March 13, 2012
How To

Email Design How-to: 5 insights to improve open and clickthrough rates

SUMMARY: We spend so much time picking lists, choosing offers, and writing subject lines that it's easy to neglect email designs. But, your email's presentation, and organization, can be critical to its success.

Improve your open and clickthrough rates by seeing what to cut, what to keep, and how to focus your message. We spoke with three design experts to find out how to make your emails look great and perform even better.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Emails can include a variety of content. We can make them beautiful with images, animations, dynamic copy and buttons. But beauty is only skin deep. We need results.

"Email design is about clear communication," says Kristina Huffman, Senior Design Consultant, ExactTarget. "It is not just about making things pretty. It is about getting your message through in the most concise and precise way."

Poor email design can muddy your offer, fail to give readers a clear call-to-action, and put a cap on results. We want to help make your emails more effective by focusing your message and tweaking your design.

We spoke with Huffman and two other design experts to get their advice on how to effectively design marketing emails. They provided these five insights:

Insight #1. Set a single goal

Creating an email before setting the goal is like buying a shirt without checking the size. There is a good chance it won't fit. This is also true if you're choosing a template from an ESP. You always need to understand the goal of your email before you design it.

Also, realize that emails rarely sell a product, generate a download, or achieve any other campaign-level goal. Emails sell clicks. The landing page is where readers make a final conversion. The job of the email is to get them there.

So ask yourself, is your email supposed to:
  • Bring readers to a product landing page?

  • Attract site traffic to your blog?

  • Provide a customer's order information?

  • Bring readers to a registration page for your webinar?

Keep these goals in mind as we go through the other insights.

Insight #2. Give your emails a priority

Your email should have a clear hierarchy of information. Anything that does not support the main goal should be eliminated or deemphasized -- even if it ruffles a few feathers.

"Everybody wants all of the information to be the most important, and nobody wants to admit that their piece of content is not as important as others," Huffman says. But for readers, "if everything is screaming at you, you are not going to be able to hear anything."

Offers are not created equal

The goal of your email should be embodied in a clear call-to-action. It should be very obvious what you want readers to do. Do not confuse readers by giving equal emphasis to different calls-to-action, buttons or links.

The only exception, says Justine Jordan, Marketing Director, Litmus, might be when your goal is to generate traffic to your website with an email newsletter.

"If your goal is get downloads for your whitepaper, then have one and only call-to-action," Jordan says. "But if your goal is to drive traffic in general, you could have several calls-to-action. That way you are going to appeal to a broader audience."

Even then, you should test emphasizing the strongest piece of content over the others.

Connect subject lines with previews

Many email browsers provide a small window to preview the top portion of an email before opening it. If readers find your subject line somewhat interesting, then they will look to the preview pane to persuade them. This makes the top of your email prime real estate.

A common mistake is to waste this space on generic information, such as a link to view the email in a Web browser, says John Murphy, CEO, ReachMail.

Instead, feature content in this area that directly relates to the subject line, such as an image of a product being offered, Murphy says.

"If it's not a clickable item, or it's not giving more information about the subject line, then [readers] are going to be more likely to abandon and not engage with you."

Insight #3. Images need a purpose

A debate on the size and number of images to include in an email has gone on for years. The question does not have one answer for every possible product or service. It varies by industry, and it has more to do with your audience's preferences than hard-and-fast rules.

Many companies include images in their emails. Here are a few tips on how to use them effectively.

Images are not required

Images can communicate much faster than words, but without a specific purpose, images are just filler. If you're sending a newsletter, for example, they might not be necessary. You can test moving them to the right side of the email, out of the reader's eye-path, or test eliminating them.

Images can be very valuable, though, when you're selling to consumers. Sometimes the only way you can explain a Snuggie is to show one.

Images do not always load

Several popular email browsers do not load images automatically. Readers have to click to agree to view them, which places a barrier between readers and the rest of your content.

You can assume that a portion of your audience will not see your images. By using well-placed text, alt-tags and other design techniques, you can design an email that will clearly communicate even when its images are turned off. (Note: check the 'useful links' section below for more information on this topic)

Insight #4. Incorporate your website's design

As prospects engage with you over time, they become familiar with the aesthetics of your brand. They know what to expect when they see your logo, colors and messaging. This is why your emails must be consistent with your brand and your website's design, Murphy says.

"Most people, before they engage with a message, they want to see who it is from. They actually see the graphics first. They recognize the colors and the branding before they read it," Murphy says.

Incorporating elements of our website's design can give readers a subtle reminder of the relationship they have with you, and it can prevent deliverability troubles. Readers will be less likely to mark a message as "spam" if they quickly recognize the sender.

Transactional emails, too

Branding should be consistent between your website and all of your emails, even your transactional emails, Murphy says. Readers need to be reminded that they are dealing with a familiar company.

"Believe it or not, people will mark a transactional email as spam," Murphy says. "They might confuse it with something else."

Insight #5. Give your tests meaning

There are foundational "principles" and design "conventions" in email, but "best practices" change over time. The best way to know whether your call-to-action should be a green button or a blue hyperlink is to test it.

Despite the great results it can provide, only 42% of email marketers regularly test their emails, and many of them only test subject lines, according to the MarketingSherpa 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report.

Isolate what you test

There are potentially hundreds of variables you could test in an email -- everything from the shape of a button, to the location of an image. When you test too many variables at once, you can never be certain which caused the change in results. This means you cannot safely use the test to inform your designs.

Huffman says you should limit the scope of tests to a specific set of variables. That way you can more clearly identify which variables caused a change in results.

You should focus a test in one of three main categories of design variables, Hoffman says:
  1. Graphic design - such as the layout

  2. Branding - such as the colors and fonts

  3. User-interface - such as the buttons and links

For example, testing a new style of links throughout your email can cause a significant change in results and make it safe to assume that the new links were responsible for the results. If you changed the style and position of the links, who is to say which factor caused the change?

This email marketing how-to article was originally distributed through the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing Newsletter, a free, weekly source of email marketing case studies and how-to articles.

Useful links related to this article

Email Design: 3 critical factors of ‘lucky’ campaigns

Download the Free 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report Excerpt

Email Design Tactics for Blocked Images: 3 Options

Preview Panes, Image Blocking and My Pitch to Have Microsoft Outlook Turn Images on by Default

Post-Email Summit Workshop: 4 key ways small businesses can optimize their campaigns





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