Find the Opportunity Lurking in E-Mail Challenges

It’s easy to focus on the negatives of e-mail rendering, design, and delivery, especially with reports like the recent Email Experience Coalition (EEC) Rendering Report or when we see the shrinking real estate available in today’s updated e-mail clients.

But there’s opportunity in every challenge if you’re willing to look for it. It isn’t enough just to solve the problem; by focusing on the problem, then looking for the opportunity hiding in it, you can turn a disadvantage into a clear advantage.

Challenge: Shrinking Real Estate

As more e-mail clients crowd the message window with functions and services designed to attract and retain users, such as calendars, contact lists, ads, and RSS feed readers, the amount of real estate your message can display in has shrunk.

Throw in the ads many Web services, such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail, now stuff into the messages space, and the amount of room you have for your newsletter, product bulletin, or weekly sales circular has been cut by about 30 percent.

On top of that, the preview pane has become a standard feature of consumer-focused Web clients, such as the beta clients for Yahoo and Windows Live Mail.

Readers who use it (and statistics show upwards of 90 percent do in business environments) may see only the top two to three inches of your e-mail message instead of the six or so inches that might display if the full message displays.

Opportunity: Subject Line Lift

No longer do subject line and message content operate independently. Now, content showing in the preview pane can expand the subject line’s pull and effect for an immediate benefit. The reader doesn’t have to wait for the message to fully display before seeing the value proposition, call to action, or reassurance the message is one he expects and wants to receive.

In Yahoo Mail’s beta, where the preview pane is called the reading pane, the message displays in the pane immediately below the subject line when the reader highlights it in the inbox.

Your subject line must still be compelling enough to catch the reader’s eye and get him to click on your message. But with proper preview pane designs, the subject line gets an immediate lift from the message. No more waiting for the full message to display before revealing the most important content in it.

Solution: Uncluttered E-Mail That Packs a Punch

If your target is primarily consumer-focused, you may not have faced this challenge. Now, e-mail clients have changed. A few building blocks of current your e-mail design will probably have to go:

  • You no longer have the luxury of unlimited space at the top of your message. If you fill the top of your message with nonessential information such as unsubscribe instructions or a request to add your sending address to the reader’s contact to avoid the bulk filter, you do nothing to support the subject line or demonstrate to the reader that your message carries enough value to justify opening.

    Based on the way e-mail clients configure preview panes, the most valuable real estate is now the top left two to three inches of the message display. You don’t have to cram every little bit of content in that tiny space, but you should make sure the information a reader will find most useful shows up there.

  • A large image encapsulating your brand, content, offer, or other information might not show up. Many consumer-focused e-mail clients now block images and disable links by default. So that big, gorgeous image will render as a big, ugly blank, perhaps accessorized with a forbidding red “x.” You wasted that opportunity. Besides, a message with too high a ratio of image to text is more likely to be flagged as possible spam and either shunted to the bulk folder or blocked outright.

    Use text to convey your brand, value proposition, or other most important information right at the top of the message.

The added benefit is your preview-pane copy can do a lot of the brand or value-prop heavy lifting that your subject line had to do previously. More than ever, subject line and message content must work together to give a recipient the incentive to open, read, and act on the message, along with the confidence the message is one he wanted to receive and he will benefit from reading.

Finding opportunity in the midst of a stiff challenge is a hallmark of business success. Applying that entrepreneurial viewpoint to targeting benefits in the midst of e-mail challenges can help you find ways to deliver more value to readers and boost your e-mail program’s ROI (define).

And as always, keep on deliverin’!

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.