Mona Lisa's eyes

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Anne Alden
Anne Alden

How does the Mona Lisa draw people in? Is it her eyes? That elusive smile? Or could it be the overall effect of the entire painting? If you only saw Mona Lisa's eyes, would you want to see more? These are the questions you should be asking yourself when designing and writing an e-mail.

Granted, comparing one of the best-known masterpieces of all time to effective e-mail design is a bit extreme, but you get the picture:

Within a few small inches, the recipient must get a good idea of your offer, become intrigued and open the e-mail to view the entire message.

Information should be conveyed in an efficient yet effective way that upholds your brand tenets. And to make the situation more challenging, you only get 45 characters in a subject line.

Sound easy? Maybe so, but there is one invisible element that is beyond any creative control — the bottom of a preview pane or “fold” of an open e-mail.

So, how do we get your equivalent to the Mona Lisa “above the fold”?

First, run your e-mail through a simulated send sequence to check its on-screen rendering across a selection of the most commonly used e-mail providers using tools like Pivotal Veracity and Delivery Audit from

Second, consider other factors determined by the recipient:

Preview pane size. Some people like to see what they are about to get, but others read only the subject line before hitting “delete.”

So remember that for some, even your best creative efforts aren't as important as the subject line.

Screen resolution. Most monitors and laptop screens have advanced beyond the 800-pixel by 600-pixel ratio. The norm is now 1024 by 768, which provides more screen space.

Competition with your e-mails. Your messages compete for attention with other e-mails, instant messaging, message boards, multiple applications, other Web sites, ringing phones, etc.

Image options. Turning images off is the default setting for many Web-based e-mail services and applications.

Now, ask yourself these questions:

Is my subject line compelling? Is my message relevant and focused? The job of an e-mail is to get people to click into the client brand experience — not to give them every option and detail.

What does your message look like with images turned off? Be sure to include a “Can't view this e-mail? Click here” option that will take readers to a hosted HTML page.

What is the overall picture? An e-mail must work as a bridge that a reader can't refuse to walk — or click — across. Length of copy, call to action, the blend of images and text, hyperlinks and overall clarity play a role.

When readers choose to scroll below the fold, that means they are engaged and want to know more. If you only saw a portion of the Mona Lisa above the fold but could click to see the rest, wouldn't you?

Anne Alden is creative director at Merkle Inc. She can be reached at

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