January 13, 2005

Alarming Research Results: Average Email Open Time is 15-20 Seconds -- Recommendations for Emailers

SUMMARY: Exclusive data for you this week -- this fall tens of millions of emails from permission mailers were tested for a brand new metric: actual read time. Turns out 15-20 seconds was the average. Consider the last email campaign or newsletter you sent. Could a typical reader skim the entire thing, digest the graphics, and decide to click on the best item for them in just 15-20 seconds? Probably not. Here's more info on the data and some practical recommendations for you:
The preliminary results are in, and they are alarming.

Broadcast email vendor EmailLabs has invented a way to measure the length of time HTML email messages are viewed by recipients before they click on a hotlink in the message.

Last October EmailLabs measured this "read time" across millions of messages sent by their more than 300 clients to permission lists (i.e. people who had signed up for and were expecting to get the email).

"Our initial data indicate that, on average, readers are spending 15-20 seconds on each email they open," says Loren McDonald, EmailLabs VP Marketing.

"Sometimes that’s because they are so thrilled with the content that they immediately click on a link, and sometimes it’s because they close the email very quickly." Either way, marketers have precious little time to grab readers’ attention with their creative.

Just how much are recipients seeing in those 15-20 seconds?

"The average English reader takes 20 seconds to scan about 50 words on a Web page," notes Stefan Tornquist, MarketingSherpa’s Metrics Editor. "During that time, they’re also skipping around looking from one thing to another. Holding their attention is very hard, especially if you have a lot of distractions."

So, if your email creative has any graphic elements aside from textual words, chances are some of the 15-20 seconds is spent looking at stuff like your logo instead of reading 50 words of your copy. What does it mean? That your customers and prospects will only give you a few seconds to convince them to act, and they are probably reading a heck of a lot less copy than you hoped.

MarketingSherpa's recommendation: If you haven't already, schedule a series of tests for first quarter this year to see if single-story/offer email messages will work better than your current creative.

Yes, even if you only send a newsletter to your list once a month, it's time to test if a single-topic message with laser-focused creative will get a higher response rate.

Laser-focused segmentation strategy for short attention spans

So how do you pick the right topic for your message if there can be only one? Depending on your data sophistication, budget, and manpower, there are two ways to go:

The first is to send a one-topic message to everyone on your list and test the results against the longer version you’ve probably been using.

This works best for marketers in niche markets whose lists are composed of one uniform demographic, so you're pretty sure the single topic you pick is one the majority of your list would find compelling.

Even if you think you know your market inside and out, you should still run a quick topical survey and/or research which of your past emailed links got the highest response rates. Almost inevitably results will surprise you. (Which is why the market research field is alive and healthy.)

The second strategy is segmentation.

Segment your list and send appropriate content to each group. You may be creating the same number of articles or promotional offers you were sending before (or possibly even more), but you’re sending only one per message to each reader.

This doesn't require fancy software. If you have a b-to-b list of under 20,000 names or so, just get an Excel data dump and add flags to names based on company name, etc. Or use your CRM system to flag names for segmentation based on other data you have in the system -- such as job title, company size, industry, etc.

Then make an educated guess at what the different types of people want to hear from you.

If you collect opt-ins online, add a short topical interest survey to the confirmation page that appears when someone submits their name to you. According to our data 40% or more of your new opt-ins will answer a short survey in this position, especially if none of the questions are too personally intrusive or require write-ins.

You can also run a short topical survey to your current readers and use your email system to flag names based on their responses.

Plus, several top of the line email broadcast service providers offer dynamic publishing services, where their database notes which topical links each name has clicked on in the past, and then serves that name similar content in the future.

Example - We know a general sports news emailer who uses link tracking to segment out his list by preferred sport. An opt-in who consistently clicks on ice skating links would wind up getting an ice-skating specific newsletter.

Laser-focused creative strategy for short-attention spans

With only 15-20 seconds of eyeball time, your creative and layout must also be laser-focused to be extremely compelling. Lots of competing click links, article options, and images may reduce your click rate instead of raising it. Here are five creative tips:

#1. Hold a mirror to your readers’ faces.

If readers recognize themselves in your newsletter, they’ll pay more attention. Try using your segment’s actual job titles in headlines: "Events manager’s survival guide" or "Five supplies the CFO can’t live without."

Even though an article or offer is broadly appealing to your entire list, you should still tweak your headline or intro copy to make it clear to each list segment that it applies directly to them.

For example, we know one newsletter publisher who targets banking and credit union executives. His overall content is the same 90% of the time because the two industries aren't that different. However, these readers' self-perception is that they are *very* different. So this newsletter publisher does two versions of headlines and article intros... one with the word "bank" in it and the other with the term "credit union."

Don't forget to segment your images as well. This could also literally mean including pictures of people who look like your segment. Cetaphil did this, simply by changing the model pictured in its newsletter graphic based on age of recipient.

#2. Design layout to appeal to your demographic

Consider the design of destination sites each of your segments love to visit. Educated, older men tend to go for the clean look of Google, for example, while 30-something women love the information-rich MSN homepage.

We've heard that advertisers on these two sites who used differently styled landing pages for each get a higher conversion rate. We suspect the same might be true for email design.

#3. Multiple hotlinks -- leading to the same place

Just because you are focusing on a single article or offer, that doesn't mean you should restrict yourself to a single click-link. Every test out there has shown, in general, more links (and buttons for HTML) tend to work better than fewer.

However, in this case instead of competing links, just use several of the same exact hotlink. Perhaps one near the top, the other at the bottom. Perhaps one in text and another as a graphic.

#4. Reduce navigational hotlinks

If you’re including navigational-type links to things like "About Us," "Forward to a Friend" etc., "Our Company in the News," or "Events," check your past stats first.

Make sure you only include links your readers are proven to click on, or that get an unusually high conversion rate. Don't waste 15-20 seconds of eyeball time on links that aren't proven business builders for you.

Also, be sure to show, graphically and spatially, which link is primary (the article or offer) and which are secondary.

5 Bad Reasons Marketers Use to Justify Creating Unfocused Newsletters with Multiple Articles

Segmenting your list and designing separate messages for each group takes more time and hard work, plus cross-departmental coordination and stellar execution skills. Which is probably why many marketers we know talk themselves out of it.

"I'll do a separate newsletters someday," they tell us, "but for now I just have to get something out." Aside from time-crunch, here are the top five excuses we've heard:

Bad reason #1. De facto personalization

It’s actually easier to send seven long articles and let readers pick which one to read than to segment the audience ahead of time and send the right article to the right reader. But readers faced with too many choices often choose not to choose at all. It’s called choice paralysis. Avoid it.

Bad reason #2. Office politics

Marketers may want to please other departments by giving each recognition in the newsletter. Or, different colleagues, with different agendas, may add bits and pieces during your review cycle.

Besides, who wants to be the one to tell the CEO his column has been dropped for reasons of reader inattention?

Remember, you’re writing for the customers and prospects, not for your coworkers.

Bad reason #3. A failure of nerve

It’s psychologically easier to bet the house -- and your monthly lead target -- on a bunch of articles or offers than on one focused article or offer. It may also be less successful (see our own test results below).

Bad reason #4. Tying frequency to content variety

The old rule of thumb (we ascribed to it, too!) was to tie amount of content to frequency.

Back in 2002, a daily email should contain only one short offer/article. A weekly could expand to three-five items. A monthly or quarterly could be very long and/or contain everything but the kitchen sink.

Well, it’s not 2002 any more, and succinctness is king, no matter how seldom you’re communicating with your customers. If you can’t say it briefly, they probably won't pay attention to it.

Bad reason #5. More “stuff” to put around all those offer links How do you disguise the fact that your newsletter is a selling vehicle without pages and pages of content? By revising your offer and making what content you do include killer.

12-month test results -- MarketingSherpa's own data on single-focus newsletters

Creating content compelling enough to grab time-pressed, having-short-attention-span readers is hard. The good news is that, with a little forethought and a lot of data knowledge, it really works.

Over the past 12 months we've been tracking MarketingSherpa's own weekly newsletter results. We've tested two different formats:

o A weekly newsletter listing multiple article summaries (average 9), each with equal-sized headlines and copy.
o A single article focused weekly newsletter featuring only one prominent article summary and link, plus a handful of alternate links in much smaller type at the bottom of the page.

Overall the single-article focused issues have gotten open rates averaging five solid points higher than multiple-focused newsletters. Their click rates have risen accordingly as well.

The response is so solid that we're now considering ways to change our multiple-article version including increased segmentation and revamping design.

Have you tested something similar? Let us know how it went!

Useful links related to this article:

EmailLabs http://www.emaillabs.com

Sample MarketingSherpa newsletter with multiple articles: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/1et/bestofweekly-12-13-04.htm

Sample MarketingSherpa newsletter with single-focus http://www.marketingsherpa.com/1et/emailsherpa-12-16-04.htm

Cetaphil Case Study (Note: There is a small fee to access this article) http://library.marketingsherpa.com/barrier.cfm?ContentID=2794

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions