top of an image. Texas_7 (left), Starbucks_11 (right).

The ways that the image and the text are laid out vary across the corpus, but most of the sub-corpora are consistent in terms of how the marketing frames are structured. The companies seem to follow a template format for placing their marketing frames depending on how many frames they have in an email (McVeigh, 2018). The marketing frames can be laid out vertically and horizontally and can therefore be described in a left-to-right, top-to-bottom fashion, as they would be read.4 When an email contains multiple marketing frames, it is common practice to make the first frame more prominent by making it span the width of the email and by making it taller than the other frames. The first frame is also usually the frame which is selling the offer in the subject line. The emails for seven of the companies include frames which do not span the width of the email. In these cases, it is common for them to be the same size and placed next to each other. The number of frames which are placed in a row varies between two (UPS and CVS), three (Macmillan, Hachette and Walgreens), and four (Penguin and Simon & Schuster).

Six of the companies show practically no variation in the layout of their marketing frames: Remax, Century 21, Keller Williams, Rolling Stone Offers, Texas Roadhouse, and HarperCollins. In the real estate emails, the marketing frames are placed in a one-column table, exactly as the offers are presented in a search on each company’s website. The emails from Rolling Stone Offers and Texas Roadhouse each only have one marketing frame, so the layout possibilities for marketing frames are nil. All of the emails from HarperCollins lay out the marketing frames in a vertical manner only.

“Soliciting Response”

The “Soliciting response” move is achieved with hyperlinks in the marketing frame. Frequently, the entire frame is hyperlinked. This means that clicking anywhere on the frame will take the user to the product’s website (or landing page). Most of the companies display what looks like a button in the frame. This is what marketers refer to as the call to action, and the button is text such as “Shop Now” placed inside a rectangle that is a different color from the background of the frame. In every company, the language in the call to action is an imperative statement. As noted above, the Publishing companies listed multiple calls to action for each product on offer, so the number of times the Soliciting response move occurred in the Simon emails ended up being either under 10 or over 120, with a few exceptions.

Figure 9. Marketing frames with a call to action button from the Transportation industry. Delta_5 (left), UPS_21 (right)

Figure 10. Distribution for Move 5 “Soliciting response” in the emails for each company

“Offering Incentives”

“Offering incentives” is clearly evident in emails with a contest in a marketing frame, but contests are not common in the corpus. The use of this move is most limited in the Real Estate emails; it occurs in only one of the early emails from Century 21 and Keller Williams. The incentives in these emails are in a bullet point list and essentially list the benefits of having an online account with the companies. Remax does not list incentives, but uses this move in a marketing frame placed at the end of each email, where the language makes having an online account with Remax sound like an incentive. The frame also includes a call to action button (see Figure 11).

Figure 11. Example of the “Offering incentives” move in an email. Remax_11

The most common way that the “Offering incentives” move occurs is in displaying a price discount. In the Salon/Spa industry, most of the emails have marketing frames which prominently display price discounts. The price discount can also be shown through a graphical representation of the savings/incentive. For example, the HarperCollins emails show the price of the product in large colored font near smaller, crossed-out black font of the original price (see Figure 12).

Figure 12. Examples of marketing frames showing the “Offering incentives” move. CVS_16 (left), HarperCollins_9 (right)

Incentives are usually less clear in the emails from the publishing industry. Penguin and Macmillan give free samples of bestsellers and short stories (via a hyperlink), but not every book on offer comes with this incentive. Macmillan_14 is interesting in that it offers physical incentives for buying the product: a set of tarot cards with designs that were inspired by the characters in the book on offer. Free shipping and price discounts are other ways that the publishing industry offers incentives. The restaurant industry emails also offer discounts as incentives, in addition to gift cards and free food or drinks.

The “Offering incentives” move occurs in every Delta email, and its most common position (besides in the subject line) is in the marketing text under an image. An example from Delta_12 shows how this move occurs (Figure 13). The email’s offer is to join Delta’s SkyMiles club (a frequent flyer program), which is the most common offer in the Delta emails. The second and third sentences in the marketing frame include incentives. Then, more incentives are introduced with bullet points (compare the use of bullet points in marketing emails in McVeigh, 2018). Finally, the two sentences after the bullet points list more incentives. UPS also uses bullet points after an image to offer incentives.

Figure 13. Examples of the “Offering incentives” move. Delta_12 (left), UPS_40 (right)

“Using Pressure Tactics”

Another common move used in the marketing frames is “Using pressure tactics.” This move occurs in every industry analyzed in this study. In Keller Williams, this move appears in red, all-caps text placed in some of the marketing frames. The text reads “PRICE REDUCED,” which means that it doubles as the “Offering incentives” move. As in the subject lines, the most common way that this move occurs in the marketing frames is through a purchase-by deadline. The deadline does not always have to be a specific date: The marketing frames frequently include words such as “limited time only,” “1-day only,” “there is still time,” etc. This move appears as a deadline in all of the industries.

The publishing industry and the salon/spa industry show variation with this move. Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette use only the deadline version of this move in only a few marketing emails. Harper Collins, however, has many emails which introduce one of its marketing frames with the text “HC.COM EXCLUSIVE” or “DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE.” The marketing frames introduced by “HC.COM EXCLUSIVE” then list a deadline in the frame’s text. This “exclusive” marketing frame is usually the final marketing frame in the email. The Rolling Stone Offers emails also use pressure tactics which are not deadlines by including language such as “JUST $1 AN ISSUE.” For the salon/spa industry, CVS uses the deadline version of the pressure tactics move, but Walgreens and FCHair use other language to accomplish this move. Walgreens_81 introduces several marketing frames with a headline that says “Be Resolutions Ready” (in an email sent on January 1), and FCHair_6 introduces the marketing frames with a headline that says “WHAT ONE HAIR ISSUE SCARES YOU THE MOST?” (in an email sent on Halloween). Figure 14 illustrates the variations in this move.

Figure 14. Examples of the “Using pressure tactics” move from three emails. RSOffers_3 (left), Walgreens_81 (middle), FCHair_6 (right)

“Establishing Credentials”

The “Establishing credentials” move occurs rarely in the marketing frames. Some of the marketing frames in the Walgreens emails claim that the products on offer are “clinically proven,” while others claim that Walgreens has “expert advice” on medical issues. In fact, expert is a very common lexeme used in this move, appearing in marketing frames from Walgreens, LongHorn, Starbucks, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and UPS. LongHorn talks about their offers in various marketing frames as “legendary,” and in another email they describe their product with this line: “SOME PLACES COOK STEAKS. WE PERFECT THEM” (LongHorn_11, all caps in original).

Figure 15. Distribution for Move 1 “Establishing credentials” in the emails for each company

“Establishing credentials” is most common in the Publishing industry (Figure 15). Many of the product descriptions refer to critics, bestseller lists, and awards. Since the products are books, the descriptions are essentially blurbs, and so they also include quotes from critics, as well as the critics’ affiliations. The publishing industry also uses the widest range of words to establish credentials for their offers.

A few of the companies in the corpus have marketing frames which present a charity organization that the company works with, while other companies reference their affiliates. It is not clear whether the companies think they are establishing credentials by referring to charities or affiliates, but it does seem similar to what the publishing companies are doing when they namedrop The New York Times or the Nobel Prize. Mentioning charity organizations and affiliates is different, however, in that it establishes credentials for the whole company, while mentioning The New York Times bestseller list is meant to establish credentials for one product.

Closing Frame

Table 11. The number of times Moves A and B are used in the “Closing” frames of each sub-corpus

The closing frame occurs after the marketing frame(s) in every email in this study, which means that there is always something after the marketing frames. In contrast to the marketing texts analyzed by Bhatia (1993), none of the emails end with Move 7 “Ending politely.” The moves which can occur in the closing frame are Move A “Boilerplate material” and Move B “Terms and Conditions” (see Table 11), both of which are moves created for this study.

Move A “Boilerplate Material”

Table 12. Summary of the elements in Move A "Boilerplate material"

Table 12 summarizes the elements of Move A, their distribution across the sub-corpora and whether they appear to be obligatory. The first element occurs in every email in the corpus. The Contact Us element sets marketing emails apart from personal and professional emails. Figure 16 shows examples of the Boilerplate material in the closing frame.

Figure 16. Examples of Move A “Boilerplate material” in the Closing frame of emails. FCHair_4 (top), Simon_74 (bottom)

Move B “Terms and Conditions”

This move is particularly common in emails which offer a contest. Sometimes the terms and conditions of the contest are written out in the closing frame, and other times there is simply a hyperlink to them. The terms and conditions are usually written in small point font. This move occurs in the emails of 15 companies but does not occur in emails from Hachette and FCHair.


The emails analyzed in this article clearly fit into a model, broken down into frames. This shows that the genre has recognizable conventions which are followed by the creators of the marketing emails. The apparent overall schematic structure of the EM genre is summarized in Table 13:

Table 13. Purposes of each frame in email marketing

The purpose of EM texts is realized through the frames and the rhetorical moves in the frames. These elements influence readers’ identification of the genre. In this study, the most common moves in the Subject line and Marketing frames of the email marketing texts were Introducing the offer, Offering incentives, Using pressure tactics, and Establishing credentials. The Soliciting response move cannot occur in the Subject line frame, but it was the most common move in the Marketing frame. EM texts follow other kinds of email in using the subject line to identify the topic of the message.

A major difference between EM and direct marketing is that hyperlinks allow for “Soliciting response” to be the opening move a marketing email. This is especially the case with the hyperlink to view the marketing email online, a link which is always placed in the Opening frame.5 This frame is where the email begins (often by showing the company logo), and it is placed between the Subject line and Marketing frames. The fact that 14 of the 17 companies placed a hyperlink in the Opening frame (thereby also using the Soliciting response move) suggests that readers’ expectations influence the form of the EM genre, as readers will anticipate the possibility of being taken straight to the company’s website via the marketing email.

The Closing frame also functions to establish EM as a genre by fulfilling readers’ expectations and recognition of the text. The frame is visually delineated from the others and includes only moves that were not found in the other frames (Move A Boilerplate material and Move B Terms and Conditions). The frame is template-like, in that its layout and text often appear unchanged in the sub-corpus of a company’s emails. This template nature indicates to readers that the marketing part of the email is finished. For readers who are browsing the offers before clicking on any of them, the Closing frame shows them that they can scroll back up. Thus the form of the Closing frame indicates that marketers follow genre conventions.

EM shows innovative features. In contrast to its genre predecessor, direct marketing, EM allows for certain moves to occur “unseen.” When the entire marketing frame is hyperlinked, the “Soliciting response” move is hidden behind the marketing frame and therefore does not feature the imperative language found in the call to action buttons. The move becomes essentially non-linguistic. This hiding of moves is one of the reasons why medium should be taken into account when describing genres.

The “Establishing credentials” move can also be hidden with email software technology. The definition of this move could perhaps be stretched to include the From field in email software as a way of establishing credentials. Email clients (Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook, etc.) determine who is a trusted sender based (partly) on the From address and sort the emails accordingly before they are presented to the reader. Thus the determination happens behind the scenes, so to speak. This unseen way of establishing credentials shows that the move has become automated in EM.

Non-standard linguistic variations (such as “mispellings”) represent a risk in EM. Certain demographics could be targeted using non-standard variants, but their use increases the cognitive resources needed to parse the language. When used in a subject line, the extra energy needed to understand non-standard variants may cause readers to ignore the subject line altogether. This could explain the relative scarcity of non-standard spellings in this corpus, in addition to email writing guides’ aversion to these practices.

I would argue that both ALL CAPS and exclamation points are forms of the “Using pressure tactics” move, especially when they appear in subject lines. ALL CAPS are one of the very few textual modifications that marketers can use to draw attention to their emails. They cannot use color, italics, font size, etc. In addition, the words which are placed in ALL CAPS (such as “NOW”, “OFF”, “FREE”) indicate that the variation is a pressure tactic. However, writing words in all caps in subject lines was only done by 10 of the companies in the corpus and by only two of them consistently. The frequency of non-standard language variants in the subject lines in the corpus is only 7%. Conversely, the use of all caps in the email body is so common that it seems to be a default way of writing.

Another reason for the lack of nonstandard linguistic features in subject lines may be target demographics, in that some people will understand certain forms of it, while others will see it as incorrect (Tagliamonte, 2016). For example, the neologisms used in some of the emails – “Instafreebie,” “Insta-worthy,” and “Instapoet” – are intentional and signal in-group membership with people who use the social media platform Instagram. Yet every company in this study must market to many demographics, and so they default to Standard English conventions. When no caps (all lower case) and variant spellings are used, they are not pressure tactics, but appeals to people who are more CMC-literate, because these features are common in online communication (Dürscheid & Frehner, 2013; Tagliamonte, 2016).

Overall, the data show that there are no major differences in the language used by the companies. One reason for this is the demographic overlaps in the groups they market to. This overlap seems to preclude the possibility of targeting certain demographics through non-standard language variants. For example, Walgreens was the company which used ALL CAPS the most in subject lines, even though non-standard variations are supposed to be the domain of younger people, and the email recipients of Walgreens are presumably older. It seems ALL CAPS are not just for kids anymore. It is highly likely that the companies in this corpus are trying to cast a wide net with their emails, a practice that favors using standard English conventions. But it could be that the marketing language of smaller companies, or those with more strictly defined customer bases, may diverge considerably from that in my corpus.

Finally, as with other forms of marketing, the language in the marketing frames was often written in imperative statements. The call to action buttons featured imperatives because the language inside the button needs to be brief. Imperative forms have implied subjects, and so the reader can be addressed implicitly, without sacrificing space. The use of imperatives is probably also expected by readers who are familiar with direct marketing and with EM. The only cases where (visible) calls to action did not feature imperative language were publishing companies using images of booksellers’ logos as their call to action buttons. Thus it appears that the use of imperatives has migrated from traditional paper-based marketing to EM.


The EM genre was shown to share features with direct marketing, especially in its rhetorical moves and use of imperatives. More generally, EM was also shown to be a hybrid genre containing elements of the larger genres of email and direct marketing, but not residing solely as a subgenre of either. The frame analysis developed for this study proved to be a useful way to break down an EM text based on technological and visual characteristics. This frame model can be applied to any email marketing text.

Although not common in my corpus, the use of nonstandard linguistic features is not precluded from the model and should be included in future studies. For example, emails targeted at certain demographics may make use of features (such as emojis) which will be recognized by those targets, whether they are distinguished based on social, regional, gendered, economic, or other means. In this and other ways, studies of EM texts can add to knowledge about computer-mediated communication and online discourse.


  1. Reader is the term used in this article for the person who encounters the marketing email. Other terms used in the literature include receiver, (potential) customer, and audience.

  2. A plus sign (+) was used in 69 subject lines, but these were not considered to be non-standard variants because the use of this symbol to mean “and” or “plus” is common in the Standard English of other genres, such as linguistics books and articles.

  3. I do not consider the subject line optional even if it can be left blank. I have not seen a blank subject line in marketing emails, and practically speaking, leaving a subject line blank does not appear to be an option for email marketers. Therefore, it is considered obligatory.

  4. The semiotics and multimodality of the images in the marketing frames deserve their own study, but there may be similarities between email marketing and advertisements in newspapers and tourist brochures. For further discussion, see Hiippala (2015) and Kress and van Leuwen (2006).

  5. The language behind the HTML, which is seen when an email client does not automatically download images, is different from the language in the HTML-version of the emails. The HTML-version should, however, be considered the intended language of the email since most email clients are set to download images or show HTML by default. The language behind the HTML was not part of this study, but it is an area for further research.


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Biographical Note

Joe McVeigh (joseph.mcveigh@helsinki.fi) is a linguist at the University of Helsinki and the University of Jyväskylä. His research focuses on the language of email marketing.


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