Barry Clifford

Keeping Design in Mind: Creating a Curiosity Cascade

Ten years ago, a marketer designing an email campaign could predict with 95% accuracy what email client was being used to receive one of their messages, and whether they were receiving HTML and images. Today, there are about five primary inbox providers (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, AOL) handling about 80% of messages[1], with the remainder being viewed on lesser clients and across a multitude of mobile devices. Fewer than 33% of emails are being delivered with images[2]. With all this uncertainty of platform, what can the marketer do to maximize the possibility that his or her message will be received as it was intended?

The end game: get them to your landing page. Once they are within your domain, you have much more latitude in crafting a future client’s experience – what they see, hear and do. Your primary purpose with your email message therefore is to create enough curiosity in your recipients to entice them to your landing page, where you will introduce them to your company, explain your offer in detail, collect information, even provide rich content if it’s appropriate.

The Curiosity Cascade: What’s this? Looks interesting. I’ll click.

Three things must happen before a target arrives at your landing page: They must open your message, they must perceive some benefit to them of your offer, and they must click. In each part of this process you as the marketer have to provide enough information to pique the reader’s interest, but not so much as to make them decide that your offer isn’t valuable to them. What follows below are a series of suggestions to help you move your targets through the “Curiosity Cascade” and onto your landing page.


  • Front load your subject line. While it’s OK if your subject is longer than a few words (many people use a preview pane which will show the entirety of your subject line) it’s also important to remember that others will be cleaning out unwanted messages from their inbox using mobile devices or before they’ve even previewed your message. Try to the best of your ability to make sure the first several words convey the value to the reader of opening your e-mail. What do you have to offer?  How can you help relieve their pain points? Before you’ve settled on a subject line, make sure you test-drive it with only the first few words visible. Also beware of the possibility of unfortunate word truncation, otherwise words like ass/ociation, dam/age etc. could really fuchsia your shot at winning a customer.
  • Send your message in both HTML and Text formats. The reasoning behind this is simple – if your recipient has HTML turned off you want him or her still to have access to the content of your message. If your email marketing service automatically generates the text version, make sure you look at it and check that links are presented correctly. You may even want to create short links if your text version includes long and cumbersome hyperlink text. Also include a link to a web version of your message if possible so readers who are using non-standard clients or mobile devices can access your information as it was intended to be seen.
  • Use images strategically and sparingly. As was stated earlier, fewer than 33% of email clients are set to automatically download images.  This being the case it is important that the most important content be delivered as text. If you do choose to use images, make the layouts very simple so that viewers who don’t receive your pictures aren’t looking at a puzzle-full of red X’s. Include alt text in your images that is descriptive – especially on your call to action. Remember that the point of the email is to bring future clients to a place where you can control their experience (IE the landing page) so don’t let broken links be a hurdle. Only risk images if they really help your case – like for example, as your call to action.
  • Include a single call to action – above the fold. Make the sequence of thought very simple “What’s this? Looks interesting. I’ll click.” If you start making your reader think “which link should I click?” or scroll down the page, you’re breaking the sequence of thought and creating opportunities for your reader to lose interest. One clear, visible call to action, with a clearly stated benefit “Click here to receive your free sample” will entice them to your domain, at which point you can introduce more images, links and avenues of investigation.

There are many other areas of consideration, such as use of colors, custom fonts, forms or scripts. A general rule of thumb here is to remember the sequence of thought – the “Curiosity Cascade.” If an element contributes to the reader getting to the next step along the cascade, include it.  If it has the possibility of becoming a speed bump or a detour in getting them to the CLICK HERE button, then axe it. When designing your outgoing email, keep focused on your primary goal, resist the urge to oversell, and remember that once the reader is on your landing page they’re in your world, where you have a bit of home-court advantage.

[1] MarketingSherpa, (2010) Email Marketing Benchmark Report

[2] MarketingSherpa, (2010)