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Getting Your E-newsletter Read: Keep it Short

Part of our work with clients is developing e-newsletters for their clients and constituents. For some we do the writing, for others we use their content. And we’re lucky to work with some pretty talented in-house editors.

Deciding what and how much to write is a regular challenge businesses and nonprofits face in their email marketing efforts.

You want to give your readers as much information as possible but, remember you’re battling the inbox. It’s a formidable foe. In 2013, people receive an average of 155 emails per day (that number is rising), most on more than one email account, 75% of US users report that they open email on mobile devices, and virtually no users are reading or acting on a majority of their messages. In fact, the majority of users report not being able to keep up with their email at all.

So we have one important tip for getting that e-newsletter read: KEEP IT SHORT!

The best way to keep your e-newsletter short is to share a little info and link to more on your website, blog or forum.

Survey Says…

We’ve done A/B testing on this to assess opens and click-through behavior for full-text vs. abbreviated and linked content. We sent out two versions of a client’s e-newsletter, one with the full copy, and the other with short teasers linking to full posts on the website. Our total list size for the test was about 8,000, so around 4,000 for each of the versions.

The results were convincing. Opens for each segment did not differ appreciably, and were about the same as many of that client’s previous sends of similar content.

Click-throughs for the two versions however told very different stories. For the full text version, the raw number of click-throughs was — again — about the same as their previous sends of full text, with the vast majority going to the firm’s main website page, about page, etc. But for the abbreviated version, the click-throughs were more than 50% higher, with many more visitors landing on post pages, and consistently navigating more deeply around their site.


Some great research is being done by the Neilson Norman Group on the usability and user reading behavior for email newsletters. For anyone interested in this subject, we recommend the following links:

Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestionemail reading heatmap graphic

E-Mail Newsletters: Increasing Usability

Mobile Email Newsletters

Now is when our client says, “But doesn’t this mean that fewer people are actually reading my full articles?” The answer is “probably not.” And here’s why. Don’t kid yourself; not all of those folks who are opening your email are really reading it (see the box on the research at right). Also remember that simple open stats give us very limited information on reading behavior. Most are scanning the copy and cherry picking things they might be interested in, and some may not be reading it at all. Additionally, many of the non-opens may have been browsed — even read in full — in the user’s preview pane without downloading pictures, so would never even have been registered as “opened.”

Click-through stats are a much more reliable indicator of reading behavior and interest. They provide more detailed information about the effectiveness of content, titles, layout and more. So click-throughs as a whole have MUCH higher value. AND — this is important! — the click-throughs on the abbreviated version of our test were greater in number AND specificity.

“My list members want the full text! They told me so.

A few may have. But the research contradicts them. If you’re producing that much good content AND your list members are sufficiently interested, you should try publishing your full e-newsletter on your website and using your e-newsletter to drive traffic there. If you’re website is dynamic, you could publish your e-newsletter as a series of category posts. Your categories could be smartly assigned to include your current edition, or e-newsletter sections in that current edition, or to create a historical archive. The possibilities are nearly limitless. Your website also has better internal search capabilities to can help your users find the content they need. And more and varied content will help your search engine rankings.

“Nope, our readers still like the long e-newsletter. We also keep bumping up against the maximum number of email characters. What can we do?”

OK, we tried. We’re a client-driven business. And even presented with ample evidence to the contrary, some still want to distribute full-text long e-newsletters. When building a long e-newsletter, you may encounter the dreaded “Your email has too many HTML characters” error message.

In making shortening decisions, the first and simplest option is to cut content, especially if it can be held for future editions.

Note: The following tips are for shortening you’re raw e-newsletter code size. If you’re not producing your own e-newsletter, or if you’re not comfortable reading and editing HTML, the following is probably not for you. It’s also important to recognize that doing any of the following is likely to add significantly to production time and costs.

Wow, How’d I Get So Many Characters?

Most e-newsletter generators use in-line styling to best ensure cross client and browser compatibility. It’s inefficient and messy, but unfortunately it’s the only way. Your e-newsletter is also usually sending both HTML and Text versions in the same outgoing message, with the client’s reading preferences determining which version will be displayed. So the raw size of the email document can rise pretty quickly.

It’s helpful to know that links and images account for a disproportionate number of characters, and while the links may be long, it’s usually styling attributes that pump up the number of characters.

For example, the link for the following article is itself a long link (168 characters):

Feed%3A+ToTheMax+(To+The+Max )

In addition, with inline styling the full HTML code for EVERY link, if it’s to be styled as anything but default blue underline, will include more (in this case it’s nearly 300 characters total):

<a href="http://www.stapleissues.com/2013/08/the-leaders-that-rule-the-day-are-
Feed%3A+ToTheMax+(To+The+Max)" style="color: rgb(89, 148, 50); text-
decoration: none; font-weight: bold;" target="_blank">Sharing Love, Not Hate!</a>

All that styling code tells the browser to make our link green, bold, no underline, and to open the link in a new window.

You can shorten some long links from the get-go by deleting the “?” and everything that follows it. In most cases these appendages are there to track feed origins and other marketing data. After cutting off their tails, be sure to check they still load what you want them to.

“Short links” can help too, though they require additional care because there’s usually a lot of cutting and pasting back and forth when making the link conversions. We have a client whose previous email marketer accidentally included another client’s shortlink to a… uhmm… let’s say “wholly undesirable” site, late in the editing process without letting them know about the shortlink changes, and it went out to their list. Needless to say, every time w mention shortlinks to them, they tense considerably. Short links are usually fine, but they always take a little more work and warrant rigorous testing.

Remember that the only part of the HTML you can shorten with shortlinks is the URL to the outside link itself. All that styling code usually has to stay.

Images, even when they DON’T have links associated with them, can also be long. The file size of the image itself doesn’t matter (they should all be re-sized at the file level to decrease load times anyway). The image we used for the article above (actual link is masked) was this one:


65 characters, not so bad. But the full HTML code for the image when placed in the e-newsletter looks like this (well-over 200 characters):

<img align="right" alt="hate-letter" border="0" height="120" hspace="0" 
style="width: 150px; height: 120px;" title="hate-letter" vspace="0" width="150" />

WITH links image HTML is even longer. If you are a close reader you’ll notice that there are redundant styling attributes in the image tag, listing the height and width of the image in two different ways, again because of browser and email client handling variations.

There’s little you can do with HTML image code to shorten it. Ask “Do I need this picture?” If the answer is no, delete it.

The Takeaway

We hope these tips help editors and producers make prudent and effective decisions about their content delivery and e-communication practices. Along with the available evidence on reading behavior, and an understanding of the extra work and cost that accommodating long content can entail, many of them will come around to the original advice: Keep it short!

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