Jakob Nielsen, the usability researcher at the Nielsen Norman Group has stated that the average amount of time readers spend with our emails is 51 seconds.

51 seconds!

When you think about it, processing email at high speed is a survival tactic we all employ. We’re drowning in overflowing inboxes, and in order to have enough time for our other tasks, we have to become efficient about how we deal with email.

What can you do as an email creator to produce messages that survive the scrutiny of a rushed reader whose finger is hovering over the delete key?

Don’t guess at what will work. Use with these five proven (and easy) design techniques to create emails that will keep your readers engaged with your message.

1. Start with a structure

Let’s time travel back to middle school English class, shall we? It’s time for you to learn how to write a “research paper.”

What’s the first step? (After you get your assigned topic and roll your eyes — you’re in middle school, remember?)

That’s right: it’s to create an outline.

Let’s dust off those outlining skills you built in sixth grade and put them to work for your email marketing. Start by creating a basic structure for your message. Decide on the overall hierarchy of your information by determining:

  • What’s your most important piece of information? This is the one (and there should only be one) main message you’d like your reader to take away from your email. What is it?
  • What’s the next most important information? This might be announcements of ongoing offers, a list of your services, links to important parts of your website, notes about upcoming events, etc. Your message will read faster if you don’t include this kind of information, but if it must be there, don’t let it compete with your main message. (More on how to do this visually below.)
  • What’s the least important information? This might be your copyright and contact information, a link to your terms of service, or other legalese that must be included.

When creating your email layout, you might decide to use a two column format. If you do, keep in mind that because we read from left to right, your most important topic should be on the left side of your layout because that’s the first place your reader’s eyes will go.

2. Use images as needed, and carefully

Images in emails still make them load slower than all-text emails, so use them sparingly.

In many cases, email recipients have images turned off. Make sure your email message can be understood if images aren’t visible by adding an image description to every image. That way, if they can’t see your images they can at least read a short description of them.

Here’s a trick: if images are crucial to your email message, add an image description to your header image that says “For best results, please display images in this message.” That message will only show if people have images turned off, and it will prompt them to display images so they can see your message in all its glory.

3. Make your job easy: limit your design choices

When you log in to your email dashboard you’ll have lots of fonts and colors to choose from. My recommendation?

Ignore your choices. Pick one very dark grey or black font to use for your Greeting Text and Main Text. Make the background of your main text areas white.

This will give you the best contrast and readability in the most important areas of your email.

Then in your secondary areas, lessen the contrast. How?

Select a very light shaded background to use in these areas. You must do this carefully, because you still want enough contrast between the background and your text color for it to be easily readable.

Making these secondary areas slightly lower contrast means your reader’s eyes will go to your main areas (with the most contrast) first, then they’ll move to the lower contrast areas next.

Finally, be sure to use a unique color for link text. Don’t make any regular text the same color as your link text, or else your readers will try to click on areas that aren’t links.

4. Keep your emails short and sweet

Remember the 51 second average? That’s not much time to read, so when you’re planning your email content, keep your message as short as possible.

Think of your email messages like summaries: cover the main idea; provide some supporting facts; and wrap it all up with a call to action that lets them know what you want them to do next.

5. Don’t use ALL CAPS

Avoid using ALL CAPS in your email messages for two important reasons. First, it looks like you’re shouting. No one likes to get yelled at!

More importantly, it’s difficult to read. Upper and lower case letters work together to form unique shapes for each word we read. Our eyes use these shapes to form sentences, word by word.

ALL CAPS slow a reader down. Each word becomes a rectangle, and our eyes have to read letter-by-letter, rather than word-by-word.

Use this checklist for better emails

Help your reader to make the most of the short time they’ll spend with your message by using these techniques to make it easy to read and absorb.

Questions? Let’s talk about them in the comments section.

About the Author: Pamela Wilson of Big Brand System helps small businesses owners learn to use strategic marketing and great design to grow their businesses. Get her free Design 101 course and pick up tips for making all your marketing materials work better.