Beware Long 'Brainload' Times

Until now, it has been okay to put together your direct response email in a fairly casual sort of way. It’s been okay to mix up a few ideas, throw in a couple of links, slop it all around into one big mess and email it out to 50,000 people.

After all, an email is a pretty simple thing to figure out. Start at the top and keep reading. It’s not like a web site with hundreds of pages. Architecture, navigation and the organization of content are just for the web. Right?

Well, that approach may have been okay before, but I don’t think it works any more. It doesn’t work because your customers are being flooded with an increasing volume of email each day. And that means each individual email will receive a little less attention. And if your email receives less attention, you’re going to have less time in which to catch and hold your reader.

How come? Because of “brainload time.”

On the web we are all very aware of download times. The longer the download time, the fewer the number of visitors who will bother to hang around and wait for you.

On the web, we measure the time it takes for a page to download to the visitor’s screen. I think there’s an equivalent with email. It’s brainload time.

Brainload time is the time it takes for the recipient to figure out what your email is all about. (Assuming that they have bothered to open your email in the first place. But that’s a different subject.)

Brainload time is the time it takes for someone to understand the reason for your email — plus the time it takes to decide whether or in what you have to say — plus the time it takes to work out what you want them to do.

Let me break that down into a list of deliverables, from the customer’s point of view:

  • What is this about?
  • Do I care?
  • What do they want me to do, and how do I do it?

Those are three things your email has to achieve in order to get to the point at which the reader can choose to respond or not.

Now for the big question: How much time do you think you need in order to cover those points? How long will the average email reader give you? What’s the maximum brainload time?

Here’s my guess. I think that from the moment someone opens your email you have three or four seconds. Max.

Why is this less than for a web page? Because customers can get in and out of their email messages much faster. It’s easier to navigate from one message to another.

On a web site I may have committed five minutes to finding a site. If that site takes 10 seconds to download, I’ll probably wait — because I have already committed a lot of time to find out what’s on that page. With email I can get in and out of messages much faster. Lower commitment all around.

So. You have four seconds.

Four seconds in which to make me think, “Ah, this is about xyz.”


“Sure. That interests me.”


“Here’s the link that tells me more.”

That’s not much time.

So you’d better start thinking “above the fold” in your emails. You better think about organizing the content of your emails more deliberately and more carefully. You’d better increase the quality of the writing so that what you want to say is communicated quickly and clearly.

Because in “killer-app land” the honeymoon is over. And slow brainload times will kill your response rates.

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