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11 email design best practices

11 email design best practices Ryan Buchanan

Remember the last great offer you didn't see? The savvy email marketer knows that you catch more conversions with honey than you do with vinegar, so make sure your email design is sweet!

If you're starting a new email marketing program, or looking for an edge to take your email campaigns to the next level, consider these ideas for designing emails that get your compelling offer noticed. These tips and tricks will start you off right, and even help experienced email marketers amp-up existing campaigns, turning precise communication into profits and visibility.

1. Before you start
Prior to constructing your email, make sure that your message is clear and concise. Develop and refine what you want to say so that readers don't lose interest or get confused about what your call-to-action is. What is your offer? How will reading and clicking through this email help the reader? Make sure they know what's in it for them. Before and during the building process, continually ask yourself, "What would I think if I got this in my inbox? Would I immediately delete it? Or worse, report it as spam?" Rule No. 1 -- don't be spam.

Even the most compelling message can be rendered ineffective if it's presented in an undesirable way to your readers. During this process you may encounter many challenges and obstacles. Your design team may want to create something striking and beautiful, but your audience may not want it. At the same time, don't throw readers for a loop with a design that is off-brand. Your email design should be able to flow well with the look of your website as well as any pieces collateral offered. Consistency is good. Also, design the email around your readers by responding to their personality. Are they tech savvy? Parents? Students?

2. Email design 2.0
We all know the basic components of email, but let's face it -- your emails have to be pretty sexy to be read in this day in age.

With the amount of email the average person gets bombarded with, email marketers need to be more targeted and relevant than ever as they continually strive to stand out. In this hectic email marketing landscape, it's very important to send precise emails that resonate strongly with your readers. This means never overlooking any aspect of your campaign.

Try using a campaign checklist to ensure you always send a well-designed, optimized email that will be more likely to get great results.

3. Layout and theme
The hierarchy of messaging is your secret weapon to great email design.

First, keep your layout simple and free from complex tables by avoiding unnecessary embedded rows and columns.

Second, make sure that you achieve balance between the amount of text and images your email contains. Non-text content such as videos or background images should not be used as the main focus. Replace them with an attractive call-to-action button that will lead to a landing page with the promised content.

Since many users simply scan emails in lieu of reading them, it's important to make your copy easy to process. There are several ways to ensure your message is easy to scan. Try a light background with dark copy, placed in short, centered lines that read vertically above the fold.

Another effective approach is to make sure that your important content is placed in an F-shaped pattern. Studies show that readers will first view the headline, followed by the text down the side and finally the middle section of text.

4. F-shaped pattern in action
This design for the InFocus projector took advantage of the dominant reading pattern, which typically follows an F-shaped pattern. Since readers almost always skim content, it's important to have the crucially important information and primary calls-to-action strategically located in the content.

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F's top bar.

  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F's lower bar.

  • Finally, users scan the content's left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F's stem. (Source: trustpass.info)

5. Who's it from?
A study conducted by eROI found that 50.98 percent of companies are listing their header as from "the company." Examine how your readers associate their experience with you. Is it on the whole or individually? If you understand how your readers view the company, you can determine how to best send the email.

For example, an organization can use a personalized "from name" (e.g., John Smith) for its sales emails and send them from an individual sales representative. For sales purposes, this can help establish the one-to-one relationship that is crucial to closing deals.

On the other hand, that same organization can use a branded company name as the "from name" (e.g., XYZ Corporation) for its newsletters, as such communications speak to a more general audience.

6. Site navigation in email
Nearly 30 percent of marketers duplicate their site navigation in email. Of those, 15 percent find it more effective than the main content in driving clicks, while 11 percent of marketers find their navigation converts better than the main content of their email.

Using site navigation as part of your email design can keep the user experience consistent from email to website to checkout, as evident in these emails from Expedia and The Gap, which focus on transactional messaging and driving traffic to their ecommerce sites. Also notice the two different ways each brand uses the pre-header, which we'll explore further later in this piece.

7. Subject lines -- this is only a test
Did you know only 25 percent of marketers are testing subject lines on a regular basis? If you're not constantly testing, you're missing opportunities to find out which ones maximize opens and conversions.

Before you test, make sure that your subject line is relevant to the call-to-action in your email. Subject line studies by Alchemy Worx and other groups have shown that using a subject line with 72 or more characters gives added relevance, increasing click through and conversion. Likewise, by going with a subject line that's 60 characters or less, the open rate will tend to increase.

The area between 60 and 72 has been shown to be a "dead zone."

8. Pre-header and footer: Do you have one? Is it working?
The pre-header and footer are two of the most important elements of your email. The pre-header is located at the very top of your email, and is what your reader is going to see before scrolling down into the body of the email.

Currently, one-quarter of companies do not use any type of pre-header, and 80 percent do not use white list instructions. Surprisingly, snippet text is only used by about 13 percent of marketers. Again, it's crucial for campaign optimization to test using the pre-header a few different ways in order to find out what works best for different campaigns and audiences.

With the footer, make sure that you include an option for readers to view the email by mobile device. Currently, 75 percent of marketers are providing a good user experience by having links for profile and subscription management, yet fewer than 10 percent create a mobile version of their email.

Don't be a statistic! Get ahead and grab those customers who want to view your emails on mobile devices.

9. Use HTML: Got images?
The biggest advantage of HTML emails is the ability to display images. Images help convey brand messaging better than words and can excite and entice the reader to be receptive and interact with your company. But, for those email providers who do not display HTML, make sure you are able to reach your entire audience by linking to a text version available in the pre-header.

Finally, make sure that you have alt tags on all images. By describing the image simply in an alt tag, you will be able to help with user accessibility and tell them what is going on in the image in case it's not displayed or it's blocked in their email.

10. Preview pane: Engage before the open
This is what we at eROI call "prime real estate." This is the window below your inbox that previews the email and is found in many popular email clients such as Outlook and MacMail.

To ensure that the reader is engaged and can clearly view the email, our recommendation is that emails be between 550 and 700 pixels wide. Also make sure that the purpose and call-to-action of the email is made apparent in the top 300 pixels so that readers can see the email even if they don't open it.

This top area is a great location to place your company logo. In addition, design several different background scenarios so that you can cater to each email client's specifications.

11. Test it and tune it
The last steps before you launch your brilliantly designed email are testing and tuning. Our years of email campaign trials, tribulations, and testing have helped us to develop these tips and tricks for you. Follow them closely and you'll have less to adjust and fix before you launch your campaign. Keep in mind that testing is the single most important part of your campaign; without it, you're just flushing away money. Testing lets you know how your email campaigns perform across different email clients and will alert you to any spam traps that you may fall into.

There are four easy tests that you'll want to conduct through the use of an A/B split. This will allow you to learn more about your subscribers and what they react and gravitate to in your messaging.

The first test is between short and vague subject lines versus long and detailed subject lines. When looking at the results for open rates, clicks, and conversions, you may find that you get a lower open rate with longer subject lines, but a higher conversion rate.

The second test is pretty straightforward. You will compare the results of a graphical button versus a textual link in order to find out which gets the most clicks.

Next, send out a test that compares the results of "$" versus "%" in your subject line and/or body copy. Your readers might react differently to dollars versus percentages.

The last test before you launch is to compare the results of emails sent at different times of the week. For a start, try Tuesdays versus Saturdays.

After completing the final tests, you're on the homestretch.

The last step is to adjust those elements of the email that did not perform well in the test. Make sure you analyze the results and make adjustments to create the most appealing and effective email before you launch.

With these tips and tricks in mind you should be able to create well-designed and performing emails in no time.

Ryan Buchanan is CEO of eROI.

Ryan Buchanan, founder and CEO of eROI, started the company in November 2002. He has eight years of email marketing, web and e-commerce experience and frequently speaks about email marketing, social networking, and web marketing-related issues. He...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Ryan Buchanan

2009, March 19

Dan - great to get your insight on 30% of your audience on mobile devices - the shift has definitely been happening faster than we thought, but also consider that many mobile email readers will also read the email quickly on their laptops/desktops.

Michel - I'm going to check out your article. Thank you all for your comments!

Commenter: Michel Depière

2009, March 19

Very informative post. I've written something similar in my own blog a few months ago. A lot of people try to do well but get some basics and details wrong that screw up their whole strategy. (http://markethings.wordpress.com/2008/11/05/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-practical-email-campaigning/)

Commenter: James Riker

2009, March 19

I just got a copy of ePostMailer.com and I would recommend to anyone who needs to send out an opt-in email mailshot. Its the best free desktop based email marketing software I have used so far.

Commenter: Ann James

2009, March 18

had to laugh - I haven't read the article yet but the email announcing '11 email best design practices' surely could have been better thought out? I've got images turned off and could just see a big white image space with no copy below the headline for a whole screen as I scrolled down... Assuming from previous comment it's about driving to PDA though, very timely - we're working on optimisation for too (iMedia email is a waste of time on a Blackberry too btw!)
I'm sure there's good stuff in the content though!

Commenter: Dan Green

2009, March 18

Excellent post Ryan. We're finding about 30% on average are reading email first on mobile devices. Designing with an understanding of recipient preferences has had a significant impact on ROI.