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Email Marketing Design: 13 Best Practices to Follow

Most marketers know that email marketing is highly effective. After all, even if you don’t have numbers for your brand, there’s at least personal experience: we all love to get promotional emails from our favorite brands. However, not all emails are created equal. In addition to the ever-present spam, there are many campaigns that fail at email marketing design.

Why is this important? Although many emails are subscription-based, the blind prospecting emails are often your company’s first impression. In addition, quality emails do a better job at building rapport and nurturing leads than poor ones. With that in mind, let’s look at some best practices.

General Email Marketing Design Advice

General Email Marketing Design Advice

Unsurprisingly, not all email marketing design advice involves advanced techniques. After all, there are very simple things you can do to make your email marketing more effective. This is true, whether you’re just sending out promotion notices, a newsletter, or something more elaborate. Since email has evolved so much over the last few decades, it’s important to talk about basic structure and tone.

1. Keep Your Email On-Brand

This should go without saying, but your fonts, typefaces, and tone should be aligned with your website. Remember, part of email marketing design is branding in general. People should open your email, and have it feel like your brand is talking to them because it is.

What does this mean on a practical level? Simply put, there should be consistency across your branded verticals. For instance, if your writing style for the website is straightforward and matter-of-fact, your emails should be too. If your site is known for quirky content, then be quirky with emails as well.

2. Think About Your Layout

Flashy layouts may sound like a great idea, but you should be careful, especially for emails. In email marketing design, the most important thing is that your design is simple and optimized for mobile. That doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple columns or images, but it does mean you should consider all of your viewers. After all, a large percentage of your subscribers will read the email on their phones, and you don’t want them to miss out.

3. Use a Responsive Design

Similarly, you want to ensure that emails are responsive to touchscreens. Some 62% of emails are opened on mobile devices, and those readers want to enjoy the whole email. Nothing is worse for mobile users than finding the type is too small to read, or the email is too slow to load.  

With that said, it’s important to remember that you can include a variety of media in mobile-friendly formats. Or, you can let email recipients click on a link to see the media. What you want to avoid is having viewers unable to read the email on their phones. Make sure your email marketing design is compatible with these needs.

4. Minimalistic, Simple, and Clean Designs

Just like website design, these days simple and clean emails which focus on the message are popular because of their effectiveness. While multimedia content is great on many other forums, some people find that it gets in the way of emails. Links to landing pages with multimedia are often quite practical, though: comments like “check out our webinar” or “see our collection of styles on sale” are often quite effective.

Here’s the other reason why minimalism is a good email marketing design: it gets to the point. When you have simple emails, they are easy to scan or scroll through. Busy professionals, especially if they are on the clock reading their work email, will decide very quickly if your email is worth their time. Make the email easy to read, and you’ll boost the chance of someone staying.

5. Choose Your Color Wisely

In email marketing design, a few things are more overlooked than color. As a rule, email marketers use the same colors as the brand. And while this is appropriate, especially for things like corporate logos, there are other uses for color as well. Your message can be amplified with the right choices of colors. Advertisers call this the psychology of color.

But what is the psychological value of colors, anyway? In short, colors invoke different feelings and project various messages. For example, red denotes urgency, boosts appetite, and increases your heartbeat. It is often used to announce sales. Similarly, green denotes health and serenity. Choose colors that are consistent with your email’s message for better results.

6. Stay Away from Overly Decorative Typefaces

Remember, most people read emails on the phone where your decorative typefaces might be hard to understand on a small screen. The best email marketing design, therefore, uses easily-readable fonts like Calibri, Times New Roman, or Arial. As a general rule, you should use the same font that your website copy is in, or something similar. This way, you’ll have more consistent branding all over your marketing collateral.

Of course, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule. First, your website’s font might not be available in your email client. If that’s the case, pick something readable. Or go with readable if your website font is hard to read on mobile. Second, corporate logos can be in any font. This is especially relevant for news organizations with mastheads in fonts like Old English. Of course, the fancy font should be limited to this use in email marketing design.

Leveraging Visual Content in Your Emails

Leveraging Visual Content in Your Emails

It used to be that emails were mostly text. However, even the most basic email marketing design these days has a few graphics. For instance, most e-commerce brands have product photos, nonprofit newsletters feature event footage, and B2B brands feature customer photos. These days, however, other types of media are becoming more popular within a marketing email. Let’s look at the latest trends in visual content.

7. Entertain Your Readers Using Animated Gifs

Animation isn’t just for instant messaging and Facebook anymore. After all, it’s easy to grab gifs from giphy and instantly make your email more entertaining. Not only will people laugh at your jokes, but they’ll be more likely to remember your email in general.

Here’s the thing, though. As with most other types of content, it’s important that any gifs you choose are on-brand. In addition, you should try to make the content relevant to your company’s products and services, or at least your niche. So, a sales-related brand can usually send a sales-related meme. These let you show a human side to your brand, while also promoting products and services.

8. Incorporate Video

In a similar way, you can embed videos in the email to showcase your products or show your human side. Product demonstrations are a good option, especially for B2B brands that aim to solve tough business problems. For instance, a company that sells factory equipment can easily do a demo of the kinds of products that the machine can produce. Or, consider a “with product” and “without product” comparison to address customer pain points.

From a human point of view, consider client interviews or showcase your employees at work. This second idea is great for companies that pride themselves in their employees or their corporate responsibility. Think about it this way: would you rather buy from a company with happy employees, or the companies that drive their employees insane and don’t care?

9. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Emojis

These days, emojis seem to be everywhere, with email marketing design no exception. And this isn’t inaccurate: while emojis aren’t as common in email, they are more common now than ever. When incorporating emojis, be creative: stats show using emojis in your subject line increases the open rate by 25%. This works in part because emojis are attention-getters. And because they elicit an emotional response in the reader. If you incorporate emojis later in the email, they are also successful.

Here are some examples I’ve seen recently. On Saint Patrick’s Day, many e-commerce sites added shamrocks to their subject lines, eliciting a festive spirit. Likewise, a retailer offering a gift with purchase added a little wrapped gift to the subject line. And, adding red lights or exclamation points are common features of marketing emails. All of these emojis set the stage for the rest of the email.

Best Practices in Email Writing

Best Practices in Email Writing

Of course, email marketing design isn’t that effective without good-quality writing. While some gimmicks, like gifs and emojis, can get people to open the email or glance over it briefly, well-crafted copy helps retain people’s attention. Here are some tips and tricks to gain success in this area.

10. Craft a Strong Subject Line

This will make or break your open rate. Subject lines are the first impression people get of any email. And if it isn’t something they’d be interested in, they won’t open your email. Since people get a ton of email marketing every day, they will only open the most compelling emails, so you want to boost your chances. However, you should also avoid using a “gotcha” subject line: wasting people’s time with deception is a good way to annoy them and leave a lasting bad taste in their mouth.

11. Write Excellent Content

Excellent content is also an important part of email marketing design. This should go without saying, but a pretty design is not a substitute for bad content! People might get a good laugh out of your gif or enjoy your nice video, but if there are no compelling sales copy there’s relatively little chance that they’ll take your offer.

The need for quality copy isn’t limited to sales emails, though. For companies that send out newsletters, putting their best foot forward can’t be emphasized enough. People read newsletters because they have compelling content that updates them about their favorite brands or nonprofits. If the content is no longer worth reading, then there’s a high chance they’ll either unsubscribe, quit reading, or just do a quick skim. None of these outcomes are good for your conversion rate.

Further Reading: How to Create the Perfect Content for Your Email Marketing

12. Personalize Every Email

One of the earlier email marketing design principles is email customization. In fact, customization goes back to the paper age: Even now, companies that still send commercial mailings will often customize the letter. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “Hi Neal,” and in other cases, they dig deeper. This practice helps build a connection with your email recipients and reduces the perception that you’re blindly pumping out emails.

There’s more than just common sense to personalization: the stats show that personalized emails get a 14% higher clickthrough rate and that personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened. And of course, an email getting opened is the first step towards its converting a customer.

Further Reading: How to Use Email Segmentation to Boost Marketing Conversions

13. Optimize Your Email with Calls-to-Action

While email marketing is useful for lead nurturing even without a good CTA, it’s far less effective. After all, people do read some things for entertainment, or to simply find out the news. But that doesn’t mean they intend to buy, consume additional content, or contribute when they open each email. Sometimes, you need to encourage action.

Ideally, every email you send out should have a clear call-to-action. It can be as simple as “watch our video” or “sign up for the seminar. Or, you can tell people about your latest sale, and encourage them to check it out. However, when it comes to CTAs, the fewer the better. If you ask people to do too many things at once, they might not do any of it. At that point, your email has failed in its mission. Even if you only intended to increase brand awareness, you aren’t getting the secondary effects like extra site traffic.

The Value of Email Marketing Design Cannot Be Undervalued!

Sound email marketing design is part and parcel of the success of email campaigns in general. Whether it’s boosting open rates, increasing purchase rates, or driving traffic, it’s always best to maximize your efforts. Fortunately, as we have seen, there’s more to attracting people’s attention than mobile-friendly design. Rather, multimedia features are an increasingly important, and effective, tool.

Looking for more email marketing advice? Check out the following posts:

Hero photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

Sound email marketing design will contribute to the success of your email marketing efforts. Learn why and how here.
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Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping enterprises large and small develop and execute on social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. President of the social media agency PDCA Social, Neal also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute (Ireland), and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, Neal is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in a dozen countries. He is also the author of 3 books on social media, including Maximize Your Social (Wiley), and in late 2019 will publish his 4th book, The Business of Influence (HarperCollins), on educating the market on the why and how every business should leverage the potential of influencer marketing. Neal resides in Irvine, California but also frequently travels to Japan.
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