Inside the inbox: What are your customers really seeing?

One of the fundamental requirements of a successful e-mail marketing campaign is understanding how your customers interact with your e-mail. Yet this kind of behavioral data is hard to come by. How often do they look at their e-mail? What else is competing with your message in the inbox? Do customers view the message in the preview pane? Are they seeing images? 

To help answer these questions, Iconix is conducting a study with several thousand users that tracks their actual email activity. The overall results will be published later in 2009, but here are some key insights, based on activity from June through August, that can help marketers optimize their campaigns.

Sharing Space

Most marketers have little insight into how their message fits into a customer’s overall e-mail experience. Are your messages near the top of the list, or are they buried amongst hundreds of other messages in an overcrowded inbox?

In the study, users received an average of 172 messages per week from 262 different senders over the three month period. Nearly 27% of these messages can be categorized as “personal.” Since most Web mail services display 25-50 messages per screen (less if a preview pane is used), your message will often be “below the fold” if your customer checks their messages only a day after you sent it.

Sneaking Peeks

Another nagging question in email design is “how many users view my messages in the preview pane?” Preview pane use dramatically affects the visible real estate, so the best practice is to pack motivating messages into the visible area to prompt the user to read further.

As expected, use of the preview pane varies widely by e-mail client, with Outlook (72% of study participants) and Outlook Express (71%) users relying heavily on the preview pane while users of webmail clients like Yahoo Mail (56%), Windows Live Hotmail (13%), and AOL Web mail (2%) are less reliant. A scant 6 percent of messages are read in both the preview pane and fully open view.

Seeing Pics

The rendering of images is another major issue in e-mail marketing since many e-mail clients block images by default. The best practice here is to use a balance of text and images (including ALT text to back up the images), so that the essence of the message survives image blocking.

The study shows that a surprisingly high percentage of images are already rendered as the user sees the message. This can occur because the user has added the sender to their address book or because the e-mail provider has elected to render them (via reputation rating or accreditation services). Again, the results vary widely by e-mail client with Windows Live Hotmail (89%), Yahoo Mail (84%), AOL Web mail (72%), and Gmail (58%) all rendering images in more than half of incoming messages.

As e-mail marketers better understand what their customers see in e-mail, they will be able to offer more timely and impactful campaigns.

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