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Sep 30, 2004
How To

HTML Email Campaign Best Practices: 12 Design Rules & 5 Copywriting Tips

SUMMARY: Do you break any of the top 12 HTML email design rules? Find out what they are and how to avoid them. Plus, we also include best-of copy tips for HTML emails, and naturally a few inspirational creative samples. If you are revamping or tweaking your email templates to improve results for fourth quarter, you can use this article as a handy check-off list:
By Contributing Writer Kristin Zhivago, Author of Rivers of Revenue

Between holiday 2004 and budget 2005 planning, this is the time of year when marketers start thinking about revamping and refreshing their standard email creative.

Melissa Shaw, Principal Strategic Systems at Responsys, spends her days in an email lab testing new campaign ideas and email layouts for clients such as PETCO, Kelley Blue Book, and Carlson Hotels. We asked her to reveal the main design and copy rules marketers should keep in mind when revamping HTML messages...

12 HTML Email Format and Design Tips

#1. Avoid those fancy things your Web site designers love to do: cascading style sheets, nested tables, and animation.

#2. Avoid those fancy things print art directors love to do: reversed type, colored type for body copy, type smaller than 10 points, body copy justified on both sides, type wrapping around a graphic, etc.

#3. Stick to the standard Web safe palette of 216 colors. (See below to a link for a list and examples of these colors.)

#4. Set the maximum width to 620 pixels, and type to a maximum of 65 characters to ensure readability.

#5. Use HTML code for bulleted and numbered lists.

#6. Keep the message size between 20K and 40K, or lower.

#7. Donít waste precious above-the-fold HTML real estate on an enormous graphic such as a logo or product graphic. Content filters will assume that itís a porn message and will reject it.

#8. Keep the design clean. Think postcard or billboard. Recipients may glance at your message for just a few seconds, most won't study it in detail. They are making a fast click-versus-delete decision, not a reasoned buying or other conversion decision.

Use your design to move them toward the click -- rely on your landing page to move them to the next stage in the conversion process. (You always take them to a special landing page, right?)

#9. If you have more than one column, make it extremely obvious which is the most important, and which merely lists "housekeeping links."

#10. Don't be afraid to include additional navigation links, if you are a well-known brand site with many SKUs or stories...

These links should not "fight" the main message, but they should be above the fold, usually on the right. "Retail marketers worry that these 'housekeeping links' will distract a customer from the main 'sale' message," Shaw says. "But we have found, overall, that response rates and conversion rates increase with these additional links."

Why? Because the main message may not be relevant to the recipient. She may open the email and find that the subject doesn't interest her, but the other links remind her of all the other possibilities you have to offer.

Consider testing alternate orders of these links from message to message rather than considering the order engraved in stone the way it may be on your site.

#11. Be picky about brand consistency. Use templates. Create a style guide and make sure people stick to it. This includes a standard, unchanging "from" for all brand messages. #12. Make your call to action a graphic, not a text phrase, to avoid tripping content filters trained to spot spammy calls to action. That said, include a text-URL and possibly a phone number as well in the text, so email programs that disable HTML links won't kill your response rates.

5 Copywriting Tips to Increase Response:

#1. Be disciplined. As noted above, Melissa says it's common for marketers to toss every single product feature and benefit into an email. Thatís overwhelming.

Testing has proven the opposite approach is more effective. Pick a single theme and stick to it. Prioritize. People donít read emails, they skim them. Your single theme should hit them over the head when they first open the email.

#2. Keep your copy punchy and active. Avoid flowery language. Use a lot of bullets and verbs.

#3. That said, avoid exclamation marks. Thatís a flag for spam content filters. (Besides, if you're using a bunch of exclamation points, you won't impress recipients. It just looks loud and desperate.)

#4. Test your copy against content filters prior to sending (most email broadcast firms now offer this as part of their service) to see which words may get your message stopped as spam.

(By the way, your landing page is a great place to use words such as "guaranteed," "savings," "free," and "survey" that often trigger spam filters if they are used in the body of your email itself. You may have to divide your copy to conquer.)

#5. Personalize all you can; readers will skim more slowly, paying more attention if you do.

"Itís not just 'Dear Melissa,'" Melissa says. "Make the message as relevant as you can. PETCO, for example, sends dog messages to dog owners and cat messages to cat owners." If the message includes their account number or order number, put that information right at the top.

This works especially well for event-triggered emails -- for example, PETCO sends registered shoppers a special email promo on their pet's birthday that features their pet's name in the subject line ("Happy Birthday to Shasta") and in the email's headline.

Useful links related to this article:

List and examples of the 216 Web-safe colors -- if your email message (or landing page) has different colors than these, they won't display properly on recipient's computers:

Sample of the PETCO birthday email promo:


See Also:

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