Email Marketing

The retailers’ 3-second rule of audience engagement

5 proven tricks to grab your prospect's attention in 3 seconds flat

NBCUniversal’s Megan Troth said, “The attention economy is a cruel mistress and takes no prisoners. Get their attention in six seconds or not at all.”1 In the recent past, the six-second rule in advertising was an accepted truth. Business publication, Inc. Magazine speculated that it started with Vine, the social media platform that allowed users to film 6 second videos to entertain viewers.2 However, in 2021, audience attention spans are shorter than ever before. The retail industry is highly competitive and fast-paced – the reality is retailers have about 3 seconds to capture consumers’ attention before they move on. Retailers’ content – whether in an email, social media, website, video, app, display, or SMS format – needs to be designed with the expectation that if someone isn’t interested in the first 3 seconds, they will move on.

Retailers – as you are developing the digital campaigns that will help you hit your business goals, these best practices will help you connect with your prospects in 3 seconds flat.

1. Make the benefit clear as soon as the viewer sees the message

Whether you are communicating to your audience through your website, a display ad, an email, a social post, or a direct mailer, you need to make sure your copy is clear, concise, and to the point. Often, marketers can confuse promoting product features with benefits. Product features are important and should be conveyed but in order to reel the audience in within the first three seconds, you need to show the audience how your product will improve their lives, or solve a pain point.

Brand example: Merrell

In the below display ad, outdoor apparel and gear retailer Merrell communicates the benefit of their products in three words, “trail-ready performance”. This addresses a pain-point for their audience, people who need hiking/trail running/mountain biking gear. The ad, which uses simple black script on a white background below a pair of sturdy hiking boots, is simple enough to convey the benefit at a casual glance and compelling enough to entice prospective customers to click.

2. Make the offer relevant for your audience

Personalization is an oft-discussed topic in marketing, for both B2B and B2C clients. Companies such as Amazon and Netflix have pushed the boundaries of personalization and in turn have elevated what customers expect in terms of personalized advertising. A recent Salesforce study found that 84% of customers say being treated like a person, not a number, is very important to winning their business.3 Retailers need to make sure they are reaching out to a prospect with offers that are relevant to that person and their needs.

Brand example: Sephora

Beauty retailer Sephora sends emails with a tease for personalized recommendations based on a customer’s past purchases. This helps customers feel like they are “more than just a number.” The email itself is colorful, the copy is short and sweet, and the call-to-action (CTA) is clear.

3. Keep the subject line concise

An email subject line is one of the most critical components of an email campaign; 47% of email recipients say they open a marketing or promotional email based on the subject line alone, making the subject line the primary determinant of engagement.4 After all, if a consumer doesn’t open an email, they can’t interact with or act on it. Crafting a subject line that catches prospects’ attention in 3 seconds is tricky but retailers can make sure their emails stand out in prospects’ inboxes by conveying a clear benefit from the get-go and within the subject line.

Brand example: Columbia Sportswear


Retailer Columbia sportswear conveys both benefit (a discount) and creates a sense of urgency with the subject line: “UP TO 60% off select gear—this weekend only!” The recipient of this email knows exactly what the email is about and why they should open it ASAP. Inside, the email copy is equally to-the-point and accompanied by compelling creative and a clear CTA.

4. Write snappy email preheaders that complement your subject line

After the email subject line, the email preheader is a retailer’s next chance to grab your audiences’ attention. Your preheader should complement your subject line and build curiosity about your message. Make sure you consider the length of your subject line in the context of your preheader text since in many environments, like Gmail for desktop, the shorter the subject line, the more preheader text will be visible to recipients. This, however, is not the case for the Gmail mobile app, where the preheader text is on a separate line. That’s why having insight into your audience’s device preference and proclivity can be important in determining your subject line and preheader strategy.

Brand examples: ColourPop Cosmetics, FashionNova, Pressed Juicery

Makeup brand ColourPop keeps both their subject line and preheader text short but still manages to effectively convey the key information contained in the email via its preheader text.

Fast fashion retailer FashionNova puts their discount code directly into the preheader text, enticing viewers to open the email so they can see on-sale products.

Pressed Juicery makes sure their preheader text complements their subject line. The subject line asks the reader to “Try our greatest hits” and the preheader lets them know the top-rated juices are available in a bundle for them to try.

5. Make the core benefit viewable above the fold

If you want to capture a prospect’s attention in 3 seconds, you do not have time for them to scroll. The most successful retailers will put their most compelling copy above the fold both in emails and on website pages and ensure viewers can scroll down if they want to see the fine print.

Brand example: Kennedy Blue

Bridesmaid dress retailer, Kennedy Blue, shows off their popular dresses alongside a CTA to “Shop dresses” with an eye-catching pink button. The brand’s hook, that their dresses are high quality and reasonably priced, is also prominently featured above the fold. The brand included a floating bar promoting their Memorial Day Sale at the top of the page. That bar, used in conjunction with other pop-ups, led to a 50% increase in sales.5


While capturing someone’s attention in just 3 seconds may seem like an impossible task, there are ways for retailers to hook audiences into wanting more. Compelling creative combined with concise wording that conveys the benefit of your products will increase both engagement and conversions.

Kickstarting data-driven creative
Create the most relevant, personalized creative in order to attract new prospects and keep your current customers engaged.
Matt Hickman
Matt Hickman
SVP Sales

Matt Hickman services as the Senior Vice President of Sales at Data Axle. Matt has 20+ years’ experience as a sales leader and mentor, speaker, sales strategist, and digital marketing executive. He’s passionate about bringing innovative CRM technology solutions to complex marketing challenges and has deep expertise in new business development in SaaS and agency services organizations, with a focus on innovative prospecting, lead generation, and revenue growth with leading global brands. In his free time, you can catch Matt mountain biking or fly fishing in the pristine rivers of Oregon.