Preview Windows: Ignore At Your Peril

One item often missing from nearly everyone’s email composition checklist is the strategic relationship between the subject line and the content visible in an email client’s preview window. These are used by many recipients to quickly determine the fate of a message.

Although a great deal of attention has been (and continues to be) paid to effective subject lines, I don’t recall ever seeing an article discussing the critical and symbiotic subject line-preview pane relationship: the way in which subject lines and preview windows can and do work together to produce effective results from a properly designed email marketing campaign.

The lack of attention to the preview panel is a surprising oversight, one I was guilty of until recently. My mind changed when I saw the results of extensive testing we conducted on some of our own campaigns. We found this little preview window frequently means the difference between the success and failure of email campaigns.

Let’s analyze a direct mail package you might receive. When you retrieve the package from your mailbox, the following elements are immediately visible:

  • Return address

  • Teaser copy and/or window
  • Recipient name and address

When you view a direct mail outer envelope, you typically make one of three snap decisions: open the envelope; save it for later, or discard it unopened. The decision you make is primarily based on what’s visible — return address and teaser copy. If the letter or package is from a person or company that’s familiar to you or if the teaser copy is intriguing enough, you’re more likely to open it.

Let’s turn to email marketing and draw comparisons to traditional direct mail, beginning with the visible elements:

  • Return address = the sender line

  • Teaser copy = preview window + subject line
  • Recipient name and address = the recipient line

When you receive an email, you will immediately make one of the following decisions, just as you do with a direct mail piece: open the message; briefly view the preview window, then decide to delete or save it; or summarily delete the message based solely on the subject line.

Even when there’s a decision to summarily delete the message, that decision can still be reversed if the preview window is seen for even a fleeting second. But only if the visible content is sufficiently intriguing.

The trick to reversing the decision to delete (and promoting a higher open rate) lies in the effectiveness of the preview window as it relates to the subject line. They work hand in hand. Based on our research, in messages where the entire offer is presented within the preview window, eliminating clutter and noise of such things as attribution lines and irrelevant copy, open rates were dramatically higher than with messages where the preview window required the respondent to scroll down or open the message to learn more.

Put disclaimers, unsubscribe policies, and attributions below the content that appears in the preview panel. Use this crucial area to simply and clearly state the most intriguing elements of your offer. Prevent — or at the very least, stave off — deletion.

Design the key elements (i.e., the major benefits) of your offer to work within the preview window so the recipient instantly understands the entire marketing proposition. You have but a fleeting second to capture first her attention, then her interest. If it takes longer, your message will likely be deleted, particularly if it’s not from a trusted source or a person or company with whom the recipient has a personal relationship.

When designing an email campaign, consider designing the entire message to fit the smallest default preview window based on the specifications of the email clients most commonly used by your target audience. (Preview may not be an option on every email client, but the majority of them do enable users to view previews of messages, and a good number of users utilize this option.)

If you’re serious about the success of your email campaigns, you’ll benefit from putting this simple but often overlooked element into play.

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