Grab Attention and Sales With a Better Email Header (7 Tips)

Put your clearest headline forward.

Wondering what still reigns as the most effective online marketing channel? It is email marketing. In the inbox, first impressions count more than anywhere.

Image: Open sign by Jacques_Palut

Think about your newsletter as a shop in a shopping centre. While passing by, your subscribers peek and quickly look at the shop window (your subject line and email header) to see if it is worth coming in and reading the whole message. Once your header has tickled their interest, you’ve got ’em.

A thoughtful and engaging header design can grab the attention your campaign deserves. But how to craft the ideal header? Here are seven tips to improve your email header design and avoid being ignored.

1. Put your clearest headline forward

The header is the first thing your subscribers see once they open your email. The area of about 350 pixels high and 600-650 pixels wide at the top of the email is visible in most email clients without scrolling. This is what people mean by “above the fold.” Just because people could scroll, doesn’t mean they will, so a clear headline is super important.

For instance, in this email by REI, the headline makes it clear that the email is about hiking inspiration. Details about the ways you can do that, their community, app, etc., follow after. But only once we’ve set the tone and hooked them on “hiking.”

 2. Get your main point across, first

This email by eBay seems to primarily target people and to get them to sell an item on eBay. What catches our eyes is the headline “Sundays Are Made For Selling,” in high contrast color and big font, which is good. (and yes, the email was sent on a Sunday.) 🙂

Example via

But something interesting happens if we cut it off at the header, at approximately 350 pixels of scroll depth.

The headline is visible. But we wouldn’t see the offer of $20 coupon on your first sale. If they wanted the audience to fall in love with the idea of selling and get motivated by the incentive at first sight, well, that didn’t happen. So be aware of what you put in that first space, and don’t let it go to waste.

3. Use stunning imagery to establish mood and context

Studies have shown that our conscious brains can’t think really fast, but our lizard brain can, processing images about 60.000 times as fast as words. To make apparent that images CAN be worth a 1000 words (or so much quicker conveying a message). Have a look at the text description and then look at the scene. An image is not only quicker to understand but also has a lot more depth of meaning.

Text Description to Scene

An affectionate elderly couple,
sitting at the table. She is eating a
salad, He has a coffee and is
reading the newspaper.

Image by Rawpixel

Often you’ll see images that are chosen strictly because they relate to the email content’s topic, even though they don’t amaze or convey the right feeling. When looking for images to use in your email and email headers, make sure the mood and emotional context are appropriate. Most image galleries will allow you to search on concepts and find images based on tags. For instance, here are the tags associated with the image above.

Compare these two messages from Explore Outdoors and Eddie Bauer. That is the difference between what it “feels” like to compete on products alone versus what it feels like—to a consumer’s eyes—when you add emotion, and people, into the equation. There’s a big difference, isn’t there? This would be a great email A/B test; products versus passion.

Email source

4. Don’t cram your call-to-action

The header is a piece of prime email real estate that is meant to help people recognize you, enticing them to read the rest of your message.

You don’t need to cram your complete message in there. Some messages are very simple, which makes it easy, but some messages just need more of an on-ramp. This is especially true if you choose a personalized sales follow up message. If the call-to-action and more details on the benefits just don’t fit in first-view, then that’s fine too.

So make sure to lead with a captivating offer, curiosity-inducing story or crystal clear benefit to guide the recipients from scanning to reading and eventually into action.

5. Frame the rest of your message

Ok, but what about newsletters or mails that have multiple messages in them? You can’t always pick one “main message” in those.

In that case try to give a frame of reference in which the message should be seen. For instance, consider the example of Groupon’s “New Life Experiences” header below.

After the header come 20 (!) offers. By framing them as new experiences, Groupon does something smart. They avoid readers being turned off after the first offer if they happen to not be such big bowling fanatics.

6. Remove unnecessary clutter and design elements

It can be very, very, very tempting to put a lot of design elements in your emails. Don’t. White space is your friend, so remove any unnecessary clutter. Each distraction can cost precious conversions. You will find some headers where there are so many things going on, you don’t know where to look.

For instance, this mail from SelectBlinds could be made clearer by making some choices on what the main message is. The customer satisfaction guarantee, free samples and free shipping bits are strong as supporting messages, but by putting them all in the header, they just eat up the attention before the main point of the email has a chance to develop.

One of my worst pet peeves is when I see unsubscribe links in a header. It’s just unnecessary. And social media buttons too – why put those in the header? A quick test you can do is to simply ask yourself if each element above the main headline is really more important than the primary message of the email. If it isn’t, then simply either remove or de-emphasize it.

7. Continue the happy flow

With the best email marketing designs, the whole message is aligned. It is a happy flow, and each step is set to continue without ever confusing people. This is what I like to call the “Stairway of email marketing micro-yesses.” Your header delivers on what is promised by the subject line, and the rest of your email details what is promised in the header.

Image source

So once people have been drawn in by your clear and amazing header, make sure they get the explanation and “need to knows”. Then, your landing page is where the party continues….

Read next: 

Stock Photo Trends in Landing Page Designs

About the Author Jordie van Rijn

Jordie van Rijn is a well-known online marketing consultant and keynote marketing speaker. Entrepreneur Magazine called him “One of 50 Online Marketing Influencers to Watch.” He helps companies to improve their conversions with email and marketing automation advice, and guide marketing software selections.