Best Practices for Effective Email Design

Posted by Cynthia Fedor on December 9th, 2011

emailsAny communication from a business, including emails, is an extension of brand. The tone set by email design represents part of the brand’s story. It conveys a great deal about an email’s sender and the email’s purpose before any content is read by the recipient. Additionally, design affects how email platforms filter, categorize and display messages. Therefore, understanding design in these terms will help marketers improve deliverability and ROI.

Here are some best practices to follow for effective email design.

Understanding the objective of an email

Understanding the main purpose and goal of an email communication is critical to developing effective email design. The design strategy will change based upon the objective and intended goal. For example, newsletters should have a different design and layout than a sales email or brand-building email. This is because recipients look for visual cues to guide them through the email’s content and to determine how it should be read.

The main goal of an email message is also important to understand prior to developing design because it helps designate where to place different elements such as call-to-action buttons, links, phone numbers and images within the email.

Anatomy of an email

Email design is not solely confined within the main body of a message. Good design starts before a recipient even opens and views the content contained within an email message. Following are the five parts on an email as viewed by the recipient:

THE ‘FROM’ NAME

The ‘From’ of an email tells the recipient about the sender. Typically, it’s also the first field recipients see when viewing all the emails collected in their inbox. Having a clear and recognizable name will prevent an email from being immediately deleted by the recipient. The Email Sender and Provider Coalition (ESPC), reports that 73% of opted-in recipients delete email or report it as spam based on the information in the ‘From’ field. So, by using a company name, the name of a familiar associate or product name in the ‘From’ field, marketers may cut down on the rate at which recipients delete or report emails as spam.

SUBJECT LINE

The subject line of an email is the second chance for marketers to make an impression on email recipients. It’s also the second chance recipients have to decide whether they want to open or report an email as spam. And, according to industry studies, they’ll make that decision in less than six seconds. Therefore, the more precise and relevant the subject line can be, the better.

Tip: Limit subject line messages to 50 characters or less. Extending subject line messages past 50 characters is a fruitless effort since most email platforms ‘cut off’ messages beyond that point. Additionally, recipients viewing emails on portable devices will see even less.

PREVIEW PANE

Many email platforms display messages for recipients in preview panes. A preview pane allows recipients to take a sneak peek at the email’s contents. Often, only a portion of an email is visible via the preview pane—a few inches of the email’s top portion when viewed in a horizontal preview pane or a few inches of the left side of an email when viewed via a vertical preview pane. Therefore, critical information such as a company logo, offer or call-to-action button should be placed as close to the top left of an email as possible to accommodate preview panes.

AN OPENED EMAIL

Once a recipient opens a message, they are presented with the content that makes up the body of the email. However, many recipients do not immediately see the entire contents of the email message. Initially, recipients see content that resides above the fold. The term ‘above the fold’ refers to the content seen before viewers need to scroll. This area’s dimensions depend upon the viewer’s screen resolution, which varies. According to ClickZ, 60% of people viewing emails only see or read 50% of the message. Some of this is due to much of an email’s content residing below the fold.

Tip: Place call-to-action buttons, phone numbers and promotional offers towards the top of emails—above the fold. Email newsletters that contain lengthy copy should include a table of contents describing topics covered in the email. Marketers should also consider including only portions of articles within the email—using links leading to a website landing page for continuation of the article. This tactic will provide tracking and analytical data.

THE FULL EMAIL

Marketer’s that have guided viewers beyond the four steps as listed above are ahead of the curve. The real test is in how viewers engage with the full email. First and foremost, marketers should make the full body of the email easy to navigate and include relevant content.

How people read emails

It would be great if recipients carefully read each word included in an email message. However, studies have shown that people naturally scan for information that peek their interest rather than digest content word for word. They look for visual cues to guide them through landing pages and email messages. One method that describes how people read web content is called the ‘F-Shaped Pattern of Scanning.’ By tracking eye movement using heat mapping technology, researchers discovered that readers move through web pages by starting on the top left of a page, then moving horizontally to the right. The left to right pattern is followed once again, then readers scan the remainder of the page vertically forming a shape similar to the letter ‘F.’ Additionally, readers tend to scan or follow information that is sectioned or blocked. By understanding and using this knowledge, marketers are able to structure emails to maximize visibility of content.

Effective email layout / structure

Optimal layout and structure will vary depending on business type and objective of the email message. Following are some key elements to consider when designing an email message.

SIMPLICITY

On average, people spend about 50 seconds reading e-newsletters. This period drops for other types of email messages. Therefore, the content and design of an email should be clear, concise, easy to read and relevant to the recipient. Utilize bullet points, paragraph breaks, bolded headlines and images to present content in organized groups.

MINDING THE FOLD

Although many email recipients are familiar with scrolling, many do not take the time to look below the fold of an email.  Marketers should keep the most important information towards the top of the email message area. Promotional offers, contact information, company logos and call-to-action buttons should be accessible to readers without having to scroll down the page of the email. For e-newsletters or other potentially lengthy messages, marketers should utilize a table of contents and place it above the fold so that readers can quickly scan topics without having to scroll.

The area of an email located above the fold varies depending on the recipient’s computer screen resolution and the email platform used. A general estimation of this area is 600 pixels wide by 750 pixels high.

TOP-DOWN FORMAT

Used in newspaper writing, the top-down format is a writing style that places the most important information at the top of an article and supporting information below, organized in decreasing importance. This is done because most people just scan headline articles for a topic that is of interest to them. Journalists are taught to compress the most critical information about a story in the headline and first paragraph of a story. All other supporting information and details follow. The same tactic should be used for email design.

USING IMAGES

Images add visual appeal and interest to email messages. They can also help to organize content within a message. However, they come with a special set of issues to consider. According to MarketingSherpa, one out of four consumers use preview panes, 59% of which block images. Therefore, it is suggested that marketers design emails to be visually appealing and functional even when images are not visible to the viewer. This may be accomplished by using a healthy balance of imagery and text.

Tip: Use image alt tags to support missing images. An image alt tag is HTML language that offers a text description of the image. If a browser does not load an image, then the contents of the alt tag will be displayed. Additional, marketers can include a link within an email that allows users to view the message in a browser window. A message viewed in a browser window should display all images along with text.

USING TEXT

Marketers have the ability to format text in a way that guides the reader and provides visual appeal. Adjusting font size, using bold and italics, and displaying text in color are ways to accomplish this. Marketers must note, though, that extensive formatting can result in emails being blocked by content filters. So, simplicity in text formatting is stressed.

In terms of functionality, it is recommended to provide an alternate, text-only version of email messages to accompany HTML versions. Not all email platforms display HTML. Also, text-only versions are valuable for recipients viewing emails on portable devices where images make reading the contents of an email difficult.

Fact: A MarketingSherpa survey revealed that 64% of key decision makers use portable devices such as a smartphone to view emails.

Content Filters

Another challenge facing marketers is understanding the benefits and pitfalls of content filters. A content filter is a function of email platforms that help to manage the delivery of emails—separating spam email from opt-in or valid email messages. Content filters look for specific elements within an email in order to determine whether an email should be classified as spam or not. In order to prevent being blocked by content filters, marketers should avoid:

  • Excessive images and/or images with large file size
  • Poor spelling
  • Using all caps
  • Copy written in red or blue
  • Excessive use of certain words such as free and click here
  • Messy HTML code
  • Missing subject lines

Done responsibly, email can be a powerful tool for marketers. Following best practice in email design will give marketers a good foundation on which to develop and fine tune messages.

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