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Have you ever jotted down your grocery list and driven to the store only to realize you’ve forgotten it? Have you then tried to recall the items on your list? Chances are, you remembered the first items on the list, the last items on the list, or a combination of the two.

What you forgot, on the other hand, were the items in the middle. This is due to the serial position effect.

To summarize, the study found that when you are presented with a piece of content, in this case a list of words, you are more likely to remember the first words (the primary effect) and last words (the recency effect).

Source: Wikipedia

The reason?

The words at the beginning of the list were stored in your long term memory, and the words at the end were stored in your short term memory. Sadly, the words in between did not have enough time to store in your long term memory or enough space to store in your short term memory.

But what does this have to do with email marketing? Well, generally speaking people interact with email campaigns in a very defined timeline: subject line, preheader and then finally the body of the email. By taking into account the primary and recency effects you can purposely structure your email marketing campaigns to ensure your key messages get noticed and remembered.

The Subject Line

There is a rule of thumb in copywriting that says ‘8 out of 10 people will read your headline, but only 2 out of 10 people will read the rest’. Given that email open rates are between 20% and 30% on average, this rule of thumb seems to apply to email marketing campaigns as well.

It is therefore critical that you use the subject line to get your key message across. That way, even if the reader doesn’t go on to open and engage with your email campaign, they’ve at least seen your key message in their inbox.

But how do you write a great subject line that gets your message across while also encouraging people to open and read the rest of your email?

There is a school of thought amongst internet marketers that ‘curiosity gap’ subject lines (made popular by sites like Upworthy & Buzzfeed) are the key to getting people to open and read your email. The theory is that these subject lines hold back just enough information from the reader that their curiosity gets the better of them and they open the email to read more.

However, in a recent article in New York Magazine, Upworthy’s Adam Moredaci states that their recent data is showing that descriptive headlines—ones that tell you exactly what the content is—are starting to win out over their signature ‘curiousity gap’ headlines.

Similarly, multiple research studies on subject lines have found that clear, descriptive lines that told the subscriber exactly what they would get when they opened an email are the best performing. Our recent research into power words in email subject lines also supports this, with some of the most effective words being those that clearly describe the content of the email, such as ‘Invitation’, ‘Sale’, and ‘Special’.

So in order to get your key messages across to the maximum number of people and still encourage strong open rates, your best bet is to use clear, descriptive subject lines that tell the reader exactly what they are going to get from reading the email.

A good example of this is our recent Canvas announcement campaign which used the following subject line:

Introducing Canvas: the new way to create emails

This subject line did a great job of getting the key messages across (that we have a new feature called Canvas) while also setting the expectation of what a reader will get when opening the email (further information on the new feature).

The Preheader

Depending on the email client your subscribers are using and their screen resolution, the next part of your email marketing campaign they will see is the preheader. The preheader appears next to the subject line in most email clients and is generated from the first line of text in your email.

It’s easy to change the preheader in whatever email marketing software you are using, but how do you write a great preheader that gets your key messages across and also increases open rates? Here are 3 tips to help you craft the perfect line:

  • Get the key message in there – Given that it appears right next to the subject line in email inboxes, it makes sense to use it to get the key message across. As you can see in the Canvas example above, we used the subject line to showcase this is a new feature (by using words like ‘introducing’ and ‘new’) and then used the email preview to get the main value proposition across (the ease of use of Canvas). The combination of the two got our key messages across to the audience before they even opened the email.
  • Personalize where possible – Just this morning I got an email campaign where the first words of the preheader were ‘Yo Aaron, I heard you like email marketing’. Given that majority of my personal email communications with family, friends & colleagues start with some sort of variation of ‘Hey Aaron’, I genuinely thought this was a personal email and clicked through to read it.
  • Compliment the subject line – Given that the subject line and preheader appear next to each other, it makes sense to use them together to create cohesive messages. In the Canvas example above, the combination of the subject line and the preheader drip feed the relevant information to people in a logical way (this is a new feature and this what it does for you).

The Email Body

After somebody has read your subject line, preheader and finally opened your email campaign, the next thing they see is the body. Considering all the elements competing for attention here, this is the place where you really want to think about serial position effect.

Put simply, you want to be positioning your key messages at the very top of your email campaign. Not only does this help get your messages noticed and remembered, but if your email is of considerable length it is likely the top of the email will be the only part that appears above the fold in the reader’s email client.

Continuing to use our recent Canvas email as an example, you can see we use a large heading to get across the key messages we want to be presenting.

That way, regardless of whether someone goes on to read all the text in the email or not, our key message of ‘create beautiful emails in minutes’ is getting noticed and remembered.

Similarly, if your email campaign has multiple multiple messages and content pieces (like a newsletter or blog digest), it is critical that you place the most important message at the top of your email.

Not only does this help to ensure that it is one of the most noticed and remembered messages, but a quick look at one of our recent email campaigns shows that the messages towards the top of an email get significantly higher click-through rates than those at the bottom (28.9% vs 12.2%).

The takeaway? Make sure to put your key messages at the top of your next email marketing campaign. Not only will this likely get them more clicks, but it will ensure that regardless of whether the reader goes on to read all of your email body copy, these messages will get noticed and remembered.

In Conclusion

If you make sure to get your key messages across in both the subject and email preview lines by using descriptive messaging, and then ensure the same key messages are featured prominently at the top of your email marketing campaigns, then you are giving your message every possible chance of being noticed and remembered by your readers.

As always though, be sure to test and track your results for each campaign to see what’s working and what’s not, and apply the data to future campaigns for the best results!

Your opinion: Have you tested the placement of key messages in email campaigns? What were your findings? Please share in the comments!

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This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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