How not to let your email die in the first centimetre.
Updated: Mar 30
‘Oooh, an email from a random brand, how exciting. Can’t wait to open it!’
When was the last time you thought like that? 2001? If ever.
With so much unsolicited email to wade through, you and your customers are making rapid decisions about what to open or read. In the centimetre deep window of your email inbox, you’ve judged the sender, their subject and their message – all in 40 pixels*. And don’t tell me you’ll read it later, you won’t. Your inbox is a brutal battleground. Every pixel of information is fighting for attention. So, we’re surprised to see brands sending marketing emails with beginnings so weak they’re like lambs to the inbox slaughter. In the precious few millimetres where first impressions count, there are three opportunities to increase the chances of your reader opening, reading and acting on your email:
Supercharge your sender
Focus your subject lines
Create pre-headers with promise
*Someone with superior pixel knowledge is going to pick me up on this. Please save your energy. Pixel counts vary across devices etc. The point is, the space is small. I could have used the ancient Egyptian measurement of half a digit. Move on.
Supercharge your sender In Barak Obama’s 2012 fundraising campaign, the marketing team tried every trick under the sun. The most successful subject line they used was ‘Hey’ which flies in the face of most online advice about subject lines (more about those in a sec). But think who the email was from – Barack Obama. That’s as good a reason to open as any – even if you hated the guy. The sender’s name is highly visible. So it’s a valuable space. It’s a chance to make the right sort of connection. You can use a real name or the company name – they each have their merits. Either will work better than info@, hello@ or enquiries@. If you haven’t got Barack Obama on your staff, the brand or company name will be the obvious choice. Once people have subscribed to your brand then they have a level of interest in seeing something from you. I get regular updates from Greenpeace. They’ve combined the brand with a person to up the chance of making a connection. The fact that they come from Alice Hunter helps add to the idea that they’re a campaigning body run by committed individuals:
From our own mailings, we haven’t seen much difference in open rates between using a person’s name or our company name. And a random person can seem insincere. Make sure the sender name matches the email address – people are suspicious of mails from people who don’t appear to come from the brand they represent. 4 ways to supercharge your sender There are ways to add more oomph to even the sender name though:
Combine name and brand, eg: Meg at a A Thousand Monkeys
Be a bit chummy: Your friends at A Thousand Monkeys
Add extra kudos: The Thousand Monkeys insight team
Explain what you’re sending along with the sender name: A Thousand Monkeys weekly digest
Focus your subject lines You know that feeling when you don’t really want to open a particular email but there’s something about the subject line that locks on to your attention … and suddenly you’re reading the mail. What was it about that subject line that made you click? Probably one of these: 1. It said what it did on the tin A straightforward approach to a well-targeted audience will always get good open rates. I follow Digital Leaders, in the vain hope of becoming one. Their emails are informative and expert all in that crucial first centimetre:
I’m not in the market for cleaning supplies, but if I were, Office Outlet tell me what I need to know and build in a bit of urgency:
Don’t think you have to be clever when it comes to email subject lines. The main point of interest in the email is often the best subject line too. For example, The Festival of Marketing is too clever with this line. It takes a while to work out it’s for an EarlyBird ticket and there’s no sense of urgency:
The curse of repetition Beware of repetition. Check out the two email previews below. The UK Parliament news feed says pretty much the same thing three times in a row. Huff Post manage better by including the ‘Daily Brief’ bit in the sender title.
But even Huff Post could have made the preview line more telling. 2. It was so short I’d opened the email before I’d had time to think By short I mean very short. The most universal advice is that subject lines should be between 50 and 90 characters. But very short lines get good open rates. 15-20 character lines really stand out from the crowd. They sound bold. And they arouse curiosity. This one from fashion brand Reformation hooks the reader in 14 characters:
Huffington Post does it all the time with lines like ‘Shock is coming’, ‘Bad Cheerleader’, ‘Avocados!’ (love that last one). Again, intrigue is a big part of their strategy – and these unusual word choices really help subject lines stand out. 3. They knew my name and where I lived If your data allows you to include the reader’s name, their company name, or their location, that immediately stimulates interest. It looks like you’re more interested in your customer. LinkedIn do this for you, while Creativepool drop the ball at the preview stage by showing they know nothing at all. Friend to the touts, StubHub, have used my name with a smidgin of urgency by adding ‘Alert’.
If you can identify where your readers live, or where their business interests lie, then including that locale in the subject line will definitely boost open rates. Don’t wait for the number crunchers to tell you these things though. All copywriters should be able to add these elements and ring the changes. 4. The number caught my eye – and as for the emoji….. Numbers are hugely eye-catching. Try and think of ways to include a figure in the subject line. An email promoting a travel blog with the subject line ‘How to choose the perfect holiday’ might do better with ‘7 steps to choosing the perfect holiday’. Numbers are specific and tell readers there’s not a huge amount to read.
And if you have any stats, use them. We work for a large IT brand and stats in their subject lines (83% of Fortune 100 companies say…) work very well indeed. Alice and Greenpeace know this too:
Emojis are catching on fast for the same reason (and because you just can). Here Hotel.com caught my eye with their hot deals, bit over the top, but, like we said, it’s war (research actually shows these get opened but not clicked on):
5. I was offered a free Aardvark Surprise is a risky but potent technique. We’ve already mentioned Huff Posts use of ‘Avocado’ as an attention grabber. You don’t have to go quite that far, arousing a bit of curiosity will often do the trick. For example I was immediately intrigued to know more about why this 1-star review made a brilliant ad:
Shame they only repeated the subject line in the pre-header though …. And how could I not want to know more about Ruth’s baby from Change? Intrigue in less than 20 characters.
Create a pre-header with promise We’ve already given you a sneak preview of some pre-headers. You’ll notice that quite a few repeat the subject line (and those are the better ones). As do the British Heart Foundation:
And don’t tell me it looks better on Google etc. It doesn’t.
Try and make more creative use of the pre-header. It’s an easy way to convey a benefit, news, excitement, or intrigue. The ultimate waste of space:
When on God’s earth did you last think ‘Mmm, I’m having trouble viewing this email on my smartphone, I must view it as a web page’? Even if you feel the need to give people that option, there’s no need to make it the first thing readers see. Fortunately, platforms like MailChimp are helpfully steering mailers away from this practise with a ‘preview text’ box designed to make you write something more compelling. As copywriters, the preheader/preview is another chance to hook our readers. Emma from Hubspot has a trifecta of useful information or persuasive hooks: she’s real, the subject makes me curious, and the preheader builds on that:
ProCopywriters make similarly good use of all three opportunities. I’m a subscriber so I’m interested in their news, I’m curious to know who’s going, and I can see I need to get my skates on to buy a ticket:
Now check out the newsletter emails I get from the Arts Council and see which pre-header is doing the most work (here’s a clue – not the first one):
As copywriters we’re looking to make the most of every opportunity. There’s no such thing as wasted space. Work hard to make sure the elements of your email engage your reader and suck them into opening the email. Then all you’ve got to do is write a great headline, brilliant body copy and compelling call to action. But that’s a whole other blog post.