What is Above the Fold?
When referring to emails, the term above the fold refers to the part of the message that is immediately visible -- without scrolling -- when the user opens the email.
The expression stems from the way traditional newspapers laid out their articles: they would typically place the critical items on top of the front page so that the latter remain visible when the pages fold. Placing critical content above the fold allows readers to scan the significant bits of news without buying the paper, as well as to entice them to read more.
However, since email messages get opened on all kinds of devices and readers, there is no way to know what part of the message will be visible once the message shows up. In other words, there's no pre-determined 'fold,' or visible area. On small devices, such as watches, only the first few words would be visible.
If authors were able to build their email messages with modern, browser-based HTML, they could use responsive layouts and decide beforehand the content they need to prioritize on various displays, based on the device and available area. But that is not the case: there is no way to adapt the message based on the reading device's properties. For this reason, email editors need to order their content linearly, based on their business priorities.
Here are the essential elements of an email that should appear above the fold:
To maximize the readability of your message, ensure that the subject line or the pre-header reflects the content. If that is not the case, a title which does convey the central message must appear first in the body.
- Subject line: Read This!
- Title (in the body, on top): 40% all T-shirts
Call to action
The call to action (CTA) is the interaction you want to prioritize: Buy Now, Download the ebook, etc. The closer the CTA appears relative to the top of the email body, the more likely the subscriber will take action.
Logo and brand name
In most cases, your email is but a way to brand your business and remind subscribers of what you or your business stand for. The vast majority of CTAs are not acted on, so you must ensure that the next thing users see and remember is your brand.
Make sure that the brand name is visible, even if images are turned off by the reader. This can be done by adding the brand name in the ALT property of the logo image, or by repeating the brand name in text explicitly next to the logo itself.
You may want to include a link to a web version of your email to your subscribers. Recipients who use clients that do not display images might want to read your message in a browser. Keep in mind that the web version link is but a copy of the email itself, and as such differs from the URL attached to the CTA (see above.) In the real world, web version links are seldom used, even though they offer a safe fall back option for edge cases.
The downside of presenting a link to the web version of your email is that it takes up space in the limited "above the fold" area and can distract the user. You should be able to determine whether a web version is necessary by looking up your past statistics. If you find that near no one uses that link, you can either eliminate it or push it down to the lower part of your message -- i.e., below the fold.
This one is counter-intuitive. You probably don't want subscribers to leave your list, so offering them to unsubscribe right away sounds like a bad idea. On the other hand, you really don't want subscribers that are not interested in your offers or content. Your email list should reflect your audience -- the number of people interested in your business -- and not some vanity metric expressed by an artificially high number. Trapping subscribers in your email by hiding the unsubscribe link at the bottom of your message in tiny letters is just as bad an idea as hiding the exit door behind a maze in a physical store just to keep customers inside.
The above the fold content needs to include all the critical information and links that are essential to the business process which the email message intends to initiate. Those elements are: the title, the call to action, the logo, the brand name, the web version link and the unsubscribe link. Optimizing the design of the email message based on how these elements appear in the process will ultimately decide the ROI your email campaigns.