As an email marketer, your messages are read on PC or tablet screens just like any other web content. Therefore, the findings of a recent study on how people read online content on computer monitors should be carefully considered in order to optimize your email text for maximum impact. Unfortunately, the findings of the study are not encouraging for the crafters of florid, long-winded email prose… but there are some steps you can take to maximize your percentages in the pursuit of more effective email marketing.

Users Familiarize Themselves Before Reading

One of the most interesting findings was the percentage of words read on an average online page. The study (Weinreich H, Obendorf H, Herder E, Mayer M. – Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use. ACM Transactions on the Web. Vol. 2, No. 1, Article 5) examined online computer users’ habits in a fully naturalistic way. The subjects were not instructed to do anything outside their norm but just engage in freeform browsing. The dataset included 59,573 different page views. Nearly one quarter of these views showed anomalous behavior:

  • 17% lasted less than 4 seconds, thus are indications of no interest at all.
  • 4% lasted more than 10 minutes. Given the average amount of information on the pages, this must have been when the user was distracted by a phone call or a coffee break.
  • 3% were pages that contained less than 20 words. These were most likely 404 error pages.

The balance of the page views totaled 45,237, and an analysis showed that for the average amount of content – 593 total words per page including headers, nav bars, etc. – there is a mean dwell time of 25 seconds, plus 4.4 seconds per every 100 words. The reason for that dwell time is that users tend to “take in” the page, checking out images, navigational features and other characteristics. It is after this dwell time that they start their reading.

The Longer Your Text, the Fewer Words Are Read

The study showed that as the number of total words on a page increased, the percentage of those words actually read falls drastically:

  • 100 words or less: 53%
  • 101 to 200 words: 44%
  • 201 to 300 words: 37%
  • 301 to 400 words: 33%
  • 401 to 500 words: 29%
  • 501 to 800 words: 23%
  • 801 words or more: 21%

Note that these percentages are for total time spent, which does not take into account the dwell period as well as the time reading text that is incorporated in images, links and other non-strictly textual content. If we estimate the actual textual content time, we should come up with a figure that is approximately two thirds of that percentage. To place these numbers into a typical summary, it is fair to say that if a page has 350 text content words on it, only about 77 of those words will actually be read. Remarkably, a 95 word text will have 35 words read while a 410 word text will only have 43 more words read.

Skewing Your “Major Words” to Optimize Their Chances

If we assume that the latest email in your campaign contains 300 to 400 words, and you can only count on 22% of them being absorbed, how do you skew your “major words” to ensure that the most important and relevant ones get read?

  • Place your major words at the top of the email’s text.
  • Consider adding into the last paragraph, as that gets read more than most of the middle ones.
  • Use bold and italics judiciously: Overuse makes your text look like a ransom note.
  • Use subheads carefully as well: Introducing every sentence this way looks like a table of contents.
  • Keep your text short, as your percentage of words read will increase.

Are All Your Readers Empty-Headed?

Although it seems degrading to think of your audience in this manner, statistical studies do show that many of your email’s readers apply the doe-eyed “oh look… something shiny over there…” methodology to their online reading. As much as email marketers would love if all their carefully crafted words were to hit their targets, the truth remains that only a bare minority of them ever actually go anywhere but into electronic limbo.