Despite how carefully you craft your newsletter, you’re going to get readers that only skim-read your content, looking for things that jump out at them. After all, we can’t expect every one of our subscribers to methodically devour every word we write, especially not with so many emails vying for attention in the inbox. Are you catering for this type of reader?

How do people read emails?

To understand how to design your emails for those that will skim-read, you need to understand how people consume online content. With traditional media, like a book, people will read left to right. With online content however, most people scan emails (and web pages) in an F pattern, according to this study.

Users first scan across in a horizontal pattern, across the upper content area (forming the top bar of the F). Next, users move down a bit and scan horizontally again, usually in a shorter movement (forming the lower, shorter bar of the F). Lastly, users scan content down the left hand side in a vertical movement, forming the stem of the F. Obviously, there are deviations from this pattern, but the bulk of users will follow it.

What we can tell from this is that very, very few people will read every single word. Instead, they’re searching through your content to look for things that interest them, and if they find it, they’ll jump to it. Otherwise, they’ll scroll past it.

How should I structure my content?

Now that you know how your skim-readers work, you can tailor your email newsletter design to grab their attention in the right way. After all, you don’t want your key messages to be lost to short attention spans.

Step 1 – Break up your content into easily digestible chunks

If you’ve got one solid block of text, it’s going to be overwhelming for most of your readers. Breaking down your paragraphs into smaller chunks will be far more aesthetically pleasing, and more enticing to skim over, instead of skipping out-right.

When deciding how to split up your content, there are a few guidelines to follow:

Address one item or thought per chunk of content, don’t try to shove everything into each paragraph. This helps your skim-readers gather bits of information from each chunk.

Use headlines per chunk of content. Headlines draw the eye to each section, which will make a map for the readers to follow. Headlines on each section will let your readers know what content is where, making it easier for them to find.

Accompany each chunk with an image. Images are also going to grab the attention of readers, so including a visually supportive image with each chunk will add to your map.

Step 2 – Get your message priority in order

The order in which you place your chunks is also important, and it’s not highest to lowest. The Serial Positioning Effect that describes the Primary and Recency effects is a fancy way of saying that first and last impressions count the most. Everything in the middle is fluff.

Structure your different chunks in a way that puts your most important message first (primary), as the most urgent point it will be seen by the most people and is most likely to be remembered. Your second most important piece of information should go right at the end (recency), as recall is also high there. Make it stand out slightly, like a P.S. line.

The rest of your content is going to be seen as filler by your readers. This doesn’t mean you should include absolute junk though, just use the techniques above like images and headlines to draw them in more. Your loyal and meticulous readers still want more than just a beginning and an end!

Step 3 – Think about the design of the copy itself

Once you’ve got your bite-size formatting down, and you know what order to put those pieces in, it’s time to think about the design of the copy. From font size to line height, the appearance of the words themselves will help with readability and understanding.

Your choice of font matters the most – the more complex and overly wrought the font, the easier it is to skip over. Fancy fonts are fine for logos, but not for body content. Word spacing is also important, a crowded paragraph of text makes for a difficult read. Look at the spacing between your headings, your body text and your bullet points. Appropriate spacing will keep your readers actively engaged.

Lastly, think about the circumspect use of bolded words. If you’ve used bolded text, read through your copy and make sure it still makes sense if the bolded words are the only ones you read. For skim-readers, this might be the only message they take away from your campaign.

Skim-readers are here to stay

People are going to skim-read your content no matter what you do, it’s in our very nature. However, by using the techniques we’ve just outlined, you can accommodate the readers that just scan your content and make sure your message gets across.

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