Preview Panes: The New Subject Line

Since I seem to be on a semi-roll, challenging long-held beliefs in the industry, I thought I'd throw out another concept: "Preview panes are the new subject line."

Now to be clear from the start, I'm not calling for the end of subject lines or suggesting that they serve no purpose anymore. What I am saying is that with the growing adoption of preview panes, the role and value of the subject line is also changing. In fact, the subject line may now be third in importance behind the from/sender line and preview pane in terms of its ability to motivate recipients to take action.

The preview pane itself is beginning to supersede the subject line as the driver to conversion. More specifically, it is the content inside the preview pane that motivates the recipient to open the full message, or to scroll further and take action without ever even opening the message.

This, in fact, is not a new issue or idea. Many of us in the industry have been preaching for the last three years about the realities of preview panes and blocked images, their favorite dance partner.

Preview panes typically give you only a few inches of space to state your case. Add to that the double whammy of images that are disabled by default -- and you end up with a big blank space if you rely heavily on large images to relay your message.

The preview pane is prime real estate -- the Boardwalk of email messages for those of us who grew up playing Monopoly. Optimize that "hot zone," the top few inches and left corner of your message, and you greatly increase your chances of conversion with recipients.

But, when I look at the emails in my inbox every day, the vast majority of marketers don't treat the top any differently from the bottom of their messages.

On second thought, they do. In many cases the bottoms are better optimized. Putting aside those few messages with well-optimized preview panes, most fall into two other camps:

1. Image Intensive: The top of the email is taken up by one or more images -- often logos or mastheads. Which means when I scan my over-full inbox, I see either nothing or red Xs.

2. Instruction Overkill: You know what I'm talking about. What probably started out as a good idea a few years ago has gotten out of control. Look at the top of many emails today and you'll see variations of the "View Web version" and "Add to address book" instructions. Some now also include unsubscribe directions, how you got added to the list and other administrative information.

Countering the Arguments

I expect my argument will raise at least three major disagreements or counterpoints:

  • Not enough email users read email in the preview pane to significantly affect engagement.

  • Adoption rates for both preview panes and disabled images are much lower in the consumer market, where Outlook, which pioneered the default preview pane, is not the standard email client that it is in the business market.

  • Most mobile devices don't even have preview panes and so users have to open the messages anyway.

    To the first two claims, I cite studies by MarketingSherpa and my own from 2005, that show preview pane use is on the rise. Consider these Sherpa findings, all from 2007:

    o 64% of people who are offered preview panes start using them as their default.
    o 80% of at-work users in the U.S. rely on Outlook, which offers preview panes.
    o 38% of online consumers now use email clients that offer preview panes.

    The trend is also on the rise for email clients offering preview panes. Beyond Outlook, Lotus Notes and Thunderbird, Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Mail now offer preview panes. If the trend continues, AOL and Gmail will also add this functionality in the next few years, which will mean that 90% or more of your B-to-C recipients will at least have the option of using a preview pane.

    It's true that most mobile email viewers don't have a preview pane as we have come to know it, though the iPhone apparently had a two-pane screen in a beta version. As mobile devices become more email-centric, some form of a preview pane is likely to become standard on all smart phones.

    Even so, the tiny screen area one sees when "opening" an email on a mobile device captures only a fragment of the email message's real estate. That is, in essence the "preview pane."

    As I write this column and look at my BlackBerry, it is in fact the "from" or "sender" line that motivates me to open an email. The subject lines are mostly unintelligible, with most truncated after only one to three words.

    As a result, it is this second-screen real estate (the first being the inbox) that determines whether I read further or take some form of action.

    The era of "pretty" email is over. Function is the key, and the preview pane is now where the battle for your recipients' attention is taking place.

    What do you think? Click the comment link below and have your say.

    P.S. The preview pane is yet another reason why I don't believe the open rate is a great measure of subject-line tests and effectiveness.



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