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Design your email program for humans, not email addresses

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 20 Mar, 2012
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Ideas for increasing your responses by using a more human approach...

What would you say if I was to suggest you take account of your target audience when designing your email program?

Actually, you'd probably say nothing... just roll your eyes and find fresh reading material.

It's not exactly groundbreaking advice.

However, the nature of digital marketing seduces us into thinking of the "audience" as a collection of data or unfeeling robots.

So we have segments, samples, cells and clusters...where each email address is a set of numbers, a sequence of letters and a few database fields.

Of course, each email address also represents a human being (gasp!).

Not a shocking concept, I'll admit, but one we often neglect in the way we design emails and email systems. Yet a recognition of human foibles and limitations helps build better emails for better response.

Here are some examples showing how you can adapt your approach...

1. Adapt to subscribers' online skills

The fact you're reading this article suggests you're very comfortable with the online world.

You know a link when you see one, know which buttons to click and think mouse (machine) before mouse (small furry animal).

Your readers may be different.

Watching the "average" email user can be a salutary experience. We make assumptions about behavior and understanding that don't necessarily hold true for those who don't work or play online all day.

Consider, for example, subscription and unsubscribe processes.

Most experts rightly emphasize the need to ensure they work...in the sense that the system adds or suppresses email addresses as required.

But is that the only definition of a "working" subscription process?

What about the instructions and steps required of the web visitor?

Is it crystal clear you need my EMAIL ADDRESS to go HERE, a tick to go in THIS box and then I have to click THIS button to start getting your emails?

What word is best for getting that final commitment: "go", "subscribe", "sign-up", "submit" or something else? It matters.

A refocus on user skills becomes critical when you look at mobile emails and touchscreens.

Power smartphone users have thumbs of steel.

Others don't.

Many people (like me) poke around hoping we hit the right link. And our digits (the anatomical ones) don't have anything close to the precision and accuracy of a cursor.

So a user-friendly email needs space around links to deal with fat-finger frustrations.

And a user and mobile-friendly link needs to look like it's clickable. Unlike a cursor, my finger doesn't change shape when I pass over a link. For more on touchscreens and email design, see StyleCampaign's topical webinar.

Equally, people will click on a lot of email elements that you never intended as links (like headlines and images). Consider turning those into links, too. And are your font sizes readable for an ageing Internet generation?

2. Adapt your language

Marketing emails are about communication. Communication demands clarity. And clarity demands words that reflect the language, understanding and perceptions of the reader. Something makers of DVD recorders are yet to realize.

This means:

Avoid email marketing jargon

Hah - when would we ever use email marketing jargon? Well, check your sign-up forms (do you offer a HTML version?), preference pages (what's one of those anyway?), sign-up confirmations, email footers etc. for jargon creep.

Consider the implications of words

You know what you want people to do, why they should do it and how they should do it.

But do those readers understand what they should do, why and how?

If you ask people to join an email list, a loyalty club, a newsletter or an alert service, you set different expectations...with follow-on effects for how people react to the subsequent emails. The words you use each have different meaning to recipients.

Calls-to-action in particular need careful attention. There is a difference between "read more", "learn more" and "discover how you can save".

Rethink context

We tend to see the inbox as a war zone. You need to fight for attention and capture sales. As if the reader was the enemy and we parachute our emails in with all guns blazing.

While there's truth in that confrontational scenario (with persuasive words replacing weapons), let's not forget people signed up for those emails voluntarily.

Didn't they sign up because they see those "promotions", "ads" or "sales pitches" as a service? Perhaps we should reflect that more in our tone or copy?

Don't be too proud

One of the great benefits of modern digital marketing is the wealth of technological help available to us. The right web and email tools let us dissect the behavior and nature of each recipient like a Victorian gentleman with his butterfly collection.

All this technological excitement can lead to a sense of pride some marketers want to communicate to the subject of all that automated analysis:

"You recently browsed our website for diamond engagement rings
...here's a coupon for..."

Might that raise a few Big Brother eyebrows?

Might it be better as:

"Interested in engagement rings...here's a coupon for..."

What do you think.

Regardless, it's clearly worth returning to the original suggestion after all, but from a different perspective: take account of your human audience when designing your email program. After all, we're all human.

Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo

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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