Whenever your teacher assigned you a paper in school – no matter what the subject was or what grade you were in – there was always only one question on anyone’s mind: how long does it have it be?
Of course, that always depended on the teacher you were writing for, the topic, and the style of the paper. But in reality, the only info you actually cared about was that magic number you had to reach before you could shut off your computer, get a couple hours of sleep, and hand it in.
Sound familiar? Hell, it might even sound like last night for a few of you current students out there! Either way, I think we can all agree on one thing: word counts suck. Why? Because when your main focus is simply reaching a certain number, you care less about what you fill your pages with, and more about how full they become. See the problem?
For companies just diving into inbound marketing, some of the most frequently asked questions we receive deal with clients wondering how long a certain piece of content needs to be – especially regarding email. “How long should my subject line be?” “What all do I put down here?” “Should I add these pictures, or is that too much?”
And while thousands of businesses can ask these questions as if a magical “one size fits all” response exists, somehow responding with the “one size fits all” answer of “it depends” isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. So, to help clear things up, we'll take a closer look at how long your email copy should actually be. But first, let's talk about subject line etiquette.
Subject to Brevity
Whoever said not to judge a book by its cover obviously never had to deal with spammy emails. In fact, 64% of people say they open an email because of the subject line. So, what’s the magic number that will help grab the attention of all your recipients? According to one report, subject lines with fewer than 10 characters saw a 58% open rate. Sign me up, right? Ah, if only.
While a 58% open rate would be killer, in reality, only sending emails with fewer than 10 characters in the subject line isn’t very feasible. Although, if you’re looking for a fun little challenge, spend the next 60 seconds trying to think of some good 10-character subject lines and share some of your favorites in the comments below (my best was “I dare you”).
Statistics aside, the most important character count you should be worried about beating is the 80-character cut-off limit. Why? Because at 80 characters, most email platforms will cut-off your text and hit you with the dreaded ellipses. Better yet, to avoid the “TL;DR” curse, keep email subject lines under 50 characters for the best results. Of course, it also helps if you know what to say in your subject line as well!
Be Mindful of the Body
Now that you’ve convinced your readers to open your email, how are you going to persuade them to act? Are you gonna do it in 20 words? 200? 2,000?! Well, it depends. Just as each paper and its requirements varied from teacher to teacher, each email and its proper length will depend on several influencing factors. Who are you sending it to? What are you talking about? What kind of email is it? All of these things play a key role in figuring out the optimal length of your email.
1) Who are you sending it to?
The most important question you can ask yourself when trying to determine the proper length of an email is, “who am I sending this to?” This matters because your audience is full of countless individuals, all with their own unique interests, reading habits, and demographics. And, despite this melting pot of preferences, they’ll be the ones judging whether or not your email was the right length, not what some random blog says (although I’ve heard the advice in this blog is pretty good).
Need an example? Check out this newsletter from the marketing team at Brain Pickings. Though a lot of people might see this email and head straight for the “delete” button, knowing that their audience was full of intellectual, avid readers with a love for literature and highbrow pop culture, Brain Pickings developed a newsletter that played right into their persona’s wheelhouse.
2) What are you talking about?
If you’re trying to determine how long your email should be, take a second and just think about what you’re talking about. Are you simply offering your subscribers a special coupon/discount or are you announcing the results of your yearlong worldwide research project? Surely you’d expect to see more text in the latter; however, you probably wouldn’t expect to see the results of the whole project either.
One of the best ways to keep your email interesting yet concise is to use excerpts from the original content, while pairing that with links to the rest of the piece.
3) What kind of email is it?
Now that you know what your email is going to be about, you need to figure out how you’re going to deliver the message. Will you be blasting the email out as a way to help promote a new product/service or are you including the news as a part of your regularly scheduled newsletter? In this case, chances are you’d expect an email recapping company and industry news from the past week to be longer than one promoting, let’s say, a new ice cream flavor.
That being said, over time, the fans and prospects that have subscribed to your emails will start to formulate a few expectations for the different emails they receive from you – especially those sent on a regular basis (i.e. newsletters).
If you notice one type of email with declining open and click-through rates, try switching up the length. If it seems too wordy, try breaking up the long pieces of text with more visuals, and focus on feeding the reader interesting tidbits, rather than the whole thing. If it’s too short, beef it up!
Use a combination of interesting and compelling facts and statistics to wow your readers, and convince them to act (i.e. 46% of people read blogs more than once a day -> Small businesses that blog get 126% more lead growth than small businesses that do not blog).
The Bottom Line
As a marketing student in college, my favorite professor, Mr. Harris, was one who only assigned essay question tests. Every test was pretty much exactly the same: 5 questions and a couple hours to answer them all. Want to know the best part? You actually got docked points for fluffing up your answer to add length and make it appear as if you know what you’re talking about. In fact, it was entirely possible to receive full credit on some questions by simply writing a few sentences with the proper word choice! Nothing was based on a word count, but everything was based on how you get your point across.
In email marketing, your emails should be crafted like a response to one of Mr. Harris’ test questions. Though every email is different, as long as your email content is clear, concise, and compelling, the quality will remove any doubts about quantity.
Originally published Jan 13, 2014 10:00:00 AM, updated April 15 2021