Thursday, 29 March 2012 08:21

Email marketing - using preview to increase open rates

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Email marketing can be a tough gig.

To successfully reach their goal (you do have goals for your marketing campaigns, right?) the savvy marketer needs to reduce the effect of multiple barriers to entry. Think of it as a big funnel that gradually reduces the volume of visitors at every stage:

Does the content bypass spam filters and work reasonably consistently across most email apps? Did it get opened? Did it get read? Did viewers click through to the website? Did they perform the action you desired?

At every point you need to maximise the number of viewers making it through to the next stage in the funnel.

Email design and landing page design go hand in hand to increase conversion rates - craft a strong call to action, know your goals, make them trackable using an analytics package. There's an enormous amount of testing that can be done and a good email marketing platform (like Campaign Monitor or MailChimp) will give you the ability to send emails with different subject lines or different content to test which gets the best response.

Similarly, you can run a multitude of tests on your landing pages to find the most effective design.

But most of these techniques focus on motivating the viewer to action after they've opened the email.

How wide is your marketing funnel?

Marketers typically focus on subject lines to improve open rates. They're the most visible means of enticing users, getting them to think that your email is worthy of their attention.

We rarely send an email without A/B testing the subject lines - it's a great way to gauge what kind of language your subscribers find appealing.

And it's the only content that subscribers see that can effect the open rate, right?


There's at least two other areas that bear investigation.

Look at your 'from' address 

If your subscribers don't recognise your email address their trust in your communication is reduced. Similarly, impersonal or generic email addresses don't promote engagement.

Don't use This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.' for email marketing

If you the head of your company is a name recognisable to your subscribers, use an address that contains their name (just make sure you change the reply-to address!).

If you're promoting a specific product, why not use that name in the address?

A good email marketing app will allow you to test the effectiveness of various 'from' addresses.

A word of warning: don't forget that many email apps allow users to 'whitelist' email addresses, allowing them to bypass spam checks and automatically download images. Every additional mouse-click is an additional barrier to entry, so balance the need to test with that of ensuring your message is visible.

Once you're confident the from-address is as effective as possible, leave it alone.

Look at the email preview

We're all used to the idea that email is ancient and unchanging, but that's not entirely true.

Email itself hasn't changed very much but the apps we use to access email are improving all the time, particularly from progressive companies - Apple and Google in particular.

One innovation that these major email apps introduced was the idea of a text-preview of the email in the same space as the subject line.

For examle, in Apple Mail 4:

MarketingProfs not marketing

And in Gmail:

Poor example of email marketing

To break it down, you're seeing the following:

  • The 'from' name
  • The subject line
  • The email preview

The point of the preview pane is to give the user as much information as possible so they can decide at a glance whether it's worth opening.

So how do PayPal and MarketingProfs utilise this space?

They don't.

Preview works by displaying the first text in the email immediately after the subject line. In this case, both emails contained a link to the online version of the email and so that text was displayed.

It's a common practice (and an important one), ensuring that even if the email appears broken the user is always able to see the content in another format. It should be visible at the top of the email.

To balance these two needs is fairly simple:

It's possible to have text that is invisible to the viewer but visible to email apps (your coder will know how to do this) - this allows for a 'best of both worlds' approach where the 'view online' link is prominent and visible, but the email preview can still be highly targeted and relevant. 

Other marketers simply have a small visible tagline before the 'view online' text. This is equally effective but may detract from the overall style of the email.

Let's compare these two examples. Which preview do you find more compelling?

Compare the preview in these two email marketing examples

Which email apps are affected?

As of this writing, in tests to a predominantely corporate audience, approximately 29% of email apps have the ability to show this kind of preview.

  • 14% of users read email on an iPhone or iPad
  • 13% view their email via Apple Mail
  • 2% view their email via Gmail

If your audience is more consumer-focussed then it's likely that those numbers would be significantly greater.

Using preview text more effectively you have the chance to increase open rates for approximately 1/3 of your readership.

I think that's worth pursuing.

UPDATE: I've analysed the breakdown of devices and apps utilised by another client's marketing list, also mostly corporates and can report a 41% penetration of apps that see the text preview.

Who's already using email previews?

  • The finance industry is not - PayPal and banks aren't using this technique
  • Upstart travel companies are (TripAdvisor), old-school travel agents are not (Flight Center)
  • Some business services are, but it was a surprise to learn that Salesforce is not
  • The entertainment industry (movies and games) are absolutely using this technique
  • and Domain are still stuck in the past
  • Product updates from iOS developers are using this technique
  • Most eCommerce stores are not (but is, of course!)

There seems to be a fairly clear divide - startups and contemporary data-centric businesses use it. Old-school businesses still haven't caught on.

Increasing your open rates = more conversions

It's that simple. Your email marketing funnel looks like this:

Email marketing conversion funnel

You absolutely must maximise your email open rate: it feeds every other stage of your sales or conversion funnel.

Optimisation is vital - from names and subject lines are two easy areas to test. 

But if you ignore the preview pane, you're missing out on an opportunity to tell a more compelling story to one third of your audience.

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