Creative engagement

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You can't judge a book by its cover, but that's exactly what many readers do when deciding whether to open e-marketing messages. There are things marketers can do, however, when it comes to designing and creating e-mail marketing content, that will keep subscribers opening-and, more important, reading-messages, experts say. Here are tips to help keep readers engaged.

Keep it brief.

When marketers transitioned from writing print ads to online ads, they had some adjusting to do, said Elaine O'Gorman, VP-strategy for e-mail marketing provider Silverpop. "We learned we had to cut the number of words down," she said. "We cut copy by about 80%."

Some marketers fail to realize that translating an online ad to e-mail ad format requires further paring down, she said. "You have to reduce again another 80%."

Format is also important. Print ads can have multiple paragraphs, but e-mail readers spend an average of five to eight seconds scanning a message, said Matt Caldwell, creative director at e-mail marketing provider YesMail. "You should hit points visually in a way that doesn't require much reading. You want text to flow easily from one point to another," he said.

Less text and fewer images mean faster loading times, too. Caldwell said messages should be no larger than 100K total, so readers are never kept waiting.

Use deadlines to boost responses.

Give offers a deadline to create urgency, but don't just say you're having a three-day sale, said Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services for EmailLabs, a provider of e-mail marketing software and services. "People don't always open a message the day you send it," he said. "By telling someone there's a three-day sale without specifying which three days, you're making it more difficult for people to act in a timely fashion."

Instead, spell out which three days your offer is available right in the subject line and again in the body of the message.

Tell readers what you want them to do.

Call to action is the single most important part of your e-mail message but it's often buried, Pollard said. "Never assume something is obvious-a link or an offer," he said. "You need to telegraph the actual action you want a reader to take. Use graphic elements so they trip over a link. Tell them using words what you want them to do."

Perceived value is everything.

Retailers use this to their advantage every day; if they've marked down an item to $10 from $20, they play up the percentage rather than the dollar figure-50% off rather than $10 off. You can do the same thing with your e-mail communications, said Hannah Paramore, president of Paramore| Redd Online Marketing. "You have to find what kind of offer your audience relates to," she said. "Some might prefer free shipping, while others might snap up an offer that gives them $10 off of $50 ... people like to think they are saving 20% since $10 is 20% of $50."

Test with multiple e-mail clients, including wireless devices.

Because some e-mail clients, as well as some devices, don't automatically load images, make sure there is enough text surrounding any images so your message and call to action aren't lost.

"Test messages in different e-mail clients, and think about the different ways people choose to view their e-mail," said Barry Stamos, senior director of strategy for Responsys.

For example, those receiving e-mails via Microsoft Outlook may see the first three lines of a message or a more significant chunk of the message in either a vertical or horizontal preview pane. Your message will look different to them depending on which option they choose and if they have images enabled or not.

"Try and include jump links in the preview pane, and remember that 50% of people won't scroll down, so put information right upfront so people can zone in and answer their questions, and take immediate action," he said.

Consistency is key.

Paramore|Redd Online Marketing works with the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. The resort targets meeting planners, sending messages that highlight the different packages and offerings. Early on, Greenbrier marketing executives designed beautiful messages that used a variety of images. Today, however, Paramore and her team have implemented a design that uses a standard logo and images for each type of communication.

"The golf packages use one image and the vacation packages use another," she said. "It gives us a baseline look so we can test the actual copy and offers."

Marketers should also remember that newsletters and e-mail marketing are extensions of your brand, Pollard said, so you should use one or two elements that appear in print ads and online in your e-mail message.

"There's instant recognition of branding when you can incorporate a logo or show a photo of a product," he said.

Avoid using audio and video files, as well as executables, scripts and style sheets.

E-mail servers and ISPs view all of the above as potentially dangerous because viruses often piggyback on these files. You can use rich media, however, as long as you stick to simple animated .gifs or incorporate it on a landing page reached by a link.

Embedded forms are also making inroads. Even six months ago, experts cautioned against using such forms or surveys, saying many people wouldn't be able to see or use them. The fact remains, however, that they are extremely successful when sent to prospects and customers who can see them, O'Gorman said. She suggested implementing the format along with a specialized landing page for those who can't or won't use an embedded form.

"People love the idea of being able to interact," she said. "As long as you have a backup plan-something that says, `If the form isn't working for you, click here.' If your audience can handle the original, though, it's a wonderful way to make contact."

Don't be afraid of humor.

Businesspeople are looking for information, but they also want a little levity during their day. "Don't be afraid of having a personality," said Gail Goodman, CEO of e-mail marketing provider Constant Contact. "Being silly and fun connects people to your brand and keeps them reading."

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