Designing an effective email campaign or newsletter shouldn’t be mystifying. But with the persistent flurry of emails filling your inbox, representing a wide array of approaches (some good, some not so good), it’s easy to wonder whether or not your email design strategy is on point.
When designing emails, it’s important to keep your strategy simple: Follow good design fundamentals, deliver valuable content and be personal.
I receive up to 30 different email newsletters (that I have willingly signed up for) each day. They range from company promotions to general news blurbs to advertising. I even have a folder where I store some of my favorites, which I’ve been archiving since 2009.
The practice of hoarding emails began when I was doing a lot of customized email design for clients, but over the years, services like Emma, MailChimp and Constant Contact have put the power of email design, database management, distribution and analytics in the users’ hands. Despite these powerful design and customer relationship-management tools, some are still missing the mark. The good news is that there are plenty of others who are spot on … and serve as email design inspiration.
A Look at Email Campaigns: The Good, the Bad … and the Ugly
Let’s start with a bright spot in email campaigning. I have to give credit to the folks behind Martha Stewart’s branding, as they’re hitting the mark across all channels: email, web, apps, print and television, as well as hard and soft goods.
Martha Stewart’s email campaigns are visually unified. The email recipient gets good content that’s well-written, with the added bonus of easy social media access with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram via the large buttons above the fold. And the clean design layout is easy on the eyes.
Coming from another angle, Variety continues to be one of my guilty pleasures. I’m a sucker for pop culture, and their emails with the big masthead, gives me the same feeling that holding their tall-tab does: I’m connected “to the scene.” I don’t expect personalization, and I don’t need a lot of fluffy over-designed mumbo jumbo. Keep it black-text-on-white with big images, large headlines and links to read more online. Understated (minus the masthead) and minimally-designed, Variety leverages the brand and lets the stories speak for themselves.
I don’t expect every company that has my name and email to get it right, especially when it comes to spelling my difficult last name, but if I’ve gone through the trouble of giving you my personal information, then call me by name. Don’t send me or the millions of others in your database, a generically addressed message. I pay attention to the personalized emails that say “hello,” actually using my name.
Dale Carnegie, who wrote books on self-improvement, salesmanship, public speaking and interpersonal communication, suggested that people don’t like to hear the sound of their name, but rather, they love it. Email campaigns (like Yummly’s above) use personalization to hook the recipient. In this case, they’ve targeted my wife in the casual manner of “hey, here’s some stuff you may be interested in” …
Here’s another look at personalization. TED’s email newsletters are always clean, minimalistic and well-branded. Addressing me as one of their “TEDizen” stakeholders may be perceived as a savvy way to extend their brand, and it’s definitely a departure from the standard personalization technique. On the contrary, I haven’t been, nor will I ever be, a TED or Ted. Please call me Jason or Mr. T.
Content: Length & Chunks
I’m fine with scrolling through 1-2 pages of content in an email. But when an email approaches the 5-page mark, I’d rather have the document in a more reader-friendly format like Instapaper or Safari’s Reader. News works well in an email when the content gets chunked into small sizes that I can scan and read quickly, process easily – or click out for immersive reading at a website or app.
TED provides a lot of rich information in this email (to its “TEDizens”), but it came in at five printed pages. That’s a 3280-pixel-long skyscraper on a desktop (and almost four-feet in physical length). This communication could’ve been shortened by linking out to “read more” in their app or on their website. Or, just build an entirely separate microsite to teach us about the website redesign.
In contrast to the TED email above, The New York Times uses a “less is more” approach when addressing readers about their own site redesign. Compared to their other email blasts that I discuss in Unity Across Messages in this same article, this correspondence feels lighter, airier and simply better – thanks to solid information hierarchy, variety of imagery and use of the grid.
Linkedin has been delivering news-like feeds to email inboxes for a while now, and there’s even some social media engineering going on with the “thumbs up” and “comment” as well as “forward/share” buttons. This looks familiar to what users see on Facebook and Twitter, and makes us want to engage with the content.
Taking more cues from Twitter, Linkedin has whittled things down further (above), with a very Twitter-like-waterfall of content: succinct and clickable to read more. Notice how well the brand identity carries from one email to another in the header. The reader recognizes the source of the email immediately.
Unity Across Brand Messaging
Brand identity should be uniform when it comes to your messaging, but anybody who works in a large organization knows that this can be difficult especially if an office is fragmented into different zones, that are either in the same building or in different cities altogether—or different countries. And if you have multiple departments, each handling their own marketing and communication, unity becomes even more difficult. No matter what, there should be no excuses. Have a style guide, and adhere to it day in and day out, through all communication channels.
Exploring The New York Times Email Communication
Despite the brevity of The New York Times’s redesign announcement I mentioned above, @Times’s “Top-Five” newsletter comes in at a whopping 3,034 pixels long itself, making it nearly as long as the TED email. Not only is the newsletter entirely too long, there is a complete lack of brand unity (or unified messaging) when compared to their other emails.
A lot of companies get the brand unity concept right: Target, Martha Stewart, Amazon and Apple, among others. However, when surveying most of The New York Times email media, across all of their messages and campaigns, consistent messaging and branding appear to be a problem.
Some emails are heavy on black banners, but others have an all-white background. The redesign announcement calm grey background, and its uncharacteristically grey NYT masthead. They seem to be doing more with more, putting a little something different into every item they email to readers.
The NYT “Breaking News Alerts” are short and sweet, although they bombard you at times. I feel like I got an email alert every time somebody won an Oscar on March 2. There’s probably a way for me to minimize the alerts I get, or turn them off completely, but I’m too damn lazy to look into it. It’d be nice if their email news alerts would automatically shut off if I follow them on Twitter. Maybe there’s an IFTTT recipe. And why do they look so different compared to everything else the NYT sends me?
Here’s a completely different NYT email design (above) that uses blue with accents of orange – with a clear, bold dollar amount. This different offer, with a distinct look, (likely on purpose) gets my attention. There’s an intention to sell. Also, notice that I’m a “NYTimes.com Reader” in this communications, and not “Jason.”
Allrecipes.com, who offers daily emails to supplement its online content, gets it right with their content and brand identity. Their “Daily Dish” email looks like it came from the same place as “What’s Cooking” and “Recipe Notes.” A consistent masthead with colorful photography. Nothing flashy, but the brand identity is unified.
Every now and then, it’s okay to zig or zag with your email design. Especially if you want to get a reader’s attention. Take Amazon, for instance; so much of what I see from them looks the same with the big yellow header, that I’ve grown numb to it. If I see Amazon in my inbox, offering to sell me something that I already looked at online, then I might click delete before bothering to read further.
But there are times when they surprise me. Target could learn a thing or two from this, especially since Target’s emails are almost too branded, and too red, time and time again.
DId I get this email because I was shopping for Valentine’s Day jewelry, or because Amazon wanted to mix it up with their ads? Only their database and designers know for certain. But it was a fresh alternative to the other emails I get from them on a regular basis. And it made me pay attention to the product.
Be Memorable. When Atoms for Peace, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s side project, sent out an email to announce a forthcoming album, the entire layout appeared to be a hand-typed message, with its designers going so far as to use a textured background to make it look like it was on paper. Low tech but high concept, the unconventional approach delivered something memorable.
To Template or Not to Template
With so many services on the market, including Emma, MailChimp and Constant Contact, it’s become easy for designers and non-designers to create an attractive email campaign that looks as good on a desktop as it does on an iPhone.
With any design solution you choose, email campaigns should follow the same brand identity style guidelines used for all of the other touchpoints. Don’t sacrifice good design strategies and necessities because it’s an email communication. Strive to make your email’s content and design personal, useful and shareable. You’ll not only reach your customers, but you’ll give them a positive and memorable experience—maybe even an element of surprise.
Jason Tselentis is an associate professor of design at Winthrop University.
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