Get Attention in Competitive Holiday Inbox Tabs with These Email Tips

  |  October 29, 2013   |  Comments

Inbox tabs are here to stay and will only become more prevalent. Use these tips from columnist Justin Williams to help your emails stand out amongst a sea of competitors in the promotions tab this holiday season.

justinwillilastabbedinboxLike it or not, the 2013 holiday season is here. Whether this is good news or bad news for your holiday email campaigns depends on your ability to deal with two trends in email marketing: increased volume and inbox foldering.

Not only has annual email volume increased year over year, but each holiday season, there is an additional increase of about 20 percent in the number of marketing emails sent. This means more and more messages are competing for recipient attention in the inbox, especially in November and December.

With the rollout of Gmail Inbox Tabs--the largest implementation of automatic inbox foldering to date--you may be competing for limited attention in a purely promotional inbox. Even if Gmail users represent a small percentage of your list, the inbox foldering trend is only going to grow, so if you're not feeling a need to adjust your strategy now, you will soon.

I laid out a framework for getting email opens in two previous articles: first, get attention; then, drive action. To get attention, you'll need to stand out among the other messages competing for your recipients' eyes and mind.

Getting Attention in a Crowded Email Inbox Tab

Attention is concentration on one item while excluding other items. In cognitive science (the study of the brain and thought processes), the brain grants concentration in one of two ways. Understanding these two different mechanisms by which the brain gives focus to things will help inform how your subject lines can stand out, especially in highly competitive environments.

  • While using the first mechanism, the brain is searching for a specific thing, and those items that are noticed match in some way the mental concept that is being searched for. This mechanism is known as goal-directed or top-down.
  • In the second mechanism, called exploratory, the brain is running on automatic, searching for sets of stimuli to trigger a goal-oriented search or other information that could be important about the environment (ie.: the sudden appearance of a spider).

When looking at an inbox, most brains will be in goal-oriented mode, looking for important items that require their attention. In goal-oriented mode, the more similar other stimuli (subject lines and from names) are to the target object (your subject line), the less likely your target object is to stand out and get attention. You want to make your subject line stand out visually from the other subject lines as much as possible. This will increase the chances that it will be the subject line that captures your recipients' attention.

Tips for Stand-Out Subject Lines

How can you make your subject lines stand out? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Many brands highlight offers in their subject lines. Be different and tease something else in your email to get the open, and then highlight the offer inside the email.
  • Subject lines average about 50 characters. Try going shorter. True, some studies indicate longer subject lines receive higher open rates, but several other studies show no correlation. The point here is not to be long or short, but different than everyone else so that your subject line stands out.
  • Icons in subject lines may help. Just don't forget that once you get the email open, you need a click through to make the open valuable, so don't be ridiculous. (Also, don't do this every time. Read on to the end to find out why.)

As inbox foldering becomes more common, strategies to increase the salience of your subject line compared to others become even more important, since the context in which your subject is viewed (i.e. a tab specifically for marketing emails) means that the neighboring subject lines are more similar than they would be in a general inbox.

Standing Out to Recipients in Exploratory Mode

Now, the exploratory mechanism is a little less related to our case, but still somewhat relevant. The exploratory mechanism--literally localized in a different part of the brain than the goal-oriented mechanism--has the job of discarding a lot of stimuli and only granting attention to the stimuli it deems most important to survival and success.

In order to do it's job effectively, this part of the brain must efficiently filter out things it recognizes as being inconsequential (i.e.: the familiar).

Remember the first time you went into a new building or moved into a new place, and every little thing caught your attention? That old nail on the wall, the color of the paint, the way the door opened. At first, your brain doesn't know what's important and what's not in this new environment, so it pays attention to all of it. Once you've gained some familiarity, you don't pay attention to all those little things, unless someone calls your attention to it and you go into the goal-oriented mode.

In a similar way, recipients become habituated to your emails over time. If your from name is consistent (good) and your subject line always has the same structure (not as good), your recipient is less likely to even grant attention to your email much less engage with it. That's why using icons in your email subject lines might result in great open rates initially, but if you use icons consistently, recipients will become familiarized to this style of subject line, causing inbox attention (and thus open rates) to decline.

To stand out to recipients browsing in the exploratory mode, you need to continuously switch it up:

  • If you've always sent short subject lines, next time send long ones, or vice versa.
  • If your subject lines always include a "10% off" or some other offer, try excluding that next time.
  • If your subject lines always start with the same phrase, exclude that phrase.

The above suggestions are but a few ways in which you can go about garnering recipient attention in the competitive holiday inbox.

Remember: in order to stand out, your email subject lines need to be both visually different from your competitors and from your own previous subject lines. So this holiday season, take a chance on something different-you may find it's more effective than you expected.

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Justin Williams

As one of StrongView's in-house marketing strategists, Justin Williams helps email marketers develop and implement strategic lifecycle marketing campaigns that are continually optimized to increase engagement and revenue. For the past five years, Justin has applied his expertise in email marketing, social media, web design, and other interactive marketing disciplines across a variety of industries, including retail, finance, media, and technology. In addition to founding his own consulting company, Justin has built go-to-market strategies for early-stage startups and worked with brands like Cisco, Qualcomm, and Geeknet. Justin holds a BA in cognitive science from the University of California at San Diego.

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