The only email marketing design tips you will ever need to succeed

Apple iPad email design: an example of simple email design with a clear cta.

Being succesful in email marketing boils down to a few factors. The end factor is of course how much money you will make from the email channel, but getting there requires some effort. There’s deliverability, list management, campaign set-up and management, content creation and management…so many things. However, all of this will barely be noticed by the actual person receiving your email: the subscriber. They’ll only see the final product: the subject line, the from name and reply address, and the email design with content.
Depending on what you want to achieve with your email marketing, there are only a few tips that matter: these have been posted all over the web over time, but never been gathered in one single post. Here’s my set of email design tips to make sure you get the most out of your email design efforts. If you don’t handle the email design part yourself, show this to your agency or designer.

1. Less is more. If your email is plastered with content, menu-options, links to anywhere people will lose focus and interest. Prevent that from happening: get their attention and hold it within a few seconds. The worst email designs are the ones that contain a boatload of content and links but are unclear about what the receiver should do with it.
2. Be clear and specific. With every email you need to ask yourself the question: what do I want the receivers of this email to do with it? Reply? Order? Click through? Request more info, documents, samples? Have the answer before making the actual email. This will help in the overall process of creation.
3. The call to action should bring people to action, not confuse. ‘Click here’ won’t cut it. ‘Buy this now for $49’ is a lot better. ‘Buy for $49, next-day free delivery’ is perfect as a CTA. However make sure a CTA is not too long: make it as condensed as possible.
4. Test everything, everywhere: there’s no excuse for render, bad link or image errors on any platform, device or email client.
5. Make sure the whole path is right: an email marketing campaign is as strong as its weakest link. If a landing page is not clear on its purpose or what the visitor should do, it will fail regardless of how good the email design is. Make sure everything from A to Z is set up correctly, tested and tested again.
6. Avoid stock photos. As convenient as they are and as much as you paid for them, about a million other companies are using them. This makes your email content look bland and very much ‘me too’. Spend some time and money to get relevant, fresh photography done for your email campaings: it will most certainly pay off in terms of overall quality and uniqueness of your email design.
7. Together with less is more at point 1, having shorter emails sent more frequently (depending on what the subscriber has set for preferred email frequency) will help with two things: being top of mind more regularly and taking up less time per email of the subscriber. If someone needs 5 minutes to go through your whole email, that’s too long (exceptions allowing). Any marketing email’s purpose should be understood within 30 seconds (rather within 5 or 10) and someone should be acting upon it within a minute. If you can help someone spend less time on any email, make it yours while still reaching your goal. Double win!
8. Guide the subscriber’s reading direction: using arrows and/or flow of text and images will guide them to where you want them. Either the end CTA, the most important info + CTA or anywhere else. Examples here and here. Every email should be a funnel towards completing a task, not a maze of confusion.
9. When sending news-focused emails, make sure the most important part of a news item is in the email, with a clickthrough to the whole article. This doesn’t mean you have to put in the first few sentences of that article in the email: a good summary will help better to get a feel of the whole article and will make people click through faster.
10. Use animations where applicable / useful. It should not be the holy grail, but can jack it up a notch to make it a more rich experience. Examples here, here and here. This will work better for B2C than B2B companies because of Outlook 2007/2010 still partying like it’s 1999 and not understanding animated gifs, but still.
11. Make sure to use enough whitespace to help your email succeed on touch screens: a fingertip is a bigger touchpoint than a mouse pointer. Having small text links while maybe 25% (or more!) of your audience is using touch screens (small like smartphones and large like tablets) to view your email will not help them interact with the email. A clickthrough will fail and frustrate them.
Make text links bigger or even better, make them buttons with enough whitespace to prevent accidental faulty clicks. This counts for the service links as well! Don’t make your ‘web version’ and ‘unsubscribe’ links small and low-contrast just because they are service links.

There you go, 11 email design tips to help you succeed. As you may have noticed I haven’t included any specific HTML and CSS tips: I’m expecting the person implementing the tech part of your email designs to be fully aware of what can and what cannot be done in email client land in this case.
Good luck to all, and let me know if the tips have been useful to you! Any additions you think are missing to the above are welcome in the comments.

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