Make Way! The Preheader Express Is Still Chugging Along

  • by January 6, 2009

Preheaders have received a lot of industry love throughout 2008. We first wrote about the preheader last January in our article "The Preheader Express," for the Email Experience Council, and since then, discussions on the topic have been popping up all over the place. We're thrilled to see more email marketers begin to optimize this small but valuable real estate snippet and excited to watch and participate in the evolution of preheader best practices. With 2009 just starting, this seems like a good time to reflect on where the Preheader Express has been stopping, and to begin mapping its future itinerary.

In his Retail Email Blog, Chad White has argued that preheader real estate should be optimized rather than maximized. The preheader should hold only the most relevant information so that it works its magic without getting too busy or taking up too much of the valuable "preview pane" space. He discusses how HP Shopping (second topic down) and Staples redesigned their preheaders to make the most of the least space and offers valuable tips for marketers to follow suit.



Jeff Mills' article for iMedia Connection is a deft distillation of the value of the preheader and how email marketers can work the preheader to its full potential (of course, we're also wooed by his use of Smith-Harmon's very own Loveletter as a good example). Mills reminds us that, as the preheader text is often what readers see first when viewing from mobile devices, taking advantage of preheader power means packing some punch by keeping the reader experience in mind.  Similarly, a recent MailChimp article urges us to "fancy" up the preheader with compelling text and gives the example of an enticing offer that Banana Republic called out in its preheader.


Let's look at the sorts of content we've been seeing in retail email preheaders:


Content teaser snippets. To pack the needed punch and account for those reading from mobile devices, many brands have begun listing email content topics and/or calling out compelling offers in their preheaders.

Some, like REI, use their preheaders to draw readers in by listing email topics. Other brands include just a short hook with their best offer -- both Sephora and NBC take this approach, addressing the recipient directly (as "Sephora Shopper," and "Hi NBC fan," respectively). Macy's announces its biggest offer in larger text than the rest of its preheader, which causes it to grab more attention but also pushes the preheader to occupy more space.


View with images links. Links to hosted versions make their way into just about every preheader, big or small. Many retailers, like Anthropologie, include only a view with images link.

The "view with images" link makes sense in the preheader, where a viewer with html disabled will see a solution to the gaps before getting frustrated. However, this won't salvage the experiences of viewers who read email from mobile devices, and some have been including links to text versions for PDA users (discussed below).

Something else to consider is that in some inboxes -- like the iPhone's and Gmail's -- the first few lines of HTML text are displayed in the inbox under the subject line, allowing retailers to use the preheader to compel folks to open. The words "If you're having trouble..." are not the most engaging to show first, and while they are valuable to keep in the preheader, it's also important to think about the order of the text and to ensure that compelling copy comes first.


View text version on your PDA. We haven't seen many of these in the retail world, but offering a link to a text-only version is a smart accompaniment to the "view with images" link. PDA versions of preheaders are especially important to B2B audiences reading their email from BlackBerrys or other handheld devices. Crate and Barrel is one of the first retailers to pioneer this preheader link, and we predict (and hope!) that others will follow, especially as more and more people begin to use PDAs.


• Whitelisting instructions. The "Add to address book" request is also a popular piece of preheader, appearing in some short preheaders, like Bergdorf Goodman's, as well as in most longer preheaders, including Pottery Barn Kids'. While it's valuable to include whitelisting instructions in email to reduce the chances of messages ending up in junk mail folders, this may not be considered essential preheader or preview pane content for those hoping to keep preheaders short and sweet. It might make the most sense to include an "Add to address book" mention only in a welcome series or in the first few emails that a new subscriber receives.    


• "Forward to a friend" links.  "Forward to friend" links often make it into the preheader, even in quaint and concise preheaders like Urban Outfitters'. These links are a great way to remind readers that their friends might enjoy the emails as well as to track how many emails get forwarded. Keeping these links in the preheader may draw more attention and procure more forwards than would tucking them down below, but their value should also be weighed carefully against other compelling preheader content.

Advertising for partner brands or individual products. DJ Waldo's November Brontoblog post opened a bit of debate regarding whether certain uses of the preheader space can be deemed "misuses," as opposed to productive experimentation and testing. In this article he wonders whether advertising for partner brands works for Twitbeep, or whether it is a waste of the valuable real estate. Chad White also noted back in May that CompUSA was using the preheader to advertise Microsoft Vista, just one of its products. Both of these preheader uses are atypical, but quite possibly appropriate for these two brands, and at the very least justifiable in the name of preheader experimentation. We'd like to see more unique uses and reports back on successes and flops.

Please comment below and let us know how you've optimized your preheader or how you've seen the preheader put to work by others. By continuing the preheader dialogue, we can all learn what works and what doesn't. Let the testing continue -- make way for the Preheader Express!

2 comments about "Make Way! The Preheader Express Is Still Chugging Along".
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  1. Gretchen Scheiman from Alchemy Worx, January 7, 2009 at 12:52 p.m.

    It's great to see some prioritization being done on what to put in pre-headers. But has anyone done testing or does anyone have results for how these work? I'm a believer - I'd just like to see some stats around these!

  2. Bonnie Malone from Return Path, January 7, 2009 at 3:26 p.m.

    At Return Path, preheader success is most imminent when our clients know their audience and keep the preheader message concise. For example, if a sender’s inbox deliverability is consistently high, including “add to addressbook” verbiage is not as effective as a “content teaser” or “view images” link. (And, conversely, when inbox delivery is very low, “add to addressbook” is an effective use of the space!) While leveraging this valuable real estate is smart, keeping the message focused and text brief ensures both a quick read and good preview pane space-management.

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