The Anatomy of an Email

How to squeeze the most value out of your email marketing.

Ever hear someone use the saying “dog chasing cars”? It is meant to describe someone going after something with such fervor and singular focus that they never stop to think what they’d do if they ever actually caught the thing. “You’ll never catch it, and you just wouldn’t know what to do if you did.”

Welcome to the world of email marketing, folks, where our number one obsession is how to reach the inbox of our intended recipients. We talk about spam signals and readability and text-to-image ratio and Promotions tabs. Don’t get me wrong, nobody is recommending you skip this part of the process, but it is just that, one singular part. Let’s say you’ve put in all the work, crafted an email that bypasses all spam filters, and get yourself a nice little spot in your recipient’s inbox. What happens now?

The Downward Escalator Approach To Email Marketing

For all the talk of writing good content out there, what gets left behind too often is a systematic analysis of how most emails are structured and what that means for the reader of your messages. Think about buying a house for a minute. Sure, you have your list of qualifications, such as the total number of bedrooms, size of the backyard, number of bathrooms, and the details of its surrounding neighborhood. But then you have the next level, digging-a-little-deeper stuff to consider. How close is the house to your neighbor’s? Where does the sun rise and set and how does that affect the inside of the house? Is the driveway easily maneuverable?

Effective email marketing is as much about managing real estate properly as it is about authoring cool content. People don’t simply “read an email,” they execute a step-by-step process that begins and ends with you selling them on taking the next action. Check out the graphic below for a quick explainer on the anatomy of an email.


These aren’t simply sections of an email, they are a behind-the-scenes view into a reader’s eyes and psychological mind-state when he sees that inbox notification pop up. It is reasonable to assume the reader will gradually progress from one section to another – if he is interested enough – hence the downward escalator. Your job as an email marketer is to understand how every section is displayed to the reader and how to take advantage of each one to create a cohesive story. Let’s break down the sections one by one, shall we? 

Subject: Consider this the title of your book, the tagline on your homepage, and the first line of your bio on Nearly one third of recipients open email based on the subject line alone. That means 33 out of 100 people on your list won’t even bother with your email if your subject line isn’t compelling enough, never mind clicking through it!

Regularly brainstorm and test different subject lines to measure their effect on opens and clicks. Upworthy, of click-baity content fame, has its writers create up to 25 different headlines for every single article. They then test and optimize in real time so the best one is slotted in before readers even notice.

Preview: Easily the most underutilized and underappreciated part of an email, the preview is a short line of text that typically appears alongside the subject line in your inbox email list. What makes it underutilized and underappreciated, you may ask? Too many marketing emailers ignore the preview and allow the auto-generated one – “View this email in your browser” – to remain prominent in this space. That is a complete waste of a chance to give the reader another reason (other than the subject line) to open your email! Another misuse of the preview I see often is the text being a carbon copy of the subject line with little to no differentiation.

Opener: Knowing your goal is to create enough interest and intrigue in the reader’s mind to continue moving down that escalator, the opener line – your first sentence inside the email – is an interesting opportunity to do just that. Depending on your recipient’s email client, the opener line (or part of it) is often displayed before the email is actually clicked on and opened. This is particularly true for mobile phones, and nearly half of all emails are opened on mobile or tablet. The opener is the first full-sentence opportunity to really get into the meat of your email’s topic and tell the reader why he should continue on.

Body: No surprises here. You’ve generated enough interested to get the reader to this point, now it’s time to deliver on your promises. Short and sweet usually works best, but don’t be afraid to experiment with longer form messages if the material deems it appropriate.

CTA: You should almost always include some sort of call-to-action, whether it’s to “read more” or “buy now.” If someone reads your entire email, they have demonstrated a commitment to whatever it is you are writing about, so give them an opportunity to continue that relationship.

Now let’s see the various email parts in action. Below is a Mailchimp email example: 


And here is what the email looks like when it first arrives in a Gmail desktop inbox:


Now you see the different areas that collectively make up the anatomy of an email and how they work together to tell a complete story. Keep in mind that this isn’t a prescribed template that every email marketer must follow. Find what works for you and your specific audience through experimentation, measurement, and analysis.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Leave a Comment: