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How to get your emails some inbox attention

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 15 Jul, 2010
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Last month I gave four reasons why the status quo isn't good enough for your email marketing.

One reason was growing email competition, so it seems sensible to review some of the things you can do to ensure it's your email that gets attention in the inbox.

We'll start with the in-email factors (from line, subject line, preview pane and preheader) and then address out-of-email factors (which most people forget about).

The from line

We tend to focus on the subject line, but we also know that the name of the sender is at least as important in helping recipients decide whether an email is worth attention or not.

You actually have a lot of choices, including:

  • Organization name
  • Brand name
  • Person's name (e.g. account manager's name)
  • Program name (e.g. name of the email loyalty program)

...or a combination (e.g. John Smith - Acme Supplies).

The choice you make is simply based on what you think most recipients are likely to recognize. Some senders find using a person's name as the from line is beneficial, as it establishes a more human connection. But there are provisos for this approach.

First, the name has to be meaningful. Such as if you have a famous CEO or brand advocate, or can tie email addresses to the recipients account rep.

Second, mail from a person raises different expectations than mail from a company. You need to have systems in place to properly manage replies, for example, that are directed at the sender personally.

Third, you need consistency. If you start using different names, it can lead to confusion.

At the very least avoid those bland, anonymous sender names like "office", "marketing" or "info". Note also that display space may be limited, especially on mobile devices, so keep the from line short: put the identifying words as close to the beginning as possible.

"Acme Marketing" not "Marketing at Acme".

While most email software displays the sender name, the sender's email address can also be displayed. Thunderbird, for example, displays both in the preview pane (if the sender's not a known contact).

So the email address should include recognition elements too. If "replies" are going through your ESP's system, work with them so that the displayed address can still be tied to your organization.

[email protected] or [email protected] is a heap better looking than [email protected].

The subject line

If you want the subject to help with recognition, then include a brand, organization or publication name in there, like these companies do:

  • HP's Fourth of July Sale STARTS NOW!?
  • Amazon.com: New Releases in Humor Books
  • eMarketer Daily - College Students Annoyed by Mobile Ads

You can use text formatting to help the recognition element stand out:

  • [Sherpa Chart] Effective email marketing tactics

Studies suggest branded subject lines lift results, but there is a compromise here. The branding takes away space you might otherwise use for words that drive interest and action. As always, you'll need to test to find the best solution for your situation.

The preheader

An email's preheader is the text you find at the very top of the message. On most emails it serves an administrative function, pointing people to a "web version" of the email if it displays oddly, or requesting you add the sender to an address book:


A growing trend is to put enticing marketing copy up there, too, as this newsletter demonstrates:


That has three main benefits.

It's more of an attention grabber than bland admin links. It communicates the value of the email quickly, encouraging action without the need to look down the message. And, if done right, it shows up in the inbox display at Gmail, which appends text snippets to each email's subject line.

The preview pane

Most email software and webmail services let users preview an email without having to open it. This preview area (the preview pane) is displayed below or to the side of the inbox.

The preview is another chance to present recognition elements to the recipient as they go through their messages. The problem is that preview space is limited, and can take both horizontal and vertical forms.

So the only part of an email you can be sure will appear in a preview pane is whatever is in the top left of your template. That's a clear design hint and one reason why many senders put their logo in that position.

Of course, don't forget to include a branded alt attribute in your image HTML so that the recognition effect remains even if images are blocked.

Out-of-email issues

Of course, all of your email marketing is actually driving recognition and attention.

If you are a sender that promises value and delivers it, then people will actually look out for your emails. The best senders can put out messages on stupid days (like a B2B mail on a public holiday) and still get attention, because their readers are actively seeking out their messages.

Other things you might do include:

  • Link to sample emails from your sign-up pages, so people will recognize the message when they start appearing in the inbox
  • Send an immediate welcome message after sign-up and ensure that the in-email elements in the message reflect those used in future emails. People expect and look for welcome messages and sign-up confirmations, so you can use them to train recognition
  • Ensure the design of the emails reflect the design, style and colors of the brand and/or website, so there is no disconnect to overcome between what people expect your message to look like and how it actually looks
  • Maintain consistency of presentation. If you do change your layout or design, ensure enough recognition elements are retained so that a quick glance will still alert readers to who you are
  • Don't go too long between sends. The longer you leave it, the more risks you take with recognition. My rule of thumb is at least once a month

So how about you? What else are you doing to boost inbox recognition?

Author's avatar

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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