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Does Email Length Matter?

G. Simms Jenkins
Does Email Length Matter? G. Simms Jenkins

When talking with clients and prospects, I get asked many of the same questions about what works best for email marketing. What is the best day to send campaigns? Do people like to read their newsletters in the morning at work or at home during the evening? Do HTML emails get a better response than text emails? Well, those are good questions and ones that often get much attention during research studies, but I generally tend to discard the results. The reason: who cares if Friday gets the best open rate if your customers tend to open and respond to your emails on Monday and Tuesday?

I tend to often steer clients away from the non-specific industry metrics (to a certain degree) in order to focus on their own metrics and how to optimize them. Then you can use the industry stats as a benchmark to compare to but not live by. What works well for others may not work for you. That being said, I am inclined to think one general rule that can be applied for most email marketing campaigns. Keep your emails concise and to the point

A relevant study from Email Labs confirms this. It reported users spend 15-20 seconds on each email they open. Therefore, if you have a high open rate but low clickthough or conversion rate then you may find this evidence pertinent to you. If the goal of your email is not immediately clear to the recipient and above the fold, you most likely will not receive the desired response from this user. Yes, your email may look great and include lots of branding and cross promotional efforts but most likely they will be lost on the majority of your audience.

After a client asked me to weigh in on whether I thought their promotional emails for one campaign were too long and content-heavy, I tried to find some case studies and research. Well, I didn't find a whole lot, so I will weigh in with my own opinions and research on this client's emails, comparing the length of similar promotional emails. Below are two different examples of how length and a clear call to action within the content play an important role in determining your email message's chance for success.

The first example is two emails promoting a conference to our client's membership audience (which means they should be engaged and interested in the topic) that is a key revenue driver for the client. The first email was half the length of the second one and the response, as seen in the Figure I below was greater.

The first email had shorter and more direct text that simply tells the reader if they click, they'll find out more on the website, while the second (and longer) email tells the recipient almost too much information. It provides heaps of information on the hotel and travel options, secondary events and the like, which are all on the website and dilute the main registration and conference overview links. Rather than directing them to an interactive and more complete description of the conference's events on the website, the verbose copy could lose the reader in the brief time allotted for reading an email. If the focus is directing them to the website, direct them there so they can view and make the decision at their leisure.

The second example is similar in argument, but with an additional factor for analysis. Both of the emails were sent in order to let a targeted audience know about an event or events at a particular conference they were about to attend. The first one, an Invitation to New Members, like the second and longer email from the previous example, takes all the pertinent information the recipient would need and places it in the email body while the second one, an event schedule, purposefully drives the reader to click to the site for the schedule that they are interested in.

While the first one would be considered a failure because the CTR was extremely low (see Figure II below), it really is immeasurable for success metrics because the recipient is not driven anywhere by a compelling "call to action", either through copy or images. It has all the info in the body (which is why it is so lengthy) and lacks a "click here" type call to action in the body to find out more. They simply read the email and move on.  If this was a transaction email confirming their attendance that would be fine but the goal was to increase attendance for a secondary event within the larger conference. The user would have to painstakingly read through the entire email to find out what and how they were supposed to do this.

Now compare this to the second email that has two key links above the fold that links to the conference schedule. The user is obviously interested since they registered for the event and they don't have to search for information within the email-- they click on one of the links at the top of this short email. As a result, of the recipients who opened the email, 49 percent clicked on a link.

The lack of the clear call to action is a mission critical part of any email. An Advertsing.com study said calls to action account for an 85 percent lift in revenue. In the second set of examples, this is supported by the lack of clickthroughs and as a result, the minimal effect the email will have on registrations/revenue.

The key takeaways are:

  1. Keep your emails succinct and message on target in order to achieve whatever goal(s) you are seeking.

  2. You have a limited window of the recipient scanning your email-- design accordingly.

  3. Clearly define your internal goal (if revenue, which link is the driver and ensure proper and prime placement).

  4. Create your layout so users can easily and quickly scan and respond to the email.

  5. Create an engaging subject line that clues recipients into what this email is about.

  6. Ensure that if the user only was to glance at the email in their Preview Pane that your message would convey the desired information or action.

  7. Whether newsletter or promotional email, test it with some non-stakeholders to see how they view and respond to the email.

  8. Use the same call to action link in multiple places in the email (text and image).

  9. Minimize distractions (e.g., images, corporate marketing and the like) if they don't further your goal to prevent overwhelming the email with non essential content.

  10. Measure and compare the results-- don't just focus on the aggregate stats (Opens and CT) for the email but which links were clicked on. When analyzing the data, use that information for the next campaign. This means if most of the people clicked on a graphical image that promotes a separate product or service that wasn't the feature of the email, this means two things: 1) your call to action wasn't clear and  2) the heavily clicked on secondary image deserves its own email focused solely on that product/service.

Why traditional tools fall short

Server-side errors: Traditional solutions disregard valuable information
From the user perspective, server-side errors such as 404s and 501s happen completely without explanation. They're not perceived by users as their fault, but they suffer from them, nonetheless. Users see only your error page, and then have a choice of how to react.

Traditional system monitoring solutions simply count the number of error pages encountered, try to discover the source of the broken links, and create reports to facilitate mitigation. This approach, while not lacking merit, is based on a purely technological perspective.

From a user experience point of view, these solutions essentially "close the barnyard gate after the cows have left, never going looking for the cows." Traditional solutions miss the chance to gain invaluable user experience insight from server-side errors, not to mention potentially recapture lost revenues.

Client-side errors: Traditional solutions are completely blindsided
Client-side errors (most often resulting from JavaScript or other client-side scripting errors) are sneaky. They occur in-page, and users may never even know they happened. An operation simply fails, with no notice, leading to mysterious drop-off at a key point in the conversion funnel. Moreover, what happens to one user, on a given platform or device, may not happen to a second user.

Some examples we've all experienced include:

  • Payment processing hiccups during checkouts

  • Search and other functions not behaving as intended

  • Buttons that are supposed to be clickable but aren't

  • And so many, many more...

A major challenge with client-side errors, therefore, is to simply and reliably identify them. Traditional web analytics solutions don't report details on client-side errors. What's more, given the vast number of dynamic variables and behaviors, traditional user experience solutions often fall short here, too.

Business and design errors: Totally invisible to traditional solutions
What happens when the website performs exactly as designed, but errors still occur? A wide range of business and design errors can dramatically impact the customer experience and revenue, yet remain completely invisible to mainstream web analytics and user experience solutions due to their highly dynamic nature.

For example:

  • Out-of-stock products

  • Incorrect or inconsistent prices or promotions

  • Poor design that leads to user confusion and drop-off

  • And more...

Catching errors: Marketers to the rescue!

Obviously, marketers and IT -- and the enterprise as a whole -- have a vested interest in finding and fixing website errors. And your IT department, like most, probably invests significant efforts in doing so.

But with two-thirds of website errors potentially undetectable by traditional means, we need to start thinking about how we, as marketers, can contribute to discovering website errors, evaluating their impact, and mitigating their damage.

Moreover, we need to accept the hard reality that no matter what we do, some amount of website errors are going to happen. We need to figure out how to learn from errors, and turn them to our advantage.

The key to catching website errors
The key to catching elusive website errors is simply to focus on the very people we work so hard to bring to our site and answer our calls-to-action: the users.

Marketers need to adopt a more behavioral perspective about website errors. By focusing on what users are doing on our sites, we can catch common behavior patterns of user drop-off or abandonment that traditional tools simply cannot see. Once we find usability-related error patterns, we can pinpoint the errors themselves. Then (as we'll see in the coming pages), the actual impact of a given error on user experience and conversions can be assessed, its correction prioritized, and the usability and user experience takeaways evaluated.

Case in point: Client-side errors on Walmart.com
To make the most out of the holiday season -- the most revenue critical time of the year -- ClickTale client Walmart launched a special gift and toy finder tool for increasing sales and optimizing customer interactions with the seasonal offerings.

Walmart invested significant funds to drive traffic to the holiday web pages. Alas, quantitative analysis showed that the gift and toy finder tools seemed to be getting subpar adoption. The traditional insights could not uncover why this was happening. That's when ClickTale's session playback recordings revealed that a significant number of visitors were struggling and unable to use the gift and toy finder tool. When clicking on the call-to-action button, the potential customers encountered a JavaScript error that prevented them from receiving search results.

Customers could be seen in the session replays clicking on the button multiple times in frustration. The potential for loss of mission-critical revenue cannot be understated.

Prioritizing error remediation

All website errors are bad, but all errors are not created equal.

As the diagram below illustrates, TOFU (Top of the Funnel) errors impact revenues less than BOFU (Bottom of the Funnel) errors -- which also can damage downstream customer lifetime value. Even a relatively small number of website visitors experiencing a BOFU error can impact a high percentage of potential revenue.

As the gatekeepers of the funnel, what this means for marketers is clear: when there are limited resources available for error remediation, BOFU errors should take priority. By keeping a close watch on where in the funnel errors appear, and providing clear prioritization guidance to technical resources, we can lower the overall revenue impact of errors more effectively.

What does the user do next? Learning from errors
Once we've identified and prioritized website errors for remediation, there is still a lot we can learn from them.

Consider something that the traditional technological approach to dealing with errors ignores completely: what does the user do next, after receiving the error message or page?

Why is this question important? Because it is the user's behavioral response to errors -- as much as the errors themselves -- that impact critical site KPIs like conversions and sales, not to mention customer loyalty and return sales.

Taking a behavioral approach to errors leads us to ask questions like:

  • When users encounter a server-side error on your site, do they generally click away altogether, in disgust? Do they go back to the home page, and work their way through the navigation to the page they were originally looking for? Do they re-search, from the error page itself?

  • For JavaScript errors, do users try to re-load the page multiple times, in frustration? Do they generally abandon the action they were attempting?

  • How does the stage at which an error page is encountered affect user response? If an error is encountered early in the funnel, does it lead to more or less abandonment than a later error? Are users completing their transactions despite the error?

These questions impact not only how we deal with errors, but also how we look at the entire user experience.

Recapturing revenue and loyalty

As any husband or wife knows, the best part of any disagreement is the making up. Even as we're focusing on identifying errors, prioritizing their remediation, and gleaning the invaluable user experience insights they provide -- we should always keep KPIs, lifetime value, and (of course) revenues in mind.

As marketers, it's our imperative to bring website visitors who have experienced trouble back into the fold. We need to make it up to them. Once we've identified these visitors and understood the errors they've encountered, we can take a number of different actions, including:

  • Retargeting abandoned shopping activity

  • Apologizing and remedying customer frustration with appropriate gestures and offers

  • Varying responses from a simple email for low-impact issues, to an outbound call center call when issues had high impact on the individual

  • Rewarding the highly engaged customers who persevered through the website issues to complete their transaction

With the right tools, taking a proactive approach to recovering business lost to errors is fairly simple. Just feed data from your enterprise customer experience analytics solution into your marketing automation system, and orchestrate action!

Key takeaways

User frustration from errors can lead to brand damage, drop-off, lower revenues, missed opportunities, and reduced lifetime customer value. Resolving errors, on the other hand, can dramatically impact KPIs and revenues.

Once the exclusive domain of IT, a new generation of enterprise user experience solutions marketers can now play a direct role in website error identification and the prioritization of remediation efforts. Beyond this, marketers can gain valuable user experience insights by taking a behavioral approach to website errors.

In addition to ongoing efforts to correct and avoid errors, by examining individual user responses to errors, and adjusting our attitudes and tactics from reactive error fixing to proactive revenue and loyalty recapture, we can both recover the overall user loyalty and maximize KPIs.

Here are some key takeaways.

Reward loyal visitors
Visitors who encounter errors and persist in looking for what they want are highly qualified. They must really want what you're offering. Take note of this, and consider proactively incentivizing them to continue looking or reward them for persistence when they do convert.

Make it up to impacted visitors
Visitors who were failed by errors on the site are at risk. Rebuild lost loyalties to protect your downstream customer lifetime value.

Fault tolerant website design
From a navigation perspective, every point in your site should be accessible from multiple, alternative paths. Use what you learn from errors to ensure that a secondary path of least resistance is always available to your visitors, especially to strategically important locations.

Prioritize efforts
Errors are inevitable, so weigh the resources you invest in mitigating them based on their business impact. Instead of randomly trying to correct every error, optimize your website to keep users moving through the funnel.

Simon Harris is UK sales manager at ClickTale.

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"Desperate employee" image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Bob Marley

2010, April 18

I believe e-mail length matters. I like to read shorter e-mails.
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