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Hal Licino

Are You a Consummate Email Designer or a Cake Decorator?

Nov 20 2010, 11:32 AM by

Jakob Nielsen was listed as one of the world's most influential designers by Business Week and is a leading researcher into online usability issues. He recently published his latest eyetracking study on photos as online content, and his conclusions bear close scrutiny by any email marketer for critical insights into how your readers are actually "seeing" your emails.

Some Images Are Studied While Others Are Disregarded

The designs adopted by email marketers for their campaigns can be divided up into two camps. On one side, there are the consummate experts, who craft each textual and visual content element to be harmonious and relevant. On the other side, there are the "cake decorators," who slather on design with a stucco trowel and slap oversized and strictly decorative images all over their emails. By studying how the eyes of readers actually "track" over various online pages, Nielsen was able to determine the marked difference between how various types of images are perceived by your customers.

Eyetracking Studies Prove Large Decorative Images Are Ignored
Dr. Jakob Nielsen

Nielsen's study discovered that some types of images are entirely ignored by readers. These are the types of images included in emails and other online content that are out of proportion to the rest of the page and used strictly for decoration. One truly "eye-opening" eyetracking study showed over one hundred points where a reader's eye rested to take in the information on the Yale School Of Management's application webpage. Not a single one of them was on a rather generic photo of a University lounge, which took up about a third of the entire page! The image did not contribute much of anything to the content, thus it became literally invisible.

Photos Should Feature Rich & Relevant Detail

In the cases where the images are relevant and contain information that the reader is interested in, the eyetracking studies show that these are the images that are strongly focused upon. Nielsen's study compared similar product gallery webpages from Amazon.com and Potterybarn.com: The former was a listing of large screen TVs, while the latter was a group of bookcases. The TV images were all essentially identical (a TV is a TV is a TV), so the reader spent 82% of their eye focus on the text; but the bookcases were full of detail that differed from photo to photo, thus these were the images that received the lion's share of the attention.

Provide the Option for Varied & Much Larger Alternative Views

An email marketer should not conclude that the key to engaging the reader visually is to cram their emails and landing pages with countless tiny, highly detailed photos. Large photos are welcomed by the reader when they are specifically requested. Readers like to click on links to view enlarged images of products they are interested in, and these photos should be at least twice the size of the original image in the gallery. Readers prefer alternate and very large views of a product, so providing them with images that show off the item in great detail will have a marked effect on the success of your campaign.

When you approach your email marketing solutions, you can learn a great deal about usability issues by following Nielsen's studies. They point to what by now should be a universal dictum in the online promotions industry, applicable to every possible element of a campaign: Provide only content that is strictly relevant and purely informative!

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