Email usability: The science of keeping it short and sweet

You’ve probably heard the advice, ‘Keep your email campaign short and sweet’, often followed by, ‘… because no-one’s going to read loads of copy, anyway’.

As much as this seems like commonsense, we’ve all seen clients attempt to cram in as much information as possible, oblivious to reason. I believe this is largely due to another school of thought, which goes along the lines of, “My subscribers have signed up because they obviously want to read all about my brand values and 5 year plan.” With a lack of hard evidence to the contrary on hand, this can be an frustrating argument to dismiss.

See no email…

I was skimming through Jakob Nielsen’s research recently and came across a little gem in the form of an eyetracking heatmap. Based on data collected from recipients of an email newsletter, it denotes the areas where they looked the most in red and the least in blue:

Email newsletter heatmap
From: ‘Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestion’ - Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, June 12, 2006

Note the emphasis on reading the first two words of the headlines, followed by diminishing interest in the body copy. As the email extends downward, interest in the content rapidly drops off.

If this doesn’t prove how fickle the average subscriber is, then there’s more. Based on this research, Jakob observed that:

“…the average time allocated to a newsletter after opening it was only 51 seconds. “Reading” is not even the right word, since participants fully read only 19% of newsletters. The predominant user behavior was scanning. Often, users didn’t even scan the entire newsletter: 35% of the time, participants only skimmed a small part of the newsletter or glanced at the content.”

Ouch. Just when you thought you could get away with adding at least a tiny introduction to your newsletter, Jacob throws in the following salvo:

“People were highly inclined to skip the introductory blah-blah text in newsletters. Although this text was only three lines long on average, our eyetracking recordings revealed that 67% of users had zero fixations within newsletter introductions.”

It looks like we’ll be keeping our emails to the point this season, hey?

What can we learn from this?

You’re probably speed-reading this blog post, so we’ll get to the good stuff. Here are a couple of tips for getting the important bits of your email read:

  • Keep it short - Interest in the content of an email diminishes as the email extends below the fold (as backed up by this study), so cut the copy and keep the most important points of the message near the top.
  • Optimize your headlines - As the first two words of a headline are the most important, keep them informational. For example, a headline like “3 tips for improving email usability and response rates” could be rephrased as, “Email usability: 3 tips for improving your response rates”.
  • Get to the point - Most readers will skip any long-winded greetings or introductory text, so decide if it’s worth including. If an introduction is necessary, avoid adding any important information to this section.
  • Focus the message - Where possible, avoid covering too many topics and keep the message simple. You’re only going to have the readers attention for a few seconds, so make it count by using a standout call-to-action.
  • Make it scan-friendly - Limit body copy to easily-readable paragraphs, preferably under 60 characters in width. Selectively use images to reinforce your message, as images often take less time to understand than words.
  • Align to the left - Notice how little attention the right-hand column of the email above is getting? That’s because readers of left-to-right languages (like English) are accustomed to scanning from the top-left first. Keep this in mind when designing two- or more column layouts.

Finally, your email design may only get an average of 51 seconds of fame per reader (if it gets ‘read’ at all). How will you make the most of it?

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

21 Comments

  • Julian Wellings
    26th January

    Staggeringly useful advice! Thanks for posting Ros.

  • WiseClicker
    26th January

    Very useful, thanks. I was just about to start writing copy for a new campaign. Great help.

  • Georgi
    26th January

    This was one column newsletter anyway I suspect that the rrsults for the 2 - 3 column newsletters would be bit different.

  • Don Schindler
    26th January

    Thanks for the eye-tracking image.  We have passed this around our Linkedin group here at Notre Dame.

  • Penelope White
    26th January

    LOL reminds me of the old days :) Tweet’d you :)

  • Elliot Ross
    26th January

    To play devil’s advocate here - these results on their own may well just apply to this one design. Whilst eye tracking is a really useful tool, it seems there’s so many variables that it can quickly become specific to an individual piece, and therefore we should perhaps be wary making across the board best practice decisions.

    We’ve seen tons of ‘best practice advice’ spread like wildfire and quickly become applied in entirely different campaigns to which it applies to - ask any expert about the best time to mail and you’ll see what I mean.

    If you’re interested in acting on the results from this kind of thing I’d strongly recommend setting up some trials on your own campaigns with sample users from your own market…

    ps. obviously goes without saying that the report and insight above are worth considering btw :)

  • Brent Lagerman
    26th January

    I’m surprised so many people even made it to the bottom of the email, that content looks pretty boring :D

  • Joan
    27th January

    I agree with Georgi—this was essentially a one-column newsletter, so results might be different with a two column one.  We should also always be paying attention to our click throughs, to understand what subscribers are actually reading further.  That should help shape types of content we offer.

  • dasSuigeneris
    27th January

    Very interesting… and compelling information. This research will no doubt be useful. Thank You for sharing!

  • Ben Poole
    27th January

    @Ros How is the eye tracking data collected? Great article, this is very useful - and it was concise, too!

  • Violet
    27th January

    I like the part you suggest about making emails scan-friendly and limiting body copy to easily-readable paragraphs, this reminds me of an article I read a few weeks ago is this ( blog http://www.emailmarketing.net/blog/email-marketing-is-powerful-with-story-telling/2011/01/12/ ) which talks about turning emails into catching stories that will engage readers. With both the story, the selective images and the keep and short and sweet suggestions I’m sure I can come up with something great….
    Thanks for this wonderful post.

  • Trevor
    2nd February

    I’d have to disagree here. In our A/B testing, long e-mails perform better. I think the design has a strong impact on how successful the e-mail is. By altering even small aspects of the design (eg: switching the order of content blocks to have a more visually dynamic layout), we’ve been able to dramatically increase click-through rates and alter which links people click through on (eg: clicking on links further down in the e-mail).

    The eye tracking study on scrolling only tested 25 people for normal web pages; it’s dubious to apply this to e-mail, a medium in which users are much more used to scrolling.

    As a simple example, the e-mail newsletter that contained the link to this article had this article below the fold, yet we all found it. Campaign Monitor tends to send out long newsletters.

    I would file “keep it short” as interesting, but certainly not a best practice yet. The others listed, except “align to the left”, do seem reasonable in our experience.

  • Jim Cota
    2nd February

    I find a couple of items very interesting here.

    First, *lots* of people not only read this entire post, but all the way through the comments. This seems to support the idea that people will read what they find interesting, regardless of the length of the content.

    Second, for many of us, the measurement that matters isn’t really eye tracking or interest or reading, but conversions.

    Now, having said both of those things, I found this post very interesting, informative, and useful. I will certainly use it in conversations with clients, but always with the caveats above. Nicely done!

    /Jim

  • Carsten Rose Lundberg
    2nd February

    Not that I don’t agree with conclusions but I think you should have pointed out that the survey is 5 years old. Again not that the conclusions are incorrect but it’s fair to say that a lot has changed in the last 5 years - could be to the worse in terms of attention span?

  • Jared
    2nd February

    I totally agree with most of the comments here - especially Tevor’s and Jims.
    @Brent - Made me laugh big time that comment, so true :-D

    I’m still surprised to see people go on about how scrolling is bad. I’m still having to explain that people ‘do’ scroll. I won’t go on as the above comments hit the spot.

    For me the key is definitely a design that is easy to scan, coupled with snappy content that catches the eye and keeps the person reading.

    It’s about getting the right mix! There is no real silver bullet. The best design with crappy copy won’t work, but it’ll look good.

    I spend a lot of time on the copy and then work it into the design - this can mean breaking up blocks with a background colour, titles, a line or the like.

    Personally, I’m a fan of bullet points as presented in the top of the article. Bolding the first phrase (which is a quick overview of the point), then devolping this further with a short and sweet message. I find that this works great. Plus bolding some essential phrases goes a long way to.

    I must say that the test they used is pretty WAK but it is from 2006, anyway I’m not a huge fan of Jakob Nielsen. I personally think that loads of people get way too excited about him. Just click through to the link (his site) and you’ll be blessed with a site that I would say is the ‘king’ of un-usability. Why is it that usability seems to mean stripping out all the design and just using big black text. It’s completely crazy to me.

    Anyway - interesting article with some very valid points.

    Sorry to ramble.

    I probably switch off faster on that site than most others. Plus its super tiring to read. It’s like reading the W3C site, I’d be pushed to find a winner between the two.

  • Steve Hopkins
    2nd February

    Brilliant Ros, thanks!

  • Joe
    2nd February

    I too am interested in how the eye tracking data was collected? Infra-red goggles? J/K sounds like a tough thing to measure.

  • Marcus Johnson
    2nd February

    It’s about content. Find something interesting to say or give the reader a great offer. If the content is dull or irrelevant, it doesn’t matter how you align it, edit it or phrase it. That’s not science either. As Bill Bernbach said, it’s the art of persuasion. Put some meat on that bone.

  • Harish
    2nd February

    @Marcus,

    I agree with you. I guess if our content is short and relevant to the point then we can achieve our goal to open and read of emailer by customers and of course use of images (optimized ones) with relevant verbiage on it are also a very good chance to increase the percentage of reading emailer.

  • SweetKuni
    10th February

    Some great points made above. Regarding scrolling, more and more mice these days come with scroll wheels. As such, scrolling is much easier than before and therefore done more often. I believe Nielsen is right about people tending to scan rather than read. I tend to scroll all the way down almost every campaign I receive, scanning the headlines and images.

  • cool xmas gifts
    23rd March

    Your summaries are always top-notch. Thanks for keeping us apprised. I’m reading every word here.

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