Easy Steps for Improving E-mail Communications

It’s fourth quarter. You’re busy, and now is not the time to start overhauling your e-mail communications program. But, you can improve performance with this list of creative fixes that address issues such as rendering, engagement, greater reach for your messages, and better delivery of your messages’ value propositions.

  1. Add a preheader that supports your subject line. The preheader is the first line of text in your e-mail message. It’s the most valuable real estate in your message body, because people see it first, it renders even if images don’t, and it can be the only line of text that shows on mobile phones.

    Copy like, “Click to View on the Web” waste this space. Put the call to action or value proposition in that space instead. Don’t repeat the subject line; rather, amplify it with a deadline, a secondary offer, or other information. If you include a phone number, make it a number, not vanity text like 1-800-My-Apple, which won’t render as a clickable link on an iPhone.

    Check out the samples at SwipeFile for bad examples of a preheader (e.g., Target or Neiman Marcus)and good ones (e.g., Victoria’s Secret). See also, my colleague Darrah MacLean’s post.

  2. Optimize for the preview pane and image suppression. When viewing your e-mail message on most Web mail clients, you will likely see only a portion of the text in the message and no images. If you position a single large image at the top, your viewer sees a big blank.

    This fix has four parts:

    • Move important copy out of an image into HTML text. This renders even if images don’t.
    • Use HTML text instead of images for the navigation bar.
    • Place key information in the top left corner of your message, “above the fold,” or in the top half of the message. An informative preheader (see No. 1 tip) helps.
    • Add a few descriptive words (price, item name, and call to action) in alt text that will render when images don’t.
  3. Make sure your headline and your button copy work together. Given preview panes and image disabling, these might be the only two elements of your message that your readers will see. Time pressed people are just scanning headlines and looking for how to take action.

    If your headline states your value proposition, your button copy shouldn’t say “Click Here.” Better: “Get Your 50 percent Savings.”

  4. Showcase your call to action with a “bulletproof” button. A “bulletproof” button uses HTML text instead of graphic text, in an attention-getting color that doesn’t clash with the message’s main color palette. It will render even when images are suppressed. To learn more, see this Email Experience Council blog post by Lisa Harmon.

  5. Think “bento box” when organizing message components. A bento box is a Japanese lunch box with individual compartments for different kinds of sushi. Each piece is clearly separate from the others, but the overall image is also a pleasing whole. In the same way, use graphics, layout, color, strong headlines, and a complementary type font to organize secondary messages in your e-mail, so that they stand out while not detracting from your primary offer.

  6. Use animation to catch the recipient’s eye. I’m not recommending a return to the dizzying array of animated elements that plagued Web design in the 1990s. Instead, add movement to your e-mail with an animated GIF that builds logically on elements in your message. Often, animation is a natural way to demonstrate your product attributes, as in this Lands’ End e-mail.

  7. Add video where appropriate. As with tip No. 5, don’t put an auto-play video module into your e-mail just because you can. Not every e-mail client can handle it, not every device can play it, and not every recipient wants to view it.

    However, if you have the content to support it, add a link to a video (a static image with a “play” button that links to the video embedded on your Web site, or a streaming video GIF). Possible uses: product demos, spokesman comments, broadcast commercials, or your company videos on YouTube.

  8. Add a human touch to your e-mail messages. People trust other people, not faceless corporations. Show the people behind the company (like Best Buy’s Blue Shirt Nation), or put your customers into your messages via photos and reviews.

  9. Make it easy to share your content on social networks. This takes more than a “Share With Your Network” (SWYN) or “Forward to a Friend” button at the bottom of your e-mail message. Make your content more shareable with “friends and family” deals and similar offers. Make the SWYN module focus on certain pieces of shareworthy content, not the entire message. Write body copy that specifically asks subscribers to share the content. Use social network icons, so sharing opportunities are easily identifiable.

  10. Design for smaller screens. If a large percentage of your audience is viewing your e-mails on mobile phones, consider shrinking the width of your e-mail message to reduce the need to scroll side to side.

    You may also want to add a “view mobile version” link at the top of your message (after the preheader sales copy), which directs to a hosted text file for viewing on older Blackberry models.

Bonus. Ask yourself, “So what?” before you send each e-mail. Reread your e-mail from your customers perspective and ask yourself “What is this about?” “Why do I care?” and “What do I do about it?” If you can’t answer these questions in five seconds or less, your subscribers probably won’t be able to, and they might take out their frustrations by unsubscribing or clicking the “report spam” button.

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