Psst! What's the Best Font for Your Newsletter?

  |  March 15, 2001   |  Comments

If you're like a lot of other email marketers, you send out HTML messages. You labor over the offer, the content, the graphics, the format... but have you ever labored over the font?

If you're like a lot of other email marketers, you send out HTML messages. You labor over the offer, the content, the graphics, the format... the list goes on.

But have you ever labored over the font? You heard me. The font, that tiny little detail that helps determine how readable your email is. I'm betting you haven't. After reading this, though, you might want to. It won't make or break your campaign, but it might make you look more professional as well as make things easier on your recipient. And the conclusions can likely be extended to your Web site as well.

Ask the Doctor

Doctor Ebiz is an online newsletter produced by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, an e-business consultant who runs the Web Marketing & E-Commerce site. Since most of his readers use email programs that are HTML compatible, Wilson decided to survey them about which fonts and font sizes were the most readable. The results caused him to alter his newsletters.

First he sent out an email that contained the same text written in two different fonts, Times New Roman and Arial, both 12 point. (For you techies: He used HTML font tags specifying typeface and size to help ensure that people saw what they were supposed to see.)

Now, the thinking was that since Times New Roman is a serif font -- a font that uses little lines to finish off the top and bottom of characters -- and serif fonts have been demonstrated to be easier to read in print, that it would be preferred over Arial, which is a sans serif font. (If you slept through that part of French class, here's your refresher course: "Sans" is French for without.)

Think again. By about 2-1 (in raw numbers, 1,123 to 520), the recipients preferred 12pt Arial to 12pt Times New Roman. That is, they went against conventional wisdom and choose sans serif over serif.

Let's Do Another Test

Hmmm. Well this first study seemed to show that a sans serif font was preferable, but maybe it was too soon to draw a conclusion, and one important aspect was the particular serif font used. So Wilson tested Times New Roman again, but this time against another serif font, 12pt Georgia. Now Georgia had been developed specifically for screen readability by well-known typography experts hired by Microsoft, so the assumption was that it would overwhelmingly outperform Times New Roman.

Wrong again. While the preference was significant -- 52 percent for Georgia versus only 33 percent for Times New Roman -- 15 percent of the recipients could not distinguish between the two. The likely explanation is that these users did not have the Georgia font installed.

And Another

Time to move on to other tests. Since the first test showed a preference for a sans serif font, Wilson compared two sans serif fonts, 12pt Arial and 12pt Verdana, another font developed by Microsoft for screen readability. Arial still came out on top, 53 percent to 43 percent, with the remaining 4 percent not able to tell the difference between the two.

Maybe it was the size of these two fonts? So Wilson then tested various sizes and found that the smaller the type size, the more users preferred Verdana. Many thought, however, the smaller sizes (9 and 10pt) were simply too small to be read easily.

The Diagnosis

From all this research, Wilson reached several conclusions. One, his readers prefer sans serif fonts for body text. Two, although the Georgia typeface was designed for computer-screen readability, it isn't widely enough installed to justify using it with his readers. And three, 12pt Arial is the best option for message text, although he will use 10pt Verdana for some smaller text. Judge for yourself here.

So Wilson switched from Times New Roman in his email newsletters to Arial and Verdana. True, it probably won't lead to a big increase in subscribers or high accolades. But in a competitive market, every improvement helps.

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Heidi Anderson

Heidi is a freelance writer who covers the Internet for both consumers and businesses. She's a former editor of the E-mail Publishing Resource Center and coauthor of "Sometimes the Messenger Should Be Shot: Building a Spam-Free E-mail Marketing Program." Her work also appears in Smart Computing, PC Novice, What's Working Online, and Editor & Publisher.

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