Online Marketing

16 ways to design your emails to maximize readability

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The average attention span is now just eight seconds (about the same as that of a goldfish), thanks to the many distractions and competing calls for our attention. With such a short window of time to capture your audience’s attention, it’s important to make your email messaging as readable and digestible as possible.

To that end, we’ve compiled our top tips for maximizing email readability when creating your next email design.

1. Make the sender name and subject line enticing

Your sender name, subject line, and preheader give the reader an idea of what your email is all about. If you can’t get them past this point, then the rest of your email’s content doesn’t matter.

47% of emails are opened or discarded based solely on their subject line, which means yours should attract attention and be compelling.

In addition, your sender name/address may seem trivial, but people are more likely to open an email from “Kate Williams” or “Brian at SalesABC” than they are to open an email from “info@salescompany.com.”

2. Use an attention-grabbing headline

A strong headline can call attention to your message and keep the reader from swiping through to the next one. Good headlines give readers an idea of what to expect from your message; they may also contain humor, engage curiosity, or highlight a reward/incentive.

3. Shape your content

While readers of books and other traditional mediums read from left to right, online readers are scanners. They consume information in an F-shaped (or sometimes a Z-shaped) pattern.

To take advantage of this, bullet points that are concise and keep important information to the left side of the email can be useful in maintaining your reader’s attention.

4. Use links judiciously

Too many links can be a distraction in your email, especially if all your links are bright blue and underlined. Too many links can also be considered spammy and can keep your emails from being delivered (and no delivery means no readability).

5. Choose your font wisely

illustration of people building a clipboard
Design by Milutin Aleksic

Choosing a web-safe font typecan improve your email readability because you don’t have to worry about your font choice being incompatible with your recipient’s email or computer. And, making your font size adjust to the type of device your reader is using can make it much easier for them to decide to review your message.

Other font best practices to consider:

  • Use contrasting colors. The most readable option is dark text on a light background.
  • Make your fonts large enough. Your body text should be around 14 point or 19 pixels (larger than your typical written document), and your headline sizes should be a bit larger.
  • Decide when to use which font style. Generally, serif fonts are a little easier to scan and should be used for longer blocks of text. Sans serif fonts are better for short blocks of text and bullet points.

6. Use an email analyzer tool

Using a tool like Mailshake can give you a “second set of eyes” on your email content. It analyzes your messaging as you type and provides suggestions on how to make your emails more readable to increase the probability of delivery.

Using Mailshake, you can review your email’s length, verbiage, and links to create messages that have the highest likelihood of being read.

7. Create clear calls to action

Your call to action (CTA) gives your recipient guidance and motivation to keep going forward with you and to figure out what to do next.

three call to action buttons with text
Button designs by Dee-Excetude

Make it easy for your recipient to say yes by directing them to a single call to action. In one study, click-through rates increased 42% when the number of CTAs in an email decreased from four to just one.

The call to action can be a link or a button, but buttons typically perform better. It should have short, specific text and be driven by action. “Get Started” and “Click Here” are two commonly-used options, but even more specific messages could improve their eye-catching quotient.

When designing for mobile, it’s also important to make sure your call-to-action buttons are sized appropriately for fingers on a touchscreen. Link-based CTAs can be difficult to tap on a mobile device; a CTA button should have some white space around it and “room to breathe.” Apple recommends that they be at least 44 pixels tall.

8. Take personalization up a notch

Putting the recipient’s name in the email can boost the likelihood that they’ll read it and take action. Compared to non-personalized messaging, personalized promotional emails produce 29% higher unique open rates and 41% higher click-through rates.

In addition to including the recipient’s name, adding one additional piece of personalized content can increase your success.

Information like an article title from their site, or a news clipping they were recently featured in will catch their eye because of its familiarity. And, it will give you instant credibility because of your willingness to do your research.

9. Write the way your reader wants to read

Instead of using big words and long, complex sentences, make it easy on your recipient, who may be flipping through emails on a lunch break or in between meetings.

The only exception to this rule is jargon related to a specific industry, which is okay if you’re connecting with leaders in that specific industry.

Aim for an eighth-grade reading level for most messages. For technical B2B emails, aim for a 12th-grade reading level to accommodate some of the more specific and sophisticated knowledge you may need to highlight.

10. Keep it short

If you have a high percentage of email recipients using mobile (and more than half of all emails are opened on mobile), they can lose context within a message quickly.

A long email or one with lots of text is difficult for mobile users to digest because they might have to scroll up and down to retain information and context.

11. Optimize for mobile

Illustration of woman sitting on cloud with laptop surrounded by speech bubbles
Illustration by DaliaKK

For maximum email readability, make sure you’re creating your email with your reader’s preferences in mind. Designing emails to display responsively across different devices is crucial to your readability success.

Half of recipients immediately delete and 51% unsubscribe from email messages that don’t display properly on mobile.

A little attention to detail and design can go a long way toward keeping them engaged and on your subscriber list (as well as keeping them from reporting your messages as spam).

12. Put the most important information first

Because of the F-shaped visual pattern many readers use, you have the best opportunity to catch their attention with your early content.

Include the most important details and information toward the top of your message and use an inverted pyramid approach to filter through the rest of your content.

13. Use visuals judiciously

It’s true that a picture can be worth a thousand words, but, at the same time, overwhelming your email with images can flag it as spammy. Visuals that you include should help catch attention or visually explain a more complex point.

14. Follow different rules for follow-ups

A follow-up email shouldn’t reiterate everything you said in the original message.

Instead, keep these emails short and sweet and use them as a strategy to add value (sharing relevant articles, white papers, webinars, discounts, etc). Try using a template to help with creating great follow-up messages.

15. Know your software

Most email marketing software tools come with a handful of pre-installed templates. While the designs might not be perfect for your brand, they often can be a great starting point for creating readable emails. And they take a whole lot less time to create as well!

Choose a template, adjust the colors and typefaces to match your brand’s style guide, and you’re on the way to delivering a campaign.

16. Use white space to your advantage

Every inch of your email doesn’t have to be covered with text and content.

White space makes it easier for your email recipient to review content and for their brain to make sense of the information you’re providing.

When you’re creating an email, the most important thing you can do is give relevant information in a way that’s easy to review and easy to act on.

When you increase the readability of your emails, you improve your chances of staying engaged with your recipients. And, you increase the possibility that they’ll engage with your brand message, recognize your value and choose to create a relationship with you in the future.

Which email readability tips do you use most often? We’d love to hear from you; feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

About the author - From 99 Designs (99designs.com) Guest Author

Ben Johnson runs Content at Proof, a Y Combinator-backed startup that provides real-time social proof and personalization software. Over 18,000 sites trust Proof to help increase their conversion rates.

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