Emails. Short or long?

7 minute read

Short!
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I’ll be honest. I was tempted to end this blog here – it would have a certain literary elegance. However, partly because blog articles suit a slightly longer format than emails, and partly because ‘short’ isn’t really the full answer, here are some more thoughts on the subject.

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Keeping emails short is generally good advice. Research indicates that only around 1% of readers can realistically (that is with 85%+ comprehension of the content) read upwards of 1,000 words per minute. 200 words per minute is much more like the average for most of us, and even then assuming around only 60% comprehension accuracy. Now, with people receiving upwards of 40 emails per day, imagine how long you spend reading each.

We know that emails are scanned relatively quickly. After opening, the average consumption for an email newsletter is around 50 seconds. That means that anything much more than 250 words is likely to be stretching the attention span, especially for a mobile audience. We also skim read – around 35% of visible content is visually scanned, with only around 20% being actively read.

All of this points to short being good. Large or long emails, especially those heavy with images can be slow to load and are certainly time consuming to read. There are also implications for long or complicated wording. Email is about conveying a message quickly and clearly so as well as short – keep it simple. Regarding your copy, there are lots of free tools available to help. I like the Hemmingway app  and Grammarly. If you’re not precious about your copy, both will critically analyse your work, suggesting useful improvements to length, grammar and meaning.

Consider breaking potentially longer content or multiple messages or objectives into separate campaigns. It depends, but a single message with a single call to action has been shown time and again to work well. Short and direct resonates especially well with sales or promotional emails.

If you really do need a longer format email there are a couple of things you can do to improve the way your readers read and engage with your message.

Put your most important or most popular content first. Email readers will scroll beyond the visible screen, both on desktop and on mobile devices, but there’s an intensity of focus on the first page or two, so front loading a longer message with key points, headlines and call to actions is likely to increase their visibility and levels of engagement.

Use links. They will allow more detailed content to be accessible without direct inclusion in the body of your email. Click through links also give valuable information on campaign engagement, that is  intelligence on how many and which of your subscribers are clicking through to your additional content. Techniques like behavioural profiling (at Sign-Up.to we call this Audience Insights) you can even track even what they are doing afterwards as they continue to browse your website.

Break up the vertical scroll. Visual interruptions in long blocks of text make it easy for skim readers (that’s most of us) to navigate and find what they are looking for. Headings, paragraph breaks, white space and images all work well in this respect, successfully breaking up your longer message into bite-sized chunks.

Numbers are also good. As we’re often scanning email for the value we’re attuned to look for numbers.  So don’t spell it out. 10,000 is more appealing and more likely to draw attention than ‘ten thousand’.

Use images. Used in moderation, images are good anyway. As well as serving to punctuate larger blocks of content it’s true that a well chosen image both adds interest and can replace a sizable wordy description (the idiom that an image speaks a thousand words was first used by newspaper editor Tess Flanders back in 1911). You can also use images as a call to action. If you do, although readers are accustomed to clicking images to see what happens, make it clear that this is indeed your intention, and also have a backup in case the images in your message are not displayed.

To be completely objective, in reality there’s no such thing as the perfect length email. It’s easy to get hung up in the myriad of stats available but ultimately it’s about optimising your content for your audience. If they are anticipating volumes of information that they will examine in great detail then this is what you should deliver. However, understand also if they are expecting short, snappy to the point snippets and offers. Either way, take this expectation as your objective and don’t disappoint.

I always go back to these wise words as a rule of thumb. Include what you need to, but if it’s too detailed, superfluous, irrelevant or distracting – leave it out. And, if you’re still not sure – try a split test. Split testing a short and longer variation of the same email, to samples of the same audience, will give you valuable insight as to which is being better received – valuable information for the remainder of the test audience, and for the length of your next campaign.