Nobody reads your emails -- and it's all your fault!


You’re not getting the readership you hoped for? Your open rates and click-throughs are generally poor. And you’re wondering what’s wrong? Read on to learn why. 

Assuming that you don’t have an inbox-placement issue, your customers aren’t reading your emails because: 

  1. Your copy doesn’t provide valuable contentYes, there are plenty of words, but what they say is of little to no interest to your customers.
  2. You make your content too hard to read  – The content is interesting, but it is too challenging for the reader to give your copy a chance. 

The consequence of a Pavlovian response

Keep in mind the following: Repeated exposure to a stimulus associated with a particular outcome tends to condition the future response to the stimulus. This phenomenon and its effect – known as conditioned response – is a common challenge in email marketing. 

It influences how customers respond when they receive an email. Customers who are repeatedly exposed to irrelevant content will be conditioned not to open your emails in the future. 

This same reflex can be used to reinforce a positive response by ensuring that the majority of your email messages deliver value. From the first word of the subject line, to the final CTA, your need to make your email content captivating, relevant and – most of all – easy to read.

Earn the right to ask for the order

A mistake that many email marketers make is to focus on conversion. As if every customer was ready to buy. So, they create messages that focus on the offer and ask. 

But sometimes an image and a price are not enough. Sometimes, people need time and information before they make a decision. Sometimes, people want to understand “why” behind this or that product. 

Complex sales, big ticket purchases, or purchases with a lot of perceived risk, require multiple steps, quality information and a sufficient amount of time to make a choice. 

Your emails need to take that into account. You need to orchestrate a series of emails that move the customer forward in their buyer’s journey. And when you do, that adds value to your content. 

The concept of value to customers

Value is subjective of course. What has value in my eye may be different for what you perceive to be of value. And what represents value to your business often does not appear valuable in the eyes of the consumer. 

As I pointed out in a previous post, every email should provide value to the customer. We can classify this value into three main categories: 

Financial value: providing customers with savings or other financial advantage. This is the most common form of value. But it assumes that customer needs what you have to sell.

Do not assume that financial value is the only thing your customers want. Other successful marketers have understood that price isn’t everything and turned their attention to the other two forms of value.

Emotional value: your message engages your customers senses and emotions. An emotional connection is even more important than usual in these trying times. Your messages must rely on empathy to connect with your customers.

For example, emotional value is particularly important in the travel and hospitality industry. The emotional value comes from the positive emotions that customers experience by spending time with loved ones.

Convenience value: even today, time is still money. And nobody likes to wait. So an email that make it easy to buy provides important value. Fast delivery, easy returns, one-click ordering all provide convenience.

Remember this. Emails that focus on price rebates reinforce a conditioned response.

Your customers will remember that:

  • Everything is always on sale.
  • You never have anything to say except “give me your money.”

Words matter

Writing good email copy is hard. It requires discipline, time and a certain amount of skill. Use words –whether spoken or written – that strike a chord with your customers. Create excitement, joy, curiosity, interest and a sense of urgency – then reap the rewards. 

It takes years of experience to master the art of good copywriting. Fortunately, you don’t need to be Hemingway to write better copy. Here are a few tips to help you do good work: 

  • Use a conversational tone – like you’re talking with a close friend
  • Use the active voice – it helps guide your customers and call them to action
  • Add some personality – out with bland boring text! Inject a little humor
  • One paragraph, one idea – ‘nuff said!
  • Short sentences – keep them around 10-12 words. Never more than 25!
  • Keep it simple – use the words real people use. No jargon
  • Test your readability – use the Flesch-Kincaid reader index, Fog test and other readability tools.

Good copy entices to learn more

Now let’s not get carried away (as I have with the blog post)! Our ultimate goal is to generate clicks as soon and as often as possible. So, brevity is important. But so is understanding the job of your copy. 

Email copy’s only job is to “sell” the reader on the benefits of clicking to learn more on your website. It must be short, inspiring and compelling. 

Good copy is consistent

Sometimes, emails read like they come from different brands from one to the next. There’s no consistent tone or style. Most brands have a brand book or graphic standards guide, but when it comes to copy, often anything goes. 

If you want to maintain a consistent voice, you need a brand style guide. This is particularly important when you have several contributors writing copy on your team. Or when you use freelance writers. 

A style guide is a collection of standards for consistent writing that includes a shared library of:

  • Terms, words and phrases,
  • Rules for punctuation and capitalization
  • Brand personality and voice
  • Trademarks and spelling
  • Things to avoid.

One of the oldest style guides that is still relevant and in use today is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. By creating and using a style guide, you’ll ensure that your customers always get a consistent experience. 

Great copy won’t matter if it’s too hard to read.

Reading on a screen is hard. Much harder on a printed page. Yet much of what we produce in email and on the Web pushes our abilities to the limit. 

Long paragraphs, wide and justified text, 12-pixel font, light grey color. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, minimalistic throwaways and one-liners that add nothing. 

Studies also show that retention and understanding is poorer on a digital medium. This is particularly worrisome in the current shift towards virtual classrooms. They challenge students and teachers alike. So imagine your customers struggling to remember your email content. 

Since reading an email is such hard work, here are some points to keep in mind to help your customers get the message with time and less effort. 

Form follows function.

Designers don’t always keep function in mind. They often view an email or a website as a work of art. Their priority is to make their work esthetically pleasing (and maybe win an award). 

Of course, we all know that the true function is to get the message across. To get our content read. To effectively communicate its essence as effectively as possible. And to lead the reader to action. 

Readers don’t read, they scan

Poor email design makes reading slower. More difficult. More strenuous. Poor design adds friction to the communication process. On mobile device, it only gets worse. Unfortunately, eyes are imperfect devices. And the older they get, the less they work properly. 

A few years ago, Jakob Nielsen and his colleague Donald Norman began to study the challenges of reading on screens and established the foundations of UX design. 

What they found was that people don’t actually read word-for-word. Instead, they scan-read the content in search of something of interest. You’ll notice this as people thumb through content on a mobile device. 

That’s why chunking your content into bite-size morsels of interesting content is important. So is using short bold subheads to draw the eye. And don’t forget to use supporting images to break up the text, connect with the reader and guide the eye. 

Size matters

What we’ve also learned from those two UX pioneers, and those that followed, is that size does in fact matter. 

It matters for character size – it takes longer to read text that is small. My default is 16 to 18px for text, 18 to 24px for subheads and 28-30 px for headlines. If your audience is younger, you can drop down a notch, but don’t go crazy.

It matters for format – narrow emails (between 500 and 650 px) provide a boring experience on desktop. They look okay on a mobile device, although the hero images tend to be small.

Break free with wide formats that show your brand experience in a new light. I prefer to work with wide-format templates that are 960-980 px wide. Sometimes wider. Wide formats mean BIG hero images and are better suited for two-column formats.

You should use a substitute image for mobile when the viewport is 480 px or less. Also, make the code fluid and responsive so it resizes for any device or screen size.

It matters for line length – The eye can’t easily track to the end of a long line of text and successfully find the next line.

Column width, measured in characters per line or CPL, should not exceed 85 characters wide. Nor should it be less than 35 characters wide.

It matters for line spacing – according to UX studies, tighter and wider line spacing impair readability. So standard line spacing is best. Tighter line spacing is harder to read. So is double-spaced.

Even alignment matters – Centred text is trendy in web design. Some email designers claim that it helps guide the eye downward towards a centered button. That may work for a couple of lines of text.

For more text, use flush left since the straight edge guides the eye to from line to line. And use right ragged since flush right guides the eye down the page along the right margin. 

Test, test, test

Despite all these rules, email copywriting and design is still more of an art than a science. Or is it?

Rather than rely on your gut instinct or personal taste, put your designs to the test. 

To do this, implement a robust A/B testing program before your commit to a final template design. That way you will rely more on what people actually do, than on what you or your designer thinks is cool.