Stefan Pollard – Jan 11, 2008
It’s time to reexamine your top line. This tiny but significant parcel of real estate in your email message can help tilt the balance in your favor when readers are zipping through their inboxes, looking for which messages to open and which to delete.
You need to juice up the top line in your efforts to optimize your email message and make it stand out from the crowd, because email users have become more sophisticated in the ways they read, sort and deal with email. They do so much differently than they did even a couple of years ago. With an ever-crowded inbox, email clients are giving users more ways to make quick decisions on what to read. You need to take advantage of these tools to get your message read.
Snippets: What They Are, What They Do
If you’re not sure what your top line is, go into your own inbox and look for the first sentence in your email that gets displayed after the subject line. This is the “snippet” text. Typically, the inbox snippet will display the copy in the first line of an HTML message, or the first sentence of a text message.
Here are a couple of examples of places to look:
- Outlook: Short line of text in autopreview.
- Gmail: PC users see a shaded bit of text after a truncated subject line. (Just sender, subject line and date sent show up in the Macintosh version.)
- Yahoo: Renders as a pop-up when you mouse over the subject line in the inbox preview on your Yahoo home page.
Most often, I see a bland direction to click the link to view the Web version for proper display or a request to add the sender to the reader’s contact list. These are valid services, but they don’t belong in the top line.
Instead you can use this valuable real estate to build value, interest and excitement in your message. A correctly worded snippet builds on your subject line and helps your reader, especially your mobile reader, decide whether to save the message or to read it immediately.
The triple benefit: You have more words to build brand recognition and relevancy beyond the subject line alone, you create more excitement about your email message, and the top line will appear as a snippet in the inbox. This helps readers make that snap decision on what to do with your message when they are in the midst of “inbox triage.”
Further, the combination of default image blocking and the preview pane means the top line might be the only line readers see. So, make the most of it.
Now is the time to do it too, judging from some startling statistics I heard at the most recent Email Insiders summit, courtesy of JupiterResearch vice president David Daniels:
- 8% of email users “triage” their inboxes using a handheld device.
- The average reader spent 2 to 5 seconds deciding whether to read or delete a message. Frankly, I think that’s optimistic. Half a second to 2 seconds to take in all the information – sender line, subject and any snippets visible – might be all you get.
- 18% of heavy email users read email on mobile devices.
See the trend here? Your readers aren’t sitting at their big desktops scrolling patiently through their never-ending inboxes. They’re stealing moments on their cell phones, BlackBerries and other handhelds, bent on clearing out anything that doesn’t grab them immediately.
Typical Snippets: Value Builder or Lost Opportunity?
Here’s what I usually see for top-line copy:
- “View this e-mail with images.”
- “Having trouble viewing this email? Click here.”
- “If you cannot see this email, please click here.”
At face value, these seem to be perfectly fine. But other statistics show people simply aren’t clicking through to the Web versions in enough numbers to make it a valuable use of the space. Furthermore, none of these sentences states the purpose or offer from the email, leaving the reader to decide on the subject line alone.
All the above top lines share two common failings: Not one refers to the actual content in the message or includes the company name or brand. If that’s what your readers see in the inbox snippet, you’ve lost another opportunity to stand out in the inbox and persuade your readers either to pause as they skim through the inbox or to save for later reading.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t post a link pointing to your Web version, but it shouldn’t be the first sentence in your email. If you feel you need to do it, though, at least include your brand name.
Here are a couple top lines that have a little more value because they speak to a need or issue the reader might be dealing with:
- “Today’s Stats Article: » Top 10 Search Terms in 10 Categories, December 2007”
- “[Event Name] Registration deadline and special discount code below”
- “A special thank you from [Brand Name]”
- “January Newsletter – How to get a free pass, trail run shoes, top 10’s.”
- “Choose from our entire 2008 collection at [Brand name]”
Now, how about a snippet that really does the job? Sadly, I went through my entire inbox and didn’t find a single one I could include without any kind of cosmetic surgery. Even a women’s handbag retailer whose top lines previously had always included the email’s offer in the top line has dumbed down its top line.
3-Step Extreme Snippet Makeover
To make that top line work harder for you, both in the email inbox as a snippet and as the first line of your email message, you’ll have to create a new one for each message. Yes, it takes a couple extra minutes but a better open rate could be your reward.
- Retail email: Repeat your offer – discount, free shipping, invitation to view a new product with link to the Web version. “To claim your 20% discount online, click this link”
- News publication: Put a headline (top story, quirky tidbit or company announcement) in the top line with the link to the Web version.
- Transaction confirmation: Refer to the action and thank as appropriate (no link needed).
Of these approaches, the first two require that you create a fresh top line and direct link for each email message, while the third can be included in a template. Although creating a fresh line will take a few extra minutes each time, the lift it gives your email message with an enticing snippet in the inbox should more than repay you for your efforts. The transaction confirmation should not require a link unless you usually retain thank-you or order-confirmation pages on your Web site.
Before you go live with your revised top line, see how it will appear in different desktop and Web email clients and on different platforms – PC, Macintosh and mobile.
3. Test, test and test again.
Do an A/B test, sending your standard email message to one half of your database and the revised version to the other half. Do you notice a lift? Even if you don’t with this version, keep trying with your next two or three deliveries and keep an eye on your open rate. Also watch the click rate on the top link to see if it’s getting the attention you want.
Why Optimizing the Top Line is Required Now
The important lesson is this: You cannot afford to waste a single line in your email message, whether it’s a gorgeously designed, artistic-quality HTML message or a plain-text, no-nonsense, all-business text message. The top line is your opening shot to tell the reader your message has value and should be seen. If you aren’t optimizing this line, you’re throwing away another opportunity to make your message stand out in the inbox.