Design for a Soft Line

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There’s been a long-simmering debate in the marketing industry about how important the line is to email design. Similar to how you can’t see the content below the fold of a newspaper without opening it, the email fold is that point on a screen where a subscriber can’t see any more content without scrolling. 

Let’s break down the arguments.

Is the Email Fold an Imaginary Line?

For starters, some people question the very existence of the fold. A big reason behind that skepticism stems from the fact that there’s no single fold. For example, no one can say the fold is exactly 700 pixels deep and that everything after that point can only be seen if the viewer scrolls.

The huge range of monitor and device screens used by consumers today make this impossible. For example, the most popular screen size across desktops, tablets, and smartphones is 1920×1080, while the third most popular is a much smaller 360×640, according to StatCounter

On top of that, you have to factor in how much space the inbox app or web interface takes up. On the iPhone 12 Mini, for example, about one-quarter of the screen is taken up by the Apple Mail app, putting the fold at around the 875px mark (after adjusting for the 4x pixel density of Retina displays). And more than two-fifths of the screen is taken by the interface on a desktop monitor set to 2048×1152, putting the fold at around the 758px mark.

While it’s possible for the fold to be somewhere between 500px and 900px for any given screen, the most likely “fold zone” for your brand is probably fairly narrow, given whatever devices are popular with your subscribers. In the case of B2C brands operating in the U.S., the fold zone is probably between 800px and 900px, while it’s probably a range of 750px to 850px for B2B brands because of higher desktop usage.

Thinking of the fold as a zone instead of a line can make it a more actionable consideration when designing emails, which the vast majority of marketers do. According to an Oracle Marketing Consulting poll in July, 92% of marketers said brands should consider “the fold” when designing emails.

That seems like pretty strong confirmation that the fold is very real and has a significant impact on subscriber behavior. The next question then becomes: How should marketers account for the fold in their email designs?

Related Article: 7 Factors That Determine Email Deliverability

Hard Line or Soft Line?

To answer this question, we have to tackle the other big argument against the fold, which is that it’s not much of a barrier today because it’s so easy and common for people to scroll. Whether it’s the flick of a scroll wheel or the flick of a finger on a touchscreen, this action is low effort, goes the argument.

There’s good support for this argument. For instance, while 80% of web users’ viewing time was spent above the fold in 2010, that was down to just 57% in 2018, according to Nielsen Norman Group eye tracking studies. However, it’s worth stressing that nearly all of the research that’s been done about scrolling has centered on web behavior, which isn’t always the same as email behavior. The channels are different and have different expectations — sometimes wildly so. That said, it’s hard to argue that scrolling through an email is a big barrier. It’s certainly a much lower barrier than getting an email click. 

However, in terms of design, it’s wise to recognize that a subscriber scrolling doesn’t just happen. It has to be prompted through email design, messaging or subscriber education. Let’s look at three key considerations that our designers, copywriters and strategists regularly recommend to our clients:

1. Make Acting Easy for People Who Don’t Want or Need to Scroll

When a subscriber is reading the body of your email, they’ve already brought some intent with them into this stage of the email interaction. That’s because they read your sender name, subject line and other envelope content. For example, if your subject line was good, then they already have a good idea what the primary call-to-action is. And depending on what you’re promoting, it may not take much more convincing to get them to click through to your landing page. Don’t make these people scroll. 

“The strategies associated with having clear CTAs and click options near the top of an email are more relevant than ever for two reasons,” said my colleague Peter Briggs, director of Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Marketing Consulting. “First, all research points to consumers having less patience than ever (especially younger people), so having a clear CTA that grabs their attention in under a second is crucial. And second, Apple’s new privacy changes are devaluing opens, which makes getting clicks much more important.”

Related Article: What iOS 15 Means for Marketers

2. Consider Repeating Key CTAs Above and Below the Fold

There’s no rule that you can’t repeat an important CTA. While you probably want a CTA above the fold for those subscribers who are already primed to act, you can have one or more CTAs below the fold to capture the interest of subscribers who aren’t convinced until after they’ve seen more of your email content. B2C and B2B brands that sell expensive, high-consideration products or services routinely use this tactic.

I’ve seen many messages that sprinkle the same CTA link throughout the email a dozen or more times. That way, wherever the subscriber is in the email when their interest has been piqued, a CTA is right there for them to click. This is an important design tactic, because while many people are willing to scroll down through an email, very few are willing to scroll back up.

3. Give Your Subscribers a Reason to Scroll

Marketers can significantly increase the chances that their subscribers will scroll by making certain design choices and using certain messaging strategies, such as:

  • Tease below-the-fold content — Use your subject line and preview text to promote content in your email that’s below the fold. That will prompt your subscribers to scroll to find it. Just don’t make this content too hard to find or it will cause frustration.

  • Use lists — Use your subject line, preview text and headline to set the expectation that your email contains a list. This primes subscribers to scroll through the entire list. Also consider testing using a reverse list, where they have to scroll to see the No. 1 item in your list rather than showing that first.

  • Place images so they straddle the fold zone — People are curious. They want to see an entire image. That can help get subscribers scrolling.

  • Train subscribers to scroll — If you place popular content in the same place below the fold email after email, you’ll encourage subscribers to scroll. For example, I consulted for a CPG company that promoted a manufacturer’s coupon in the preview text of every email. It placed that coupon at the bottom of its very long emails that were dominated by recipes and other content. The coupon got the most clicks of all the content in the email every time because subscribers learned where to find it. Other companies, including B2B brands, have positioned polls and other interactive content at the bottom of their emails to spur scrolling.

  • Attention wanes the longer your email, but spikes at the end — Each additional screen-worth of content you have in your email after the fold gets progressively less attention. However, the last content block before your email footer tends to get a bump in engagement. Use this behavior to your advantage by positioning strong content there, just like the CPG company mentioned earlier.

Given all of these issues, whether the fold is a hard line or soft line is kind of up to marketers and how they design their emails. However, the smart strategy is to design like it’s a soft line. Plan to get most of your clicks above the fold, but put in the effort to earn additional clicks below the fold. Mapping out the distribution of clicks in your recent campaigns can give you a good idea of how well you’re currently doing at encouraging scrolling. Then, test some of these strategies to see how your subscribers respond.

Chad S. White is the author of Email Marketing Rules and Head of Research for Oracle Marketing Consulting, a global full-service digital marketing agency inside of Oracle.

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