Above the fold. Is it relevant for email?

6 minute read

Most people agree that when it comes to email, short is good. But is there life beyond the fold, or should I say scroll?

Marketers of a certain age (myself included) will have learned the expression ‘above the fold’ from the days of print content and advertising. The ‘fold’ refers to the portion of the printed item which is typically displayed without unfolding – in the case of items like newspapers and fliers it’s typically the upper half or third of the piece. The premise is that an item placed above the fold will generally be directly visible either on display or at first inspection, and is therefore more likely to be noticed and engaged with. This leads to the headline priority items or the highest rates for advertising typically being allocated an above the fold placement.

Above the fold

With online content ‘above the fold’ has now become synonymous with ‘above the scroll’, that is the content which is immediately visible either on a website or in an email without the reader having to scroll down. Most studies focus on websites, and although websites and email differ there are still many parallels between the two.

But is ‘above the fold’ still relevant? It’s fair to say that opinion is divided.

Before that – one consideration of note is that the position of the ‘fold’ is now much more variable. The print fold generally referred to half a broadsheet or one third the height of an A4 sheet. The variety of mobile devices available today means that the visible vertical screen size now varies from 30mm for a smartwatch to over 300mm for a professional sized tablet.

YesThe ‘yes’ camp (that is, above the fold is still critical) will focus on our natural online impatience, and cite studies that indicate an inherent reluctance to scrolling. In his usability study of 2006, Jacob Nielsen (better known for his Moore’s Law equivalent for network connection speeds) found that over 75% of users wouldn’t typically scroll beyond a first page of online content.

This effect is supported by the widely reported F-shape which is seen in countless eye tracking studies of search results (especially) but also for websites and email. In relation to scrolling, the important feature of the F-shape is that the intensity of viewing decreases with vertical distance from the top of a content piece. Many will say that beyond the scroll line, the F-shape is essentially lost.

Further supporting evidence comes from web analytics. It depends on the content of course, but as online consumers of websites and email we certainly have limited patience. Interesting research also from NNG (the Neilsen Norman Group and Microsoft) reports that the first 10 seconds are critical and the average web visit lasts only around 60 seconds. However the bounce rate becomes increasingly flat with time – the ‘leave quick or stay long’ effect – meaning that if we linger beyond 30 seconds we’re much more likely to continue reading beyond the average visit time.

NoThe ‘no’ camp have similar studies which report that similar numbers similar to Nielsen’s 75% reluctant scrollers would in fact scroll to a certain extent given compelling enough content. In this case 2 or 3 vertical screens of content is often considered as an acceptable journey before impatience and boredom takes over.

This means that the fold, or in this case the scroll line, is significantly extended beyond what is immediately visible. Around 20% of readers will continue right to the bottom of scrollable content regardless of length, and end-skipping, the process of jumping from high up straight to the end, is also an observed behaviour. Email marketers can exploit this with post-scripts and calls to action near to the end of their messages – this also places the call to action in a natural position of context within the development of the message.

Another key defence of the ‘no’ camp are eye tracking studies which show that the slider on the scroll bar is a key fixation point. This is usually found on the far right hand side of the visible screen, a long way from normal the F-shape focus. The implication is that we have become accustomed to vertical scrolling and are now actively looking for the means to do it. Any casual observation of mobile and other touchscreen users will also quickly conclude that vertical finger scrolling is now as common as 2-thumb typing.

In conclusion

To be completely balanced, it’s clear that content placed high up on a website or an email is still most likely to catch initial attention. It’s no accident that we use hero graphics and impactful headings to grab the attention of our audience. However if we can not only grab but hold attention for a short period of time then it’s also clear that we still have the opportunity to guide our audience onwards (and scrolling downwards) beyond what is immediately visible.

Beyond the fold is out there, as marketers we just need to earn it.