Email Best Practices for Publishers Part III: Content Optimization

In this article, I'm going to cover optimizing your content. That includes everything from messaging and tone, to personalization and linking.

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Jump to:
Part I: Planning & Scheduling
Part II: Design Optimization
Part III: Content Optimization
Part IV: Tracking Performance
Part V: Split Testing


Email marketing is an essential tool for communicating with your subscribers. It’s the most affordable way to drive traffic to your digital editions, remind readers of their subscription status, onboard new subscribers, and identify segments of your audience for specialized campaigns. When you look at the effectiveness and ROI of email compared to social media, it’s pretty clear that email is more effective. That’s not to say social media doesn’t have its place, but that’s an article for another day. Today we’re going to look at email best practices.

In part two of this series, I covered design optimization – which includes aesthetic elements such as colors, fonts, and layout, as well as designing for accessibility. In this article, I’m going to cover optimizing your content. That includes everything from messaging and tone, to personalization and linking.

Part III: Content Optimization

Email is one of the most effective methods for communicating with your audience, allowing you to get directly in front of them without being too intrusive. But no matter how well planned your email campaign is, if the content falls flat it will get lost in a sea of messages.

Messaging & Copy

Set the Right Tone

Understand your audience to know what kind of language will work best. Stay true to your brand and try to keep the tone consistent with that of your publication.

The Importance of a Pre-header

The pre-header is the summary text that follows a subject line when the email is viewed in an inbox. In many cases, it’s used to provide a short summary of the email, and is typically one sentence long.

The pre-header as seen on a mobile device

Pre-headers add valuable context to your subject line and can help your open rate. Keep it short (between 40-70 characters) and to the point. Use this space to help your customer know why the email is useful to them. Your subject line and pre-header text should work together.

The Subject Line

The subject line is considered one of the most important factors in getting your email opened.  Your subject line should be relevant to your audience and include words that generate a sense of urgency or curiosity, such as “Read Now” or “Open Your Latest Issue”.  Hubspot has a great, in-depth article about subject line best practices. You can also use Co-Schedule’s email subject line test tool.

Make it Personal

Who is it to?

Your subscribers don’t want to feel like just another name on a list.  If you’ve got the subscriber’s name you should be using it to personalize at least two parts of the email: the subject line and the greeting. Emails with personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened. Little details like personalization go a long way towards engaging your audience and making them feel valued. 

Who is it from?

The ‘From’ name is likely the first thing a reader looks at in their inbox and tends to perform best when they’re also personalized. Instead of just your company name, use a person’s name like “John from Acme Publishing.” Using the default “No-Reply @ Your Company” option can seem impersonal, and can be frustrating if the subscriber wants to reply to a real person.

Keep It Simple

The goal of your email is to grab a subscriber’s attention quickly and follow up with a strong call to action, regardless of whether you want them to subscribe, renew, or read the newest issue. Get right to the point and let your subscribers know what’s new, how they can read it, or what you want them to do. Try to limit your calls-to-action, preferably to one, and keep it above the fold.

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Link Styles

Links contained within the email should always be easy to identify and clearly labeled. Select a link color for text links and use them consistently throughout the email. Try to avoid using ‘click here’ and link phrases to give the reader context. Try adding some space around any links so users can comfortably scroll without accidentally clicking a link.

Make text links accessible with special characters (>) or emphasize with bold or underline.

Link Structure

Use proper link structure for all of your emails. Contextual links that are highly relevant to the content should go at the top of the email. Bonus content links, such as special offers or sponsor links that fall outside the context of the email, should be clearly marked.

Link Tracking

Every link in your email should have at least one UTM parameter. They give you more insight than click-through and open rates do and will help you track the success of your marketing efforts. If you’re unsure how to create UTM codes or don’t know much about them, I encourage you to read this in-depth article. If you already have a solid grasp of UTM parameters, you should check out Google’s campaign URL builder tool.

Consistent Links

Consistent links are the ones always available in your communications, like forward to a friend, social network links and unsubscribe. These should be located in the same place in every email.

Be Social

Speaking of social media, did you know that statistics show emails with social media links have a 158% increased click-through rate? Make it easy for your subscribers to share content from your emails and expand your own audience. You should also provide a ‘follow’ link to your social media accounts. The share and follow buttons should be different but used consistently throughout all your marketing communications.

Emails with social media links have a 158% increased click-through rate.

Get to the Point

According to a Nielsen usability study, most email recipients are text scanners. No one has time to read an essay these days, and if your email looks even the slightest bit visually dense, readers will have already lost interest. Adapt your copy strategy to work with low attention spans by writing shorter but more impactful messages.

Here are the four basic email length best practices you should follow:

  • The ideal subject line length is between 28 to 50 characters.
  • The ideal preheader text length is between 40 to 100 characters.
  • The ideal email copy length is between 50 to 125 words.
  • The ideal CTA length is between two to five words.

Include a Signature

Regardless of who the email is from, it should always include the signature of a specific person. It can grab the reader’s attention, and they are more inclined to read emails if they know it came from a human being. If you want a quick way to make an appealing email signature, check out  HubSpot’s Email Signature Generator.

Visual Hierarchy

Visual hierarchy is one of the most important principles behind effective design. Unlike computers, the human eye perceives information visually rather than as blocks of data. Visual hierarchies help readers make sense of the content within the email layout and influence their perception of importance.


Since emails have a low level of text content compared to websites or digital editions, readers will scan the content in what is known as a “Z Pattern”.

Z-patterned visual hierarchy (Source)

Employing visual hierarchy not only allows your email content to be scanned and understood easily, but it also helps to direct your reader to the most important elements of your email. Some of the factors that can affect visual hierarchy include:

  • Size — Larger elements will dominate and catch eyes first.
  • Color — Bright colors catch eyes ahead of muted, drab ones.
  • Contrast — Stark differences between elements draw eyes to the brighter one.
  • Alignment — Users expect to find certain elements in the same place.
  • Repetition — A repeated quality (e.g.,colored parts of text) draws the user’s eye.
  • Proximity — Putting related elements (e.g., header with associated text) close together means these are related.
  • Whitespace — Including whitespace around elements singles them out as separate groups of information.
  • Texture and Style — Using distinct textures/styles draws the eye while setting the theme.

Plain Text Emails

A lot of effort goes into designing your HTML emails, so it’s understandable that you would want subscribers to only see that version. However, there are very important reasons that you should always send a plain-text version of your email alongside your HTML.

HTML-only emails are a red flag for spam filters. Also, there are some people that actually prefer plain-text emails over HTML, and may even set their devices or mail clients to view them by default.

Defining Structure Using Plain Text

Plain-text emails no longer have the benefit of typography or colors to define the different blocks and sections of your email. Using text elements like dashes, underlines, and asterisks to define sections and features will make it easier for the reader to scan. Adding whitespace between copy and call-to-action links can make them easier to find. You can also try inserting line breaks every 60 characters or so to increase legibility.


There are many things you can do to optimize the content of your email. However, the principles above are key in helping you create more effective campaigns and successfully communicate with your audience.

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Unlock your content's potential. Experience the impact of a world-class publishing platform.

Get Started with Turnstyle

Unlock your content's potential. Experience the impact of a world-class publishing platform.