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Your Emails (and Recipients) Deserve Better Context

Email communication is an integral part of the user experience for nearly every web application that requires a login. It’s also one of the first interactions the user has after signing up. Yet too often both the content and context of these emails is treated as an afterthought (at best), with the critical parts that users see first—sender name and email, subject, and preheader—largely overlooked. Your users, and the great application you’ve just launched, deserve better.

A focus on recipient experience

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Designing and implementing a great email recipient experience is difficult. And by the time it comes to the all-important context elements (name, subject, and so on), it’s commonly left up to the developer to simply fill something in and move on. That’s a shame, because these elements play an outsized role in the email experience, being not only the first elements seen but also the bits recipients use to identify emails when searching through their archives. Given the frequency with which they touch users, it really is time we started spending a little more effort to fine-tune them.

The great news is that despite the constraints imposed on these elements, they’re relatively easy to improve, and they can have a huge impact on engagement, open rates, and recipient satisfaction. When they all work together, sender name and email, subject, and preheader provide a better experience for your recipients.

So whether you’re a developer stuck fixing such oversights and winging it, or on the design or marketing team responsible for making the decisions, use the following guide to improve your recipient’s experience. And, if possible, bring it up with your whole team so it’s always a specific requirement in the future.

Details that matter

As they say, the devil is in the details, and these details matter. Let’s start with a quick example that highlights a few common mistakes.

In the image below, the sender is unnecessarily repeated within the subject, wasting key initial subject characters, while the subjects themselves are all exactly the same. This makes it difficult to tell one email from the next, and the preview content doesn’t help much either since the only unique information it provides is the date (which is redundant alongside the email’s time stamp). The subject copy could be more concise as well—“Payment Successfully Processed” is helpful, but it’s a bit verbose.

Screenshot of five nearly-identical emails sitting in an emailbox
Avoid redundancy and make your sender name, subject, and preheaders work together. Periscope repeats the sender name, and doesn’t provide unique or relevant information in the subject or preheader.

Outside of the sender and the dates on the emails, there’s not much useful information until you open the email itself. Fortunately, none of these things are particularly difficult to fix. Weather Underground provides a great example of carefully crafted emails. The subject conveys the most useful information without even requiring the recipient to open the email. In addition, their strategic use of emojis helps complement that information with a very rich, yet judicious, use of subject-line space.

Screenshot of an emails the information the user is looking for in the preview
Weather Underground does a great job with the sender and even front-loads the subject with the most valuable bit of information. The date is included, but it’s at the end of the subject.

Weather Underground also makes use of Gmail Inbox Actions to provide a direct link to the key information online without needing a recipient to open the email to follow a link. Gmail Inbox Actions require some extra work to set up and only work in Gmail, but they can be great if you’re sending high volumes of email.

Both scenarios involve recurring emails with similar content from one to the next, but the difference is stark. With just a little effort and fine-tuning, the resulting emails are much more useful to the recipients. Let’s explore how this is done.

Emphasizing unique content for recurring emails

With the earlier examples, both organizations are sending recurring emails, but by focusing on unique subject lines, Weather Underground’s emails are much more helpful. Recurring emails like invoices may not contain the most glamorous content, but you still have an opportunity to make each one unique and informative.

Screenshot of two invoice emails with the same subject line: 'You've got a new invoice'
Instead of a generic “You have a new invoice” notification, you can surface important or unique information like the invoice total, the most expensive products or services, or the due date.

By surfacing the most important or unique information from the content of the email, there’s additional context to help the recipient know whether they need to act or not. It also makes it easier to find a specific invoice when searching through emails in the future.

Clarifying the sender

Who (or what) is sending this email? Is it a person? Is it automated? Do I want to hear from them? Do I trust them? Is this spam? These questions and more automatically run through our heads whenever we see an email, and the sender information provides the first clue when we start processing our inbox. Just as for caller ID on incoming phone calls, recognition and trust both play a role. As Joanna Wiebe said in an interview with Litmus, “If the from name doesn’t sound like it’s from someone you want to hear from, it doesn’t matter what the subject line is.” This can be even more critical on mobile devices where the sender name is the most prominent element.

The first and most important step is to explicitly specify a name. You don’t want the recipient’s email client choosing what to display based on the email address alone. For instance, if you send emails from “alerts@example.com” (with no name specified), some clients will display “alerts” as the name, and others will display “alerts@example.com.” With the latter, it just feels rough around the edges. In either case, the experience is less than ideal for the sender.

Screenshot of an email with an email address instead of a name
Without a name specified, email clients may use the username portion of an email address or truncate longer email addresses, making the name portion incomplete or less helpful to recipients.

The technical implementation may vary depending on your stack, but at the simplest level, correct implementation is all in the string formatting. Let’s look at “Jane Doe <email@example.com>” as an example. “Jane Doe” is the name, and the email is included after the name and surrounded by angle brackets. It’s a small technical detail, but it makes a world of difference to recipients.

But what name should we show? This depends on the type of email, so you’ll want to consider the sender for each email independently. For example, with a receipt or invoice you may want to use “Acme Billing.” But with a comment notification, it may be more informative for recipients if you use the commenter’s name, such as “Jane Doe via AcmeApp.” Depending on the context, you could use “with” or “from” as well, but those have an extra character, so I’ve found “via” to be the shortest and most semantically accurate option.

Similarly, if your business entity or organization name is different from your product name, you should use the name that will be most familiar to your recipients.

Screenshot of an email Corporate Holdings, Inc.
Recipients aren’t always familiar with the names of corporate holding companies, so make sure to use the company or product name that will be most familiar to the recipient.
Screenshot of a corporate email from Jane Doe
In the above cases, while “Jane Doe” may have made the comment, the email isn’t directly from her, so it’s best to add something lik “via Acme Todos” to make it clear that it was sent on Jane’s behalf. In the case of “Support,” content doesn’t clarify which product it refers to. Since users could have a variety of emails from “Support” for different products, it fails to provide important context.

Avoiding contact confusion

In the case where you use someone’s name—like with the “Jane Doe via AcmeApp” example above—it’s important to add a reference to the app name. Since the email isn’t actually from Jane, it’s inaccurate to represent that it’s from Jane Doe directly. This can be confusing for users, but it can also create problems with address books. If you use just “Jane Doe,” your sending email address can be accidentally added to the recipient’s address book in association with Jane’s entry. Then, when they go to email Jane later, they may unwittingly send an email to “notifications@acme.com” instead of Jane. That could lead to some painful missed emails and miscommunication. The other reason is that it’s simply helpful for the recipient to know the source of the email. It’s not just from Jane, it’s from Jane via your application.

You’ll also want to put yourself in your recipient’s shoes and carefully consider whether a name is recognizable to your recipient. For example, if your corporate entity name and product name aren’t the same, recipients will be much less likely to recognize the sender if you use the name of your corporate entity. So make sure to use the product name that will be most familiar to the recipient. Similarly, you’ll want to avoid using generic names that could be from any company. For example, use “Acme Billing” instead of just “Billing,” so the recipient can quickly and easily identify your product.

Finally, while names are great, the underlying sending address can be just as important. In many ways, it’s the best attribute for recipients to use when filtering and organizing their inbox, and using unique email addresses or aliases for different categories of emails makes this much easier. There’s a fine line, but the simplest way to do this is to group emails into three categories: billing, support, and activity/actions. You may be able to use more, like notifications, alerts, or legal, but remember that the more you create, the more you’ll have to keep track of.

Also, keep the use of subdomains to a minimum. By consistently only sending transactional email like password resets, receipts, order updates, and other similar emails from your primary domain, users learn to view any emails from other domains as suspicious. It may seem like a minor detail, but these bits of information add up to create important signals for recipients. It is worth noting, however, that you should use a different address, and ideally a separate subdomain, for your bulk marketing emails. This helps Gmail and other inbox providers understand the type of email coming from each source, which in turn helps ensure the domain reputation for your bulk marketing emails—which is traditionally lower—doesn’t affect delivery of your more critical transactional email.

Subject line utility

Now that recipients have clearly identifiable and recognizable sender information, it’s time to think about the subjects of your emails. Since we’ve focused on transactional emails in the examples used so far, we’ll similarly focus on the utility of your subject line content rather than the copywriting. You can always use copywriting to improve the subject, but with transactional emails, utility comes first.

The team at MailChimp has studied data about subject lines extensively, and there are a few key things to know about subjects. First, the presence of even a single word can have a meaningful impact on open rates. A 2015 report by Adestra had similar findings. Words and phrases like “thank you,” “monthly,” and “thanks” see higher engagement than words like “subscription,” “industry,” and “report,” though different words will have different impacts depending on your industry, so you’ll still need to test and monitor the results. Personalization can also have an impact, but remember, personalization isn’t just about using a person’s name. It can be information like location, previous purchases, or other personal data. Just remember that it’s important to be tasteful, judicious, and relevant.

The next major point from MailChimp is that subject line length doesn’t matter. Or, rather, it doesn’t matter directly. After studying 6 billion emails, they found “little or no correlation between performance and subject length.” That said, when line length is considered as one aspect of your overall subject content, it can be used to help an email stand out. Clarity and utility are more important than brevity, but when used as a component to support clarity and utility, brevity can help.

One final point from the Adestra report is that open rates aren’t everything. Regardless of whether someone opens an email, the words and content of your subject line leaves an impression. So even if a certain change doesn’t affect your open rates, it can still have a far-reaching impact.

Clearing out redundancy

The most common mistake with subjects is including redundant information. If you’ve carefully chosen the sender name and email address, there’s no need to repeat the sender name in the subject, and the characters could be better applied to telling the recipient additional useful information. Dates are a bit of a gray area, but in many cases, the email’s time stamp can suffice for handling any time-based information. On the other hand, when the key dates don’t correlate to when the email was sent, it can be helpful to include the relevant date information in the subject.

Screenshot of two emails where the subject line and preview repeat the name of the company (which is also in the To field)
With these examples, after the sender, there’s no new or useful information displayed, and some form of the company name is repeated several times. Even the preheader is neglected leaving the email client to use alternate text from the logo.

With the subject of your application emails, you’ll also want to front-load the most important content to prevent it from being cut off. For instance, instead of “Your Invoice for May 2018,” you could rewrite that as “May 2018 Invoice.” Since your sender is likely “Acme Billing,” the recipient already knows it’s about billing, so the month and year is the most important part of the subject. However, “May 2018 Invoice” is a bit terse, so you may want to add something at the end to make it more friendly.

Next, in situations where time stamps are relevant, avoid relying on relative dates or times. Phrases like “yesterday,” “last week,” or “two hours ago” don’t age well with email since you never know when someone will receive or read it. Similarly, when someone goes to search their email archives, relative dates aren’t helpful. If you must use relative dates, look for opportunities to add explicit dates or time stamps to add clarity.

With regularly occurring emails like reports or invoices, strive to give each message a unique subject. If every report has the subject “Your Monthly Status Report,” they can run together in a list of emails that all have the same subject. It can also make them more difficult to search later on. The same goes for invoices and receipts. Yes, invoice numbers and order numbers are technically unique, but they aren’t particularly helpful. Make sure to include useful content to help identify each email individually. Whether that’s the date, total value, listing the most expensive items, or all three, it’s easier on recipients when they can identify the contents of an email without having to open it. While open rates are central to measuring marketing emails, transactional emails are all about usefulness. So open rates aren’t as purely correlated with successful transactional emails.

There’s a case to be made that in some contexts a great transactional email doesn’t need to be opened at all for it to be useful. The earlier Weather Underground example does an excellent job communicating the key information without requiring recipients to open it. And while the subject is the best place for key content, some useful content can also be displayed using a preheader.

Making the most of preheaders

If you’re not familiar with the preheader, you can think of it as a convenient name for the content at the beginning of an email. Campaign Monitor has a great write-up with in-depth advice on making the most of your preheaders. It’s simply a way of acknowledging and explicitly suggesting the text that email clients should show in the preview pane for an email. While there’s no formal specification for preheaders, and different email clients will handle them differently, they’re still widely displayed.

Most importantly, well-written and useful preheaders of 40–50 characters have been shown to increase overall engagement, particularly if delivering a concise call to action. A study by Yes Lifecycle Marketing (signing up required) points out that preheader content is important, especially on mobile devices where subjects are truncated and it can act as a sort of extended subject.

If the leading content in your email is a logo or other image, email clients will often use the alternate text for the image as the preview text. Since “Acme Logo” isn’t very helpful, it’s best to include a short summary of text at the beginning of your email. Sometimes this short summary text can interfere with the design of your email, so it’s not uncommon for the design to accommodate some visually muted—but still readable—text at the beginning. Or, as long as you’re judicious, in most cases you can safely hide preheader text entirely by using the display: none CSS declaration. Abusing this could get you caught in spam filters, but for the most part, inbox providers seem to focus on the content that is hidden rather than the fact that it’s hidden.

Screenshots of two emails with useless information in the preview
If you’re not explicitly specifying your preheader text, there’s a good chance email clients will use content that at best is less than useful and at worst makes a bad impression.

If your email can be designed and written such that the first content encountered is the useful content for previews, then you’re all set. In the case of receipts, invoices, or activity summaries, that’s not always easy. In those cases, a short text-based summary of the content makes a good preheader.

Context element interplay

The rules outlined above are great guidelines, but remember that rules are there to be broken (well, sometimes …). As long as you understand the big picture, sender, subject, and preheader can still work together effectively even if some of those rules are bent. A bit. For example, if you ensure that you have relevant and unique content in your preheader for the preview, you may be able to get away with using the same subject for each recurring email. Alternatively, there may be cases where you need to repeat the sender name in the subject.

The key is that when you’re crafting these elements, make sure you’re looking at how they work together. Sometimes a subject can be shortened by moving some content into the preheader. Alternatively, you may be able to use a more specific sender to reduce the need for a word or two in the subject. The application of these guidelines isn’t black and white. Simply being aware of the recipient’s experience is the most important factor when crafting the elements they’ll see in preview panes.

Finally, a word on monitoring and testing

Simple changes to the sender, subject, and preheader can significantly impact open rates and recipient experience. One critical thing to remember, however, is that while some of these improvements are guaranteed winners, monitoring and testing things like open rates and click rates is critical to validate any changes made. And since these elements can either play against each other or work together, it’s best to test combinations and view all three elements holistically.

The value of getting this right really is in the details, and despite their tendency to be overlooked, taking the time to craft helpful and useful sender names and addresses, subject lines, and preheaders can drastically improve the experience for your email recipients. It’s a small investment that’s definitely worth your time.

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