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Think about the last time you visited the supermarket. Did you just pop-in to grab something? Or go in with a long shopping list?

Either way, there’s a good chance you came out with something you didn’t intend to buy. That beer you like that was on special offer. A chocolate bar from near the till.

Of course, supermarkets are deliberately designed to entice you into making impulse purchases. From the floor layout, right down to the placement of items on the shelves.

Supermarket planning is handled by experts with a solid understanding of psychology and consumer behaviour. Different layouts have been tried over time to find out what works best.

But it isn’t just in the physical world that you can experiment with layouts to improve success rates. If you regularly send email newsletters to your contacts there are some great opportunities to test the layout of your content.

The benefits of this are two-fold:

  1. You can work out which layouts give you the best response rates (clicks and conversions).
  2. You can find out which content, and which content types, really engage your recipients.

Building blocks

In the early days of email marketing, it was purely seen as a replacement for direct mail. As a result most people thought of emails being laid out just like a letter. Complete with salutation, sign-off and P.S.

Generally though, it’s better to think of emails and web pages in terms of components, or blocks.

Let’s say you have four pieces of content to share in your next newsletter, and your template vertically stacks the four pieces on top of each other.

So, you want to find out in which order the stories give you the best results. With four blocks you have 16 possible variations - and it would be great to try all of them. But if that’s not practical, take one of the stories - perhaps the one you think will get the best result - and try it in the four different positions.

Of course your template could have two or three columns, so some content could have the same vertical placement. This means you’d also need to consider:

  • how horizontal placement affects success rates.
  • the effect of cultural factors, such as the fact that recipients from Western countries usually read left-to-right.
  • how the layout would change on mobile devices if it’s responsive.

A test to find the winner...

There are two sets of numbers you want to track:

  1. The click and conversion rates for each variant of the campaign.
  2. The click and conversion rates for each block in each variant of the campaign.

The Heatmap report is great because it gives you a nice visual of the results. Let’s look at an example from one of Adestra’s recent newsletters.

We know our Campaign of the Month feature is really popular, and if we put it at the top of the email it will get a lot of clicks. So we decided to test the effect of either putting it near the top (in this case as the second block) or putting it near the bottom:

Version one

Email heatmap version 1

Version two

Email heatmap - version 2

Both versions attracted an equal number of clicks. However on version 1, 90% of the clicks were spread evenly among the first three blocks and then tailed off to almost nothing.

On version two, 80% of the clicks were on the first two blocks, but, interestingly, 16% of clicks were recorded on the bottom block.

So, in terms of getting more subscribers to see more of the content we had in our newsletter, version two did a better job.

Supermarkets often put the items people most want near the back - so you have to walk past all the tempting impulse items on the way to fetch them. This follows a similar idea - do you get a better overall response if your most popular piece of content is at the bottom? Or at the top? In this case we got more clicks for other pieces of content by putting something popular near the bottom.

There are other tests that could yield interesting results. You could try sending differently stacked emails to subscribers that:

  • usually open on mobile vs. desktop.
  • are in different countries.
  • more regularly open your emails vs. those that don’t.

Don’t keep it to yourself

It’s easy to end up working in silos in digital marketing, and as a result learnings aren’t shared effectively. But this is a case where there is a lot of value in sharing the findings.

Share the results with whoever handles your social media marketing. Do they find similar results? Do your social followers like the same content? Or do they prefer something different?

What can you learn about your different audiences on different channels?


Published 1 July, 2014 by Dan Bond

Dan Bond is Head of Digital Marketing at Adestra and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

1 more post from this author

Comments (4)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

It's an obvious point, but whenever you do a comparative test you can never be totally sure.

This isn't about the maths, it's about experimental design - basically there are often unintended issues that you don't realize matter.

So if you're choosing a layout that you will use for a considerable period of time, it's essential that you do an simple, independent, follow-up test to confirm that it performs well.

over 2 years ago


Dan Bond, Head of Digital Marketing at Adestra

Thanks for the comment Pete.

This post is about testing the content blocks in an existing template, really.

But you're right - in terms of UX it would be ideal to run tests on your initial template to ensure it achieves what you want and then to continually run tests on different elements to optimise it.

It's been encouraging recently to see discussions around email design focusing on UX in a similar way to website UX. Every element is part of your user journey and they all need to get the attention they deserve.

over 2 years ago

Philip Storey

Philip Storey, Founder & Managing Director at EnchantSmall Business

I tend to use Eyequant for this kind of work, which is extremely accurate.

I have carried out some pricey user tests in the past with some bigger brands that had the budget, but the results were very similar.

My advice is to pay close attention to all UX and IA matters. You might also find it useful to carry some multivariate testing alongside eye tracking if you are looking to fast-track your insight and optimisation.

Nice post!


almost 2 years ago


Dan Bond, Head of Digital Marketing at Adestra

Thanks for the comment Philip.

Eyequant looks interesting - will take a more in-depth look.

Definitely worth optimising the UX from the email, through the landing pages to conversion.

almost 2 years ago

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