How Your Customers Actually Read Your Emails

How Your Customers Actually Read Your Emails

This is a guest post by Chris Hexton from Vero.

Have you ever thought about how your customers actually read your emails? As in, how they approach them… mentally?

How important is the subject line? Do headings in emails matter? Which links are customers most likely to click? Are links in body content distracting? Are images important?

By considering questions like these and really investigating how customers actually read emails we naturally put ourselves in a better place to write emails that convert. No matter whether you run a blog, a SaaS business, an eCommerce store or any other company that sends emails you will be able to learn something from the tips below and apply them to your own email marketing strategies!

Setting the scene

It’s always good to be think about email marketing in context. A common campaign that can be used by all online businesses in one form or another is the retention email.

In the case of online stores this often manifests itself as cart abandonment. For lead generation businesses (affiliates, etc.) this is often a follow-up or reminder. For SaaS businesses this generally involves targeting inactive users (users that have gone cold) and for enterprise or service-based businesses this might involve targeting previous customers with a drip marketing campaign.

In all likelihood, this is a campaign you can use in your own online business.

As an example, here’s a new variation of a re-activation campaign I’m about to start testing. I’ve highlighted a few things you should pay attention to.


I haven’t got the results from this test yet (I’ll be blogging about them as soon as I do!) but it’s important to note that I didn’t just come up with the content and format from nowhere…

Instead I went looking for what others are doing, dug into what some of our customers are doing and reviewed what has worked for me in the past.

Here are four interesting points that will help you understand what to do and what to test when considering elements of your emails.

These should give you at least one thing you can take away and apply to your business immediately.

1. Subject line like it’s 1999!

Here’s what an email looks like when it arrives in a Gmail inbox


Not much to go on really, is it? The average business email user receives 72 email per day, which is quite a lot of email.

Given that we’re all trying to get to inbox zero more likely than not your emails are going to be pushed aside.

…unless you grab your customers attention!

You hear it all the time: The subject line is the most important line in your entire email.

Turns out, that ain’t no bull ;).

It’s common sense really: if you don’t write something that gets the customer in then how are the going to read the rest of it?

Knowing what to write depends on the siutation and what you are trying to achieve. This great case study from MarketingSherpa reveals how important it is to ensure your emails are clear. Don’t be overly cryptic.

…that doesn’t mean you should give everything away in the subject line though . You do need to entice the reader a little. The results of this case study suggest that it’s important you let your customers know what they email is about, though the copy itself should leave a little to the imagination.

The examples in the case study include cryptic subjects like Getting Earth-Friendly Beyond Email (ah…) and Email Timing: A Look At 6 Masters.

The results (below) show that clear subject lines dramatically outperformed all other subject lines in all forms of interaction and response.


MarketingSherpa break down the three key aims of marketing emails and I think they’re pretty spot on:

  1. Brand awareness
  2. To get the email opened
  3. Failing an open, to convey a message

Essentially, number one is achieved as long as you get your message in your customers inbox. Number two is influenced heavily by a range of factors, not just the subject line. These factors could include the customer’s willingness to receive the email, the time they have available, previous emails you’ve sent, etc.

Number three, however, is much more likely to be achieved if you use a clear subject line.

To be cryptic or not to be cryptic: I’ve made it sound as though writing a good subject line is like walking along the edge of a cliff!

Here’s two subject lines I’ve seen lately that I believe fulfil the three goals outlined above:

Neil Patel5 SEO Mistakes That Even Experts Miss. This works for me because I can clearly see that this email is about SEO mistakes and yet it entices my curiosity – I want to know what the experts miss. They’re experts, for crying out loud, they shouldn’t miss anything ;)!

Ruben at BidSketchThe secret to getting larger clients. Again this is clearly an email containing tips that will help me win larger contracts but I have to get into the email and read the content if I’m to learn what practical tips I need to actually follow to do this myself.

In summary, I think few rules to remember when crafting your next subject line are:

  1. Keep the subject line relevant: If you are sending a password reset email you probably don’t have to make the headline mysterious or catchy…then again, you’re probably not trying to convert customers in your password reset email (hot tip, perhaps you should).
  2. Make it clear: Give the reader a good idea of what to expect in the email. Presumably, if it’s relevant, it’ll be something they’re interested in.
  3. Don’t give everything away: Even though you want your customers to know what the email is about you don’t want to reveal the secrets. Build some curiosity so they open the email.

A common question I get: Where can I get inspiration for subject lines?

Subject lines, really, are just titles. You should look to great copy writeres like Joanna Weibe of CopyHackers to learn everything you can about writing catchy copy.

Take these tips, for example, as a starting point! like this.

You can also ‘steal’ ideas from content masters like Neil and the crew at KISSmetrics. This post-webinar follow-up email is a great example:


Key takeaway: Spend time on your subject line. NO, really!

2. Everyone loves the sound of their own name

No one is fooled by personalization anymore.

You’re right, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work! Personalization sometimes gets a negative stigma these days. You know, using someone’s name in an automated email just couldn’t possibly have any positive effect.

There are many case studies out there that suggest using names can work well and that using names can be a disaster.

The team at PadiAct were very skeptical that using first names but, being a conversion optimziation tool themselves, they decided to rigorously test whether personalized subject lines make a difference.

Not only did they test it but they tested it well. They used seven emails over the period of a month, they only altered the subject line (no content changes) and they ensured they reached statistical significance.

The results: a 5% increase in opens and a 17% increase in click-throughs. That’s quite a lift, just by including a customer’s name in the subject line.

…however, you could argue that using someone’s name alone isn’t really personalization.

When it comes to lifecycle emails you can can really get into proper personalization.

One of the most successful emails we have at Vero is a campaign that goes out on day four of a customer’s free tiral. The email comes from me and reads something like this:


Another example, from HelloFax, which really resonated with me last year is as simple as this:


There’s no mention of a first name but the email is so short it feels personal. The truth is leads to the company help desk and the email is, of course, personalized…but that’s not the point, it worked!

This sort of personalization helps you connect with your customers. Customers reading an email like this feel the love.

I regularly get responses to the email I posted above along the lines of:

No worries Chris, I just haven’t had a chance to get Vero setup yet. Would you be free for a call to talk me through it some time?

Thanks, John

As you can see, this sort of email is gold. It helps us learn what is holding customers up, it gives you a chance to reach out to your customers and learn more about their problems and it makes the customer feel good.

You should definitely be setting up and testing these sorts of lifecycle emails no matter what sort of business you run.

Taking personalization even further involves segmenting each individual email campaign based on each individual customers’ previous behavior. Take an eCommerce store – rather than sending everyone the same cart abandonment emails, consider sending loyal customers (who’ve purchased more than twice before) something a little different to new customers (who have never purchased before).

This example from shows that they lifted their conversion rates (the holy grail of email analytics) by 208% by breaking down a newsletter into segments.

Segmenting like this works as it influences how customers read what you send them. If it’s relevant, targeted and speaks to them they’re much more likely to receive the email positively.

Take away: segment, segment, segment. You can’t segment enough so start by setting up some obvious customer segments and sending different emails to each group. If you’re stuck for ideas, ask me :).

3. PSssssst, the PS rocks

For some reason our brains seem wired to read the PS statement.

You tell me the last time you got an email from someone (personal or automated), read the entire email and didn’t read the PS?


Having a post-script in your emails is a nice little hack to re-iterate your message or call to action.

These are the most common formats I’ve seen used in PS messages I receive:

Testimonials – Mentioning customer stories or direct quotes in the PS is a good tactic though I generally like to include testimonials higher up in my emails. Why not do both?!

Bonuses – Something along the lines of Don’t miss out. The first X people to register will receive Y, aboslutely free. Register now! A classic designed to add urgency and enhance an offer made earlier in the email.

Keeping it personal – In my opinion the postscript has a one-to-one feel about it. I think it’s because it harks back to the old days of actual letter writing. Reaching out to the customer with empathy always works well. For exmaple, This is the the last email I’m going to send you about our new webinar. I know you’re busy but I genuinely think you’ll find our content valuable and, hey, you can always leave half way if it’s not your cup of tea. Link to register.

Regardless of how you plan to tackle the PS you should, in my experience, always include a link to the primary call to action.

After all, the PS is a golden opportunity to make sure your customers read the CTA!

Key takeaway: If you’re writing an email from an individual person, try including a PS to increase click-throughs and conversions. Always re-iterate your primary call to action.

P.S – Made you look ;).

4. An image is (not always) worth a thousand words

Email design is a huge challenge. Great tools like Campaign Monitor, Litmus and MailChimp have continually strived to make HTML templating easier for us email marketers, though there are still a lot of quirks to deal with day-to-day.

The real question (and I get asked this a lot) is whether a fancy HTML template with lots of images really works better than a plain text or basic, rich text email.

The short answer is: test it. Depending on the targeted segment, the email in question and the conversion goal HTML or plain text can both ‘win’.

As Jason Fried at 37 Signals wrote a number of years ago, link, simple is often better.

Here’s the sort of email I often receive, particularly from eCommerce stores…


I think you’ll agree that an email like that is rather difficult to process.

In fact, it’s near impossible.

When you open an email like this, two things can follow:

  1. You enable images.
  2. You head to your next email.

…it doesn’t take much to realize that an email with virtually no text will lead to a decrease in click-throughs and conversions. It’ll also affect your deliverability.

Here’s another email I received just the other day from an awesome, and highly reputable, company (who I respect greatly). The entire email was one big image.

The email looked beautiful when the images were enabled but I found it curious that they hadn’t gone for a hybrid approach and included some text.


When sending HTML emails that are image heavy (and there is many a case for this) consider making as much of the email as possible basic or rich text. Have a call to action that can be rendered without an image, have descriptive ALT text (though don’t make them too long) and consider that a large proportion of readers will NOT have images turned on.

If you are going to go image-heavy then consider going all out. StyleCampaign has helped develop some really intriguing ’email games’ in the past using dynamic images. MovableInk are also pushing some really valuable solutions when it comes dynamic imagery.


Take away: Customers won’t go to too much effort when reading your emails. Make their lives easy, make your emails load quickly and, if images are something you really want to experiment with, consider some of the dynamic options for something different. Always test it, there’s a time and a place for both HTML and plain/rich text emails.

How do you read YOUR emails

Hopefully these tips have given you a few things you can use to implement on your current or future email marketing campaigns.

It’s always good to think about how you consume emails. What would you feel if you received the email you’re currently writing? Would you be likely to take the action you’re trying to drive?

What have you seen work in your emails? Have your customers responded similar to what I’ve described above or have you seen contradictory results? Let me know in the comments – sharing is caring!

Chris Hexton is a co-founder of email remarketing software Vero. He spends his days helping online businesses to optimize their email marketing and use it effectively to maximize their profit. You can catch him on and Twitter via @chexton and @veroapp. He’d love to talk to you!

Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Hi Chris

    thanks for your blog. I’m kind of pleased about the study you quoted that putting the person’s name in the heading increases opening and click-through.

    Peep had sent out something recently suggesting that using names don’t necessarily help. As an email receiver, I actually like it when my name is in the title and elsewhere – although I acknowledge that in the future, if everyone’s doing it, I may not feel the same way. For the moment, maybe I’m just gullible but I still feel the personalisation even though I know it’s actually automated.

    Nevertheless, I accept the take-home message from this is to test. To that end, I’ve been testing the opt-in on my site with and without asking for the person’s name to see what effect it has on sign-ups. At this stage, too early to call.



    1. Spot on Garry. It’s all about testing. Peep and I had a chat about this ;). There are hundreds of great case studies out there – some where ‘personalization’ (names) works and other times where it does not.

      Sounds like you’re all over the testing. It’d be interesting to hear how you go with your current test: both whether more people sign up and whether more people convert on the email side with / without a first name!

    2. Peep Laja

      It’s 2013 – most people don’t think it’s a personal email to them when the email says “Hi John” and has unsubscribe link at the bottom. Furthermore, there are a lot of people who are annoyed by this pretend-personalization ( Even if it might increase open rates in the short-term (cause people do react to their name), it can have negative effective effect in the long-run (people get pissed because it’s actually not personal at all and unsubscribe etc).

      But of course in the end you need to test this.

    3. Nice case study Peep.

      I particularly like your point about LONG TERM thinking. That’s the most important thing (and one of the more difficult things to track) – how does this sort of campaign affect your customers over their LIFETIME.

      It’s something we are constantly focused on at Vero and I think something that the wider community is becoming properly focused on these days, thanks in part to more and more sophisticated analytics packages.

  2. Great post, Chris! I especially liked the fourth point about images — which is something people were talking about a few years ago, but then it seemed (at least in my world) to strangely disappear from convos about email best practices.

    To see the topic covered like this — and with screenshots of how useless an email is when images are disabled — is awesome… and especially helpful, I think, for those large retailers that are most guilty of sending image-only emails.

    1. Thanks Joanna, lots of hard working pulling everything together but it’s super interesting stuff.

      I get A LOT of emails that are image-only so that’s what brought it front of mind :). I think the importance of sending ‘personal’ emails is back in vogue and, at least as far as I can see, people are really getting into it / embracing the discussion again!

  3. Nice post Chris!

    I have noticed that both Neil and Ruben have the ability to write great emails!

    About images in emails, I agree testing is best and try to keep it simple. But have you tried mozify from email on acid? I thought it was cool way to show images in an email…but we are still testing it.

    1. Milind, Neil and Ruben are pros so always a good source of inspiration :).

      Mozify from EoA is super-awesome. I haven’t used it personally but a few customers have mentioned it and I believe they’ve liked it. It’d be interesting to do a little experimentation with it myself (and report results somewhere)

  4. Thanks Chris. Whilst it’s all common sense, it’s still pretty cool to see the numbers coming from the Marketing Sherpa case study.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Quentin. It’s often nice to have something you can come back to and ‘tick through’, I always find.

  5. Chris, thanks for sharing your insights. Here’s my checklist for writing emails:

    – Get VERY clear of core message for email before starting to write, and distil it down to one simple sentence
    – Write 5-10 quick off the top-of-the-head subject lines (with no editing .. i.e. get the subconscious into action!)
    – Draft email in plain-text editor
    – Send email to myself with 5-10 different subject lines
    – Scan inbox for subject lines that ‘pop’. Again use your non-thinking intuitive side of your brain for this.
    – Print best 2 emails (I know I know .. pretty old school.. but you see different things when you do this)
    – Read emails on paper, and edit like a mercenary (with a pen) to cut it down to the essence.
    – Write the PS (it’s the cherry on top, and as you rightly say .. super-important)
    – Rework email content, and resend 2 different versions to yourself again.
    – Click any links and make sure context and flow is maintained (from email to landing page)
    – Schedule for send (I always A/B test the subjects using a blank HTML email template that ‘looks’ like plain text (but which allows you to track open rates)

    Thanks again. You guys share and write some of the best material on conversion rates out there.


    1. Mick, that’s a sweeeeet checklist.

      I particularly like the concept of sending yourself a few different subject lines and letting your subconcious do the deciding. I also love editing on paper (editing anything on paper feels good, though it’s not good for the trees ;).

      Thanks for sharing!

  6. Greetings, Chris,

    What’s a story without images? .. a great opportunity to punctuate & expand your email messages. (In the interest of transparency, I market illustration to image buyers : )

    PS: The actual quote is “a picture is worth 10,000 words.”

    1. Thanks for the tip on the quote – I will never forget that ;).

      We’ve spoken before Sharon (hello again!) and I certainly didn’t mean to denounce images entirely. As long as they’re alongside text and things are tested they can yield awesome results…it’s just image-only emails that I think should be avoided.

      Plus, the images on Laughing-Stock are awesome!

  7. Love your post, and some great tips in the comments too!

    I always try and craft emails imagining that I’m really writing to a specific person., trying to genuinely put myself in their shoes and see their life from their perspective – what problems could they be having, how can I help? But I think everyone here knows that!

  8. Thanks Peep! I don’t know how you find the time to write such good emails on my favourite subject!


  9. Sorry Chris! Saw peeps pic on the right and presumed it was him! Great post mate.

    1. Ha – no problems Tim. Glad you liked it! Hopefully it’s helpful :).

  10. Probably the biggest mistake you can make with your emails is overlooking the email subject line. No matter how good your content in the email is, it won’t help you if no one opens the email. A well-crafted subject line that increases your open rate is well worth your time. Thanks for this very informative post!

    1. Thanks Anika, spot on. You have to get people reading the content or you’ll get NOWHERE.

      Sounds like you have written a subject line or two :). Thanks for the great comment!

  11. Thanks for the blog :-) This one is life saver.


  12. Hello there! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering
    if you knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my comment form?
    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having trouble finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

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