How does a picture like that looks like a scientific experiment of pink amoeba belong to an article about email newsletters? Because this is how your eyes behave when you are processing messages in your inbox.

Jakob Nielsen conducted a study on email newsletter usability and concluded that “email newsletters are the best way to maintain customer relationships on the Internet.” Now that you are convinced that email marketing is a great idea and have read through my 3 Reasons to Do It, we need to talk about what happens when your message arrives.

Too much information, not enough time

Lets begin with the fact that we are all inundated with too many messages every day, from advertisements, emails, blogs and anything else we might be reading (books?). So as a business with a newsletter you are only adding to the glut of information and competing for the attention of your viewer. As a result, it is critical for you to understand how to pinpoint your message to meet the needs and behavior of your audience.

F-Shaped reading pattern

This is where we shift from C-Span to the Discovery Channel. In the eyetracking study mentioned above, the results showed that the dominant reading pattern on email newsletters (as well as websites) is shaped like an F where the user:

“first reads in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar. Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement (the second bar of the F). Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap (the stem of the F).”

Reading behavior: skipping intros and scanning content

The average time allocated to reading a newsletter was 51 seconds, and often didn’t even scan the entire newsletter: 35% of the time, participants only skimmed a small part of the newsletter or glanced at the content. Also, people were highly likely to skip the introductory text in newsletters. Although this text was usually brief, the eyetracking recordings showed that 67% spent zero time within newsletter introductions.

Implications of the behavior

So what does this mean for your newsletter and its content?

  • First, do not expect your reader to read through your newsletter word-by-word. Be aware that most of your users are not “reading” your newsletter as much as they are scanning through the information, so make your information “scan-able” by:
  • using headings
  • bolding key words
  • bulleting information into lists with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content
  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.

Since users are even more flooded with information than in the past, they are getting extremely choosy about which newsletters they’ll allow into their overflowing inboxes. This increases the need for your business to pay attention to its newsletters’ usability and to design for scannability and fast access.

2 responses to “Email Newsletters and Eye Tracking”

  1. DG says:

    I recognize that picture. Those are the eye-tracking results from a search engine results page. It’s highly debatable as to whether or not the same F shape applies to email news letters.

  2. Rob says:


    that is true. Actually you can never be sure of “the F”!
    There is so much that can change reading behaviour and in fact: if it would always be a F-Pattern, things would be so easy.

    The point is: you have to test it!
    Don’t take one single study to be an eternal truth. Even multiple studies don’t help you much, since your newsletter will always look different to the ones other people test.

    If you want to know how your Newsletter perform, buy or rent you an eye tracker, test it and then optimize it. The gain in conversion and user insights is definitely worth the expenses for the rental!

    Good luck!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *