Better preheaders? Six ideas to consider...

Latest posts | Feed | By Mark Brownlow

There's plenty of great info out there on what to put at the very top of your email: the preheader area which typically features one or two lines of text in small font.

So rather than rewrite the wheel, let me invite you to reflect deeper on how you can use that space better.

The very top of an email matters. It matters a lot.

For example, it caps the preview pane that many people use to assess an email's worth. And it's displayed in the actual inbox itself by certain email applications, such as Gmail.

So it deserves more thought that we typically give it...

Text alignment

Nearly all preheaders you see come nicely centered on the page. Is that because this brings the best results, or is it simply a nod to tradition or a desire for aesthetic symmetry?

I ask because some email software packages (e.g. Thunderbird) and webmail services (e.g. Windows Live Hotmail) allow recipients to use a vertical preview pane. So the preview displays the left hand side of the email and centered text might fall out of view.

Here's an Amazon email in a horizontal preview pane:

preheader sample 1

Here's the same one in a vertical preview pane:

preheader sample 2

Note how the two preheader messages don't appear in the second case.

It certainly seems worth testing different preheader alignments and layouts to check on effectiveness.

Think beyond the "web version" link

The vast majority of preheaders contain only one item: instructions on how to access a web version of the email should the message fail to display properly.

This makes intuitive sense, given the trouble we have with blocked images and a lack of standards in how email software and webmail services handle HTML email.

But, again, is it effective?

Or do we have it there because, well, we've always had it there?

The "web version" link in my own newsletter's preheader typically gets less than ten clicks. Not enough to justify dominating the entire preheader space.

Additional options for the preheader are other functional items, including:There are good arguments for each, but functional or administrative information grows stale with time and is easily glossed over.

So how else might you use the preheader?

As Stefan Pollard writes in a detailed introduction to the topic:

"You can use this valuable real estate to build value, interest and excitement in your message"

A strong option for informational newsletters is a quick headline alerting the reader to the mail's content. Like marketing agency eROI do (note also how this snippet is left-aligned!):

preheader sample 3

For more promotional emails, consider a quick summary of the offer and a call to action. Bronto's DJ Waldow writes on this very subject:

"Click-throughs on the clear call-to-action in the preheader have shot through the roof"

The final mix of information / promotion / functionality you use in your preheader depends on your audience and email model, of course.

A preheader needs to be short and succinct, otherwise it becomes the actual message, not the preheader. So cherry pick the options that make most sense to you and experiment.

Fewer words, same impact

The preheader is not the prologue to an 800 page novel. Yet many preheaders read like this:

"If this email does not display properly, then click here to view the web version"

That doesn't leave much space for anything else. Does it need to be so long? In some cases, where the audience is not particularly web savvy, maybe it does. In others, you can shorten it...

"Email not displaying correctly? Click here"

If your audience is very clued up when it comes to online life, how about just:

"Web version"

The shorter you can keep each preheader element, the more elements you can include. Or the more space you can dedicate to more useful features.

Make changes through time

If you have an established preheader format, nothing says you have to keep this constant through time.

For example, some like to top an email with a reminder of why the recipient is on the list:

"You are getting this email because you signed up for it at the ABC website"

How long do you need to keep that message there? After delivering ten weekly issues to an address, could you move that message to the email's footer and free up the preheader for more impactful messages?

Perhaps the initial emails to a new recipient can contain that lengthy, but clear, "If this email does not display properly, then click here to view the web version" message.

After, say, the fifth email to that address, might we shorten that message to the simple "web version" link, saving space and attention for other purposes?

Dynamic preheaders?

Advanced email marketing systems change content according to what they know about the recipient. Can we apply the same logic to the preheader?

For example, suppose a reader has one of the common webmail addresses and registered an open on each of the last five emails you sent them. We can assume they have unblocked images for your mails and likely see your message pretty much as you intended.

Might the system tag such individuals and suppress the "if you can't read this email..." message, releasing the space for something else?

If recipients don't register an open, might you then insert a "whitelist our address" message in the next email, since appearing in a recipient's address book commonly means images are then displayed automatically in your emails?

And can you serve a different "whitelist" message depending on the domain of the recipient? So addresses get whitelisting instructions specific to the Gmail webmail interface?

Expand the concept to other emails

If you accept the value of the preheader, why limit this to your standard marketing emails? Why not use preheaders in transactional emails, too?

OK, let's stop there. I have no evidence to hand that any of the above is yet an established best practice. But all are thoughts worth exploring as you work to optimize that critical piece of email real estate.

What do you think? What have you learnt from your own preheaders?

More on design and copywriting | Tags: , ,

Permalink | January 22, 2009 | 7 comment(s)
Get posts like this: as an RSS feed | biweekly email | via Twitter


Thanks for the mention in your article. We believe strongly in using the preheader. It's important to test to see what works best for your org and the type of email.

Here's an article eROI's Jeff Mills wrote on preheaders.

It's also mentioned in our survey report on the Elements of Email. Check it out!

Mitchell - eROI
By Blogger Mitchell, on 23 January, 2009  

The suggestion to make a dynamic preheader to advise recipients on whitelisting techniques is brilliant!
By Anonymous Derek, on 23 January, 2009  

Mitchell - yep, Jeff's article is one of the links at the top of the post: well worth a read.

Derek - thanks, though I cannot claim it as my original idea, hence the link in there to the EmailYogi post.
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 23 January, 2009  

After reading your interesting article I received an email from Travolution who had a succint and useful preheader:
What are your views on this use guys?
By Blogger Ian Pollard, on 23 January, 2009  

Hi Ian. I hesitate to judge without knowing the ins and outs of the audience, but I like the conciseness of the text.

I wonder if the FTF link is overkill, especially with another big FTF graphic and link below it. Two together seems a bit excessive: the topic area doesn't strike me as one where that link is going to get much use. But you never know. I'd probably save the space and introduce a content snippet up top to pique interest in the main email.
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 23 January, 2009  

Why is this called a "preheader" when it is after the header?
By Blogger J.D., on 29 January, 2009  

I was wondering when you'd ask that JD.

In typography, the header is the top of the viewed page. In popular use, it's often the equivalent of a masthead. So the term preheader is not unreasonable in that context as it precedes what was long-established as the "page's" header (brand logo, etc.)

At least it's not as confusing as open rate ;-)
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 29 January, 2009  

Comments closed for this post