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Easier to Remember

The Key to Email: A Two-second Grab

To communicate online, and particularly in email, you have to overcome the greatest dilemma of online communication: infinite space and short attention spans.

When you write an email there is a tendency to add all the fine detail of the message because the e-mail window just keeps expanding to accommodate the text you type.

The recipient sits at the other end, making brutal, two-second decisions about what to look at and what to ignore, based on viewing no more than 20 words of that content. Even if they read, they skim. Or they save the email for another day, making it even less likely they will ever see its full content.

The result: the sender's writing a booklet, but the recipient's treating it like a roadside billboard. You're writing 1000 words, they're reading 10 - on a good day.


Email studies from the Nielsen Norman group, whose most famous principal, Jakob Nielsen, predict trends in the evolution of internet media. Nielsen Norman first published a major study of email newsletter usability in 2002 showing how users treated email newsletters like old-fashioned postal letters. Nielsen Norman discovered users who didn't want to unsubscribe from newsletters because "it doesn't feel good to sever the relationship".

Nielsen Norman has updated its study and concluded that the email audience is getting tougher and smarter. More people can tell the difference between email and spam; more people use spam filters to get rid of unwanted emails; they are concentrating more on email that helps them get something done.

Most importantly, users are weighing up email messages in even less time, scanning rather than reading. "In our first study, 23 per cent of the newsletters were read thoroughly. In our second study, two years later, only 11 per cent of the newsletters were read thoroughly," Nielsen Norman reports.


Email newsletter authors, and anyone else writing messages from organizations to individuals, must take a clear lesson from this: people are throwing away most of your information, and you can't fight the trend. Craft your email to look interesting and eye-catching and sum up your message in subject lines, opening lines and headings.

If you only have two seconds don't waste them with boring, plain text email.