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Eight Tips for Effective E-mail Preheaders

  |  November 18, 2009   |  Comments

Find out how to use e-mail preheaders to entice the reader to look at the message.

The e-mail preheader (the content in the top line of an e-mail message) has come a long way from its origins as an HTML and deliverability troubleshooter -- "Add us to your address book"/"View on the Web site"/"Click here to download images."

When you use the preheader to expand on the subject line, add a secondary offer, or emphasize a deadline, you help the reader decide quickly what to do with the message: Should I read it all? Scan the top? Delete it?

This goes along with my "Make It Easy" philosophy of e-mail: the easier you make your e-mail to open, read, and interact with, the more valuable it becomes to your subscribers.

Make the Most of This Valuable Real Estate

More marketers are adding content to their preheaders today, but as with every e-mail innovation, not everyone is getting maximum value from this exposure. This list of what to do and what not to do will help you get the most out of your preheaders:

  1. Don't load up the preheader with line after line of administrative copy.

    It makes sense to merge this information into the first couple of messages you send to a new subscriber, but after that, it becomes too easily ignored.

    While it's a good idea to include a "View online/View mobile version" link as a secondary preheader, an add-to-address-book request can get passed over once the subscriber either accepts the request or decides not to.

    Move administrative copy to your e-mail footer, and reserve the preheader for more powerful messages.

  2. Be succinct.

    A utility preheader that reads, "If you are having trouble seeing this e-mail, please read it at our Web site," can be shortened to a snappy "View online" or "View mobile version." (See more on handling preheader content like this in tip No. 6.)

    I'm seeing a trend now where the preheader extends over two or three lines. While this does add content, it can also be overkill. Keep your promotional preheader to a single line for maximum impact.

  3. Don't repeat your subject line.

    This lazy approach adds no value. It also doesn't help the reader answer the questions that will decide whether she opens your message, reads and acts on it, or just deletes it:

      • Who is this message from?

      • What's in it for me?

      • What do you want me to do?

  4. Your sender address, subject line, and preheader work in unison to help answer these questions. Each one has a specific purpose. One or two shouldn't do all the work.

  5. Don't make it hard to read, whether accidentally or on purpose.

    A good preheader won't distract readers from the rest of your e-mail content. Instead, it amplifies the message and delivers key information when the content doesn't render.

    However, your preheader has to be seen to have an impact. Suppose you write a strong promotion with an irresistible call to action. When you format it in a light grey font or a tiny type size, you counteract the preheader's goals.

    Use a standard font size (minimum 8-point type size) in a readable color (basic black always works). Boldface the call to action to help draw the eye, and use an underline for the link. It seems basic, but underlines still signal to readers that the content is clickable.

  6. Don't put "forward to a friend" or "share with your network" links in the preheader, unless testing supports this placement.

    It doesn't make sense to ask your readers right away to share your content if they haven't seen what the message says or even decided yet what they want to do with it.

    You haven't yet made a compelling argument for them to scroll down (or across when viewed on a mobile screen), take in your message, and then decide what to do with it. Your sharing links could become irrelevant and thus wasted space.

    Testing will tell you whether your sharing links will get the most visibility and action at the top, the bottom, or inside the copy itself.

  7. Use the left and right content regions for different preheader goals.

    Left justify your marketing preheader (the one with the call to action, secondary offer, etc.). This way, it will show up in both horizontal and vertical preview panes or on small mobile screens.

    Right justify utility information (add to address book, view online/mobile, and contact phone numbers). It's still visible in the full screen, but not necessarily the most important information.

  8. Include the coupon code.

    This makes it easy for the discount to show up in the shopping cart and to help shoppers find it quickly for copying and pasting on the order form, if clicking through from the e-mail doesn't automatically add the code.

  9. Include shopping dates to remind shoppers they have only a few days to act.

    Not everyone opens your e-mail and shops on the day it arrives. Emphasize the end date by adding it to the preheader.

    When promoting a limited-time offer, your subject line could say, "Three-day Sale" and your preheader could begin, "Ends 11/18/2009." This is also an example of how an effective preheader can amplify or expand the subject line, not just repeat it.

The Last Word

Scrutinize e-mail messages you get now to see how others are handling preheaders, but don't do something in your own e-mail just because it looks good in someone else's.

Test various preheader configurations: design, placement, copy, and links, before committing one to your template.

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Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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