December 16, 2005

New Lab Data: How Humans' Eyes Really See Email Marketing Campaigns

SUMMARY: No summary available.
By Anne Holland, President

Study data shows email recipients spend 10-20 seconds -- at most -- reading a typical email campaign or newsletter your marketing department has sent them.

MarketingSherpa's research team wondered, what do people really look at in those few seconds? How many words do they read? Do they skim words in order or dart around the screen? Will they read more if there's text-only and no distracting images? Or vice versa?

So, this fall we conducted a series of eyetracking laboratory tests. The goal: to discover rules about the way human eyes "see" email, so email designers and copywriters can get the highest message readership scientifically, which in turn should lead to higher response rates.

Results -- HTML Emails with Graphics Get Higher Per-Word Readership

In one of our lab tests, we asked consumers to view a single-article email newsletter. The tests took place in San Francisco, so we invented a newsletter to look at that we hoped would be of interest to locals -- 'Housing Deals in San Francisco: Hidden real Estate Bargains'.

At the top of one version we put clip art of some typical San Francisco homes. The top of the other had no graphics, just a bold headline leading to body copy. The textual copy for each version was identical.

We were startled by the results.

You'd think that textual emails would win the number-of-words-read sweepstakes, if only because there are no distractions from the text. MarketingSherpa's new eyetracking laboratory tests proved the reverse is true.

The presence of an image -- even a fairly dull one such as the clip art we used for our test -- can have a huge impact in how much time people's eyes spend reading the copy of an ad. What's interesting is most people looking at this email didn't actually spend a lot of that time on the picture itself. The picture was such a frequently-seen image they could register it in almost peripheral attention mode. However, its presence raised their engagement level with the email, and willingness to read much more of the copy.

That said, our other eyetracking email tests (we conducted seven in all) showed that the design and layout of the email -- including the size of the image, the number of images, the use of human, where the image lay in relation to the fold, and what copy was closest to that image -- was as important to results as the mere fact of an image being present.

It seems that marketers might be better served worrying about how the email design works as a whole in relation to the monitor screen, rather than being ‘creative’ or pretty. These aren’t broadcast or print magazine ads where people like their eyes to be entertained, email recipients assume there will be copy to read and a decision presented that they need consider acting on.

They've made an open decision based on your 'from" and "subject" lines. Now you're on step two of the process. Recipients want to know quickly that they've made the right decision to view your email - that it's relevant to them. And next they want to know what the reply request is. Sometimes high design can interfere with that.

My recommendation?

Let your email design team know about this new lab data before they create your next campaign or before they revamp your current email templates. In marketing, data should always inform and influence creative decisions. No email creative should be make in a vacuum or "because we've always done it that way", or "because it matches our Web site."

You can improve email campaign results. Your house list of opt-ins is one of the most valuable media you'll ever send messaging to. These consumers are *more* interested in reading what you have to say than any outside group. If you can only invest in one creative test this next quarter, let it be dedicated to improving house email creative.

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