Email Preheaders: What Are The Rules?

Last week, we sent out an email that had the following preheader: Not sure what you're looking at? Click here to View In Browser instead!

We took a bit of heat for it on Twitter from a few folks in the email marketing community. There was more to this conversation than highlighted below, but this was the gist:

Alex Williams of eROI tweeted, "preheader should set up the email and get them to open." Jordie van Rijn of EmailMonday replied, "Preheader is a place, not a function. Some use for web version only: no best practice. but practice can be broken." Alex followed with, "in 2010, a web version only pre-header is a missed opportunity." 

I love conversations like these because they make you think. Who is right? Alex? Jordie? Neither? Both? Alex and Jordie are not only super-smart email marketers, but two gentlemen whom I consider friends. I can see both sides of what they are saying. If fact, I agree with Alex that the "preheader should set up the email and get them to open." That's what I tell clients all of the time. However, we chose to mix it up a bit. Did we do it wrong? Did we break the best-practice rules? 



Best Practices, Rules, Doing it Wrong 

The topic of best practices is one that resurfaces in the email marketing world all of the time. People always want to know what the "best practice" for subject lines or calls-to-action or copy is. As email marketing advisors, we often lead with the standard answer of "it depends." I can't recall whom I heard this from first (maybe Morgan Stewart?), but instead of thinking about best practices, we should be reframing the discussion as "practices that are best for you."

Think about that for a second: Practices that are best for you.

Now, go back to the example above about the preheader. Was our use of that valuable real estate a "best practice?" Likely not if you subscribe to the strict definition. However, would it be considered a practice that was best for us? Maybe. As it turns out, the email we are debating was not very image-heavy. In fact, you could consume the message in its entirely without loading images. We had one text-linked call-to-action in the email pointing to a very specific promotional offer. So maybe including a link to the Web version was not only unnecessary, but also a poor use of the preheader. As Alex said on Twitter: the "preheader should set up the email and get them to open."

However, what if leading with, "Not sure what you're looking at?" did in fact get folks to open the email? Maybe it was just different enough to cause a subscriber to pause, to not simply delete without reading. Maybe this preheader led to more opens?

How can you tell if one preheader works better than another? Simple: Test. In this example, if our goal was more opens, we could have tested a few different preheaders:

·      Basic: Can't see images? Click here to view in a web browser.

·      A bit unique: Not sure what you're looking at? Click here to View In Browser instead!

·      Detailed: Special Offer Inside. Open Now!

·      Call-To-Action: Learn more about this offer now (link "learn more" to the special offer landing page).

Some Takeaways

1.     Think carefully about what you include in the preheader. It's valuable real estate.

2.     Best practices = Practices that are best for you. It depends.

3.     Test. Test. Test. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on preheaders, best practices, and/or testing. Please share in the comments below.

2 comments about "Email Preheaders: What Are The Rules?".
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  1. Greg Alvarez from iMeil, October 25, 2010 at 2:13 p.m.

    IMHO, your assumption that all people use Panel Preview in their email reader is misleading. AFAIK, there are a big amount of people that use the classical way. I mean, they have the list of all email in their inbox and make no usage of a preview panel.

    So, its clear that using a preheader like the one commented is both confusing and inefficient. Through the use of a preview panel it could get success.

    For that big amount of people not using a preview panel, their is no way you can track an open "influenced by the preheader".

    "Normal use" of Gmail and Hotmail do not allow for the preview. With Yahoo! Mail possibilities are higher, since the preview is almost automatic when you upgrade to the recent version.

    Outlook users receive the alert box (if opted to) with the title and just some words from the preheader. How can you expect an Outlook user to determine if they are "Not sure what you're looking at?" with only the alert box indicating a new message has arrived?

    Personally, I would delete your email asap (I can say I did because can't remember to read such message... or may it went directly to Junk Email), since if I opted to subscribe to your list to receive information or promotions or news... its because ***I am sure what I want***

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Steve Bates from Nike, Inc., October 25, 2010 at 2:44 p.m.

    The Preheader--simply put--is what it is. But it is so inside of your message.

    That said, it is both content and a function and can actually operate as both in the same message depending upon how the intended audience is viewing your email. Inside of regular email clients (Outlook, Mail etc.) it is simply an opportunity to complete the subject line--an enticement to all those with blocked images to download them and see more. It is quite another inside of web-based email clients. Where it is literally a continuation of the subject line, literally. Go check your Gmail account right now and see what is displayed in the default view (depending on the length of the subject line, you see some/lots of the preheader as copy right beside the subject line).

    It is the combination of all pre-open factors; Sender Friendly Name, Sender Email, Subject Line and Preheader need to come together in a perfect storm of legitimacy and excitement to entice your recipients to open the message.

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