[Case Study] Do Narrow-Width Emails Drive More Clicks? (A Data-Driven Answer)

 

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  • A customer recently asked me why we format emails with a narrower width.
  • In this video, I explained why we favor carriage returns.
  • I back up our email width preference with stats, research and an unexpected interpretation of the data.

Hey there. Welcome to another Matt Hacks video, where I give you tips to help you be more awesome at marketing and accelerate your creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. This is Matt here, the founder of AutoGrow.co, and this is another video we’re really excited to present to you today.

In this video, we’re going to present original research we’ve been compiling for the last couple of weeks.

It all relates to one question an audience member recently asked me: “Why is your email text so narrow?”.

We’ve been testing some ideas and putting together the data for you to answer that very question: should you send emails to your email list where the text has a narrow or wide width? Which is better and why?

We’re going to give you a fair and balanced answer by looking at what other people and existing research has to say. Plus, we’re going to interpret the data and tell you why we think it came out the way it did.

The Original Question about Email Width and Our Answer

So here’s the original question that inspired us to do the research and create this video. It’s from Andreas Wessolly. He wrote:

i really enjoy reading your content!

BUT i am also really annoyed by the way your format your text in your emails:

Everyone else writes like this:

Text TextText TextText TextText TextText TextText TextText TextText 

TextText Text Text TextText TextText TextTextText TextText TextText

Why do you write like this:

Text TextText TextText

Text TextText TextText

Text TextText TextText

Text TextText TextText

i really don´t get it and i am sure that i am not the only one who is annoyed.

Andreas

The brief story behind our email formatting is, we read some anecdotal research in the past that talked about the effort the human eye had to expend to go from one line to the next. In emails or text in general, whether you’re reading a book or a web page, when the eye has to go from the end of one line to the next, shorter lines were more comfortable to read. This was because the end of the line was closer to the beginning of the next, so the human eye peripherally could see which line was coming up next and do what’s called a “carriage return”.

That’s an old term with typewriters, like you type, type, type, type, type, type, type, type, type, type. That’s a carriage return, and that’s what the human eye does, when you go to the next line.

Our Research to Back Up Our Email Width Preferences

Because of Andreas’ question, I said, let’s actually put together some research, because we have a big enough email list where we can create statistics that are going to be relevant. In other words, whatever we’re testing for, we can achieve a conversion rate of at least 300 conversions for each test case. In this case, we tested it for clicks.

We wanted to see which version of the emails would result in the highest click-thru rate. Would it be the narrow version or the wide version? So here’s exactly how the numbers came out.

We tested this across 16 different email campaigns, and basically every day we flipped a coin. We would test the narrow width one day, and we would test the wide width another day. This way, we were able to test the narrow width and the wide width with people who were receiving our newsletter, which would go out to 12,000 plus email subscribers, as well as a smaller list of between 2,000 to 4,000 people each time we sent out the Matt Hack videos.

Based on that, we are able to achieve a statistically significant number, because the total for each version drove over 300 clicks. That’s important, because that means the data is therefore going to be more reliable, so we can say with confidence the results could be replicated.

The Verdict

What we found was that the click-thru rate for the narrow version was about 1.60% if you rounded it up, and 1.04% for the wide version.

What does that mean?

Well, the narrow version generated a click-thru rate that was over 51% higher when you calculate it. That might not sound like a lot, but let’s say you’re sending an important email only 12 times a year and it’s going to generate 100 clicks each to your email list. You get an extra 51 subscribers clicking each time, or you don’t in this case. (There was 1 email in the wide width category that was an outlier that skewed everything and it was excluded in the analysis. The results still showed that the narrow width is higher than the wide with version but only with 10% improvement. Without the outlier, the improvement is 50% as shown in the graph above.)You know, over the course of a year, that’s 151 potential email subscribers that you’re missing out on who would have clicked through. If you have an average conversion rate of 10% on your sales page, that’s 15 sales you’re leaving on the table that you may not have otherwise gotten. So that being said, let’s take a look at what other people’s research has said on this point.

Supporting Research

Here’s some research that was featured in an article from uxmovement.com a few years ago and they cited a couple of research studies. They said, because they test different line lengths based on the number of characters on each line, they tested 35, 55, 75 and 95.

They found that longer line lengths — in this case, the 95 characters per line (CPL) — anecdotally, they said that people felt like they were reading faster, even though they weren’t on the shorter line lengths.

They also had another interesting tidbit from this research study where they said that the liquid layout versus fixed width layout with margins increased the reading comprehension level. In other words, people better understood what they were reading and were probably better able to retain the information.

Here’s some other data presented by the Baymard Institute. They start the article off talking about how 50 to 60 characters is considered to be the ideal. Then they go on to say that according to other sources, up to 75 characters is acceptable as well.

So they mentioned that, for example, if text is too wide, the reader’s eye will have a hard time focusing on the text. This is because if it’s too wide, you want to do the carriage return, but you might lose your place and go to the incorrect line.

If text is too narrow, they say this can stress out readers, and make them begin on the next line before finishing the current one. Maybe that’s what Andreas was feeling when he originally wrote in.

Baymard Institute also says something else that’s interesting anecdotally: “It turns out that the subconscious mind is energized when jumping to the next line as long as it doesn’t happen too frequently.”

This is, I believe, the argument for starting off articles with a thin margin for the first few lines and then going wider. I’ve seen this on some of our most popular blog posts from several years ago. We used that technique, where the first couple of lines were short and sweet, very thin, and then the paragraphs moved back to kind of a normal width, because we had put an image on the side.

That backs up some other anecdotal research I’ve read. Baymard Institute kind of concludes here that the ideal width is between 50 to 75 characters. When you come over to Smashing Magazine, this article written by Laura Franz, a professor at the University of Dartmouth, (who also teaches a class specifically on web typography for graduate students), cites research here from a 2006 Nielsen group study where they did eye tracking research.

She basically breaks it down in more of a nuanced way, that you really have to understand that people read in different ways. They read casually, they scan with purpose and they read in an engaged manner, right? We don’t read every word individually. Okay, that makes sense.

That’s kind of the argument here, not just line width, but in terms of how you structure it, like bolding things, highlighting things and making more like an outline that you can skim and scan. A lot of people, especially today where we’re bombarded by text messages and social media notifications, are just cherry-picking information because we get so much of it.

So it’s also possible that this study is therefore out of date, because the study was conducted before smartphones and tablets became as popular as they are, and probably reprogrammed our brain chemistry. But that’s all speculation.

Our Interpretation of the Data

Now, let’s conclude by giving you my interpretation of the data. I want to say that I think this data for us is definitive, and I think that statistically if clicks were all that we cared about, this would work to drive the maximum number of clicks. However, it is not proof that people will have a better, happier and non-stressful reading experience.

So what I’m actually interested in is, I’d like you to leave a comment on this video and let me know: what do you find more enjoyable to read, larger or smaller widths?

I believe it’s important to balance the qualitative with the quantitative in terms of research, because if we just cared about clicks, sure, that 10% sounds great. Maybe if we’re better able to communicate, we can form a better-quality relationship with our subscribers. Even if the click rate is lower, maybe the overall end conversion rate in terms of people who want to share our content and become customers over time, maybe that’s going to be higher if we provide a better reading experience, even if the click rate isn’t 10% higher.

So which do you prefer? Do you prefer the narrow format, like what you see here, which, in terms of the CPL or characters per line, is about 33 or 35?

Do you prefer the wider width format, which falls into that range of about 60 to 75 characters, which you see here in this format?

Beware of confirmation bias, because you may say, “I want to drive more clicks, therefore I think that this wider format is better.”

Beware of that. Actually maybe pause the video, and read the beginning of this newsletter, and then read the introduction to this newsletter as well and then leave a comment. Do you feel your eyes are straining more as you move through the newsletter, or do you find that one is more comfortable versus another?

So leave a comment. Let me know which you prefer, and let me know what you think about this research. My overall conclusion is that the best answer is probably somewhere in the middle, in that we can provide a better, happier and more enjoyable reading experience somewhere in between.

In the case of Andreas, his words are very reflective of what he felt as he was actually reading. Someone doesn’t use the word “annoying” and actually take the time to write an email as detailed as he did if he wasn’t feeling stressed from reading the newsletter. So I suspect that if we increased the width, instead of going all the way to 95 characters per line, I think that the answer is more in the middle, probably around 50 to 60 characters per line.

One Action to Take Right Now

Here’s the one action to take with your next newsletter. Change the line width so that it is in that range of 50 to 60 characters per line, and apply margins so that along the sides there’s some white space to increase reading comprehension, as that one study cited.

So that’s it for today. To never miss out on another Matt Hack, remember to hit the subscribe button on YouTube. You can also subscribe via email, and that way you get it in your inbox. If you’re watching this on our blog, there’s an option to opt in with your email directly below this video.

If you like this video, you like this research and you find it useful, we’d appreciate you sharing it on social media and liking this video on YouTube. So tune in next time when I show you the advantage of having a segmented email list versus one that is not segmented, with hard data to back it up.

Once again, my name is Matt Ack in the Matt hat, delivering your daily dose of Matt Hacks.

Keep hustling. Stay focused. I’ll talk to you soon.

For more information on Effective email list building, download Matt’s 47 Email List Building Strategies Checklist PDF (with 10 bonus strategies) or invest in our new Rocket Content course, which is currently discounted.

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