"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Mark Twain
It's something our greatest writers have always known—less is more. If you want something to REALLY have an impact, use as few words as possible. So, where did we get the idea that more is better?
Probably academia—professors assigning research papers with long, extraneous word counts. I personally used to pride myself on my ability to B.S. my way through any essay. Little did I know how problematic that would be once I declared myself a journalism major (a field where brevity is practically a commandment).
And perhaps, nowhere is extraneous verbiage more problematic than email writing. Inboxes are busy places. Generally speaking, people want to get in and get out. Depending on the source, 50 to 60 percent of emails are now opened on mobile devices. Translation: Readers are scanning for the high points; the average mobile screen fits 4 to 7 words max.
Don't get me wrong—longer pieces absolutely have their place in evergreen blog articles, sales pages and other forms of content. But, in most cases, the goal of email is to generate enough interest to procure a clickthrough. At which point, you can get a little more wordy.
In this article, we'll address some "best practices" for determining ideal email length, breaking it down into individual components. Let's get started.
Subject Line Length
Think subject lines don't matter? Think again:
- 35 percent of email recipients open email based on subject line alone.
- 69 percent of recipients report email as spam based on subject line alone.
- Lines with 30 or fewer characters show an above-average open rate.
We've written before about how to craft compelling subject lines, but here we're focusing on length. What you should absolutely know: Anything after 80 characters gets cut off. Most email platforms will replace any additional text with ellipses. Though a couple studies suggest 10 characters as "the ideal number," sacrificing substance for brevity is never advised. What does 10 characters (or less) look like?
[That was eight characters.]
While understanding and utilizing such statistical data can be fun, don't let it become the major focus. A winning subject line utilizes one of three techniques: It either invokes curiosity, promises a benefit, or announces something relevant. Achieve that in around 50 characters and you'll be fine.
Don't bury the lead—it belongs in your introduction! Your lead is your "hook," or reason for writing. It's what makes people want to keep reading more. In journalism, they have something called "the inverted pyramid." The idea is to, as succinctly as possible, answer the Who/What/When/Where/Why questions, before tapering off into greater detail.
Aim to answer those basic questions within the first four to five sentences. With that said, don't be afraid to open with a short, curiosity-invoking sentence; especially one that plays off your subject line. Here's an example:
<name>, I've been thinking...
What would you do with one additional free hour a day?
Before I developed the Stride Productivity Method, I knew exactly what I'd do.
I'd finally learn French! I was fresh out of college, newly employed, and completely devastated by how little time I now had for my personal interests. But it wasn't until I stumbled across some exciting research that I figured out a way to actually GAIN an hour a day (without taking anything away).
The above example does several things well:
- It utilizes a curiosity-invoking subject line
- It gets the reader thinking about his/her desires,
- It introduces the offering with selling, and
- It makes a personal connection.
Where does the email go from here? How long should it be?
That answer depends on several factors, including target audience preferences, industry subject matter, and your purpose for emailing. You'll also likely want to factor in how much rapport has been built up to this point. Better rapport equals more trust, and more trust allows for longer correspondence. Here's how to proceed:
1. Whom are you writing for?
We've said it before, and we'll say it again—knowing your Buyer Personas is key. Beyond the basic demographics (i.e. 50 to 60-year-old professionals in the financial service industry), you need to dig into the psychographics. That means: What kind of materials do these people read? Where do they hang out online? And most importantly, what type of communication do they want to receive from you.
There is absolutely NO substitute for directly asking prospects how they'd like to hear from you. While the above Buyer Persona could spend hours reading The Wall Street Journal, they may not want the same level of complexity from you.
2. What's the purpose of the email?
Are you pitching a high-dollar offering to warmly segmented section of your list? Are you trying to generate enough interest that leads to a clickthrough for a blog post? Are you wanting subscribers to fill out a survey? The length of emails required for these objectives will range from in-depth to very short. Depending on the pitch, you'll probably want a series of brief emails leading up to a more expansive one—just make sure it doesn't replace the sales page or sales call.
So, How Long Should My Business Emails Be?
Regardless of how you answer these questions, we recommend most businesses keep their emails under 300 words. With that said, don't make this a science.
If you notice a particular type of email receiving less traction, ask yourself why. If it seems too lengthy, try breaking that email into a series of shorter emails sent over time. Conversely, maybe it's too short to give readers a sense of urgency to click through. Try using more images, preview text, and storytelling.
Remember, from a content marketing perspective, your goal is generating action!