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Email Marketing Design: Less Is More (and the Least Is the Most)

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

I’d like to tell you about what is, for me, possibly the most frustrating thing in all of digital marketing: Email Marketing design. It’s not the most complicated or the most consequential, but frustrating? Annoying? Yes and yes.

If you open up your email inbox (feel free to actually do this; just don’t get distracted and forget to come back), open up the first few promotional-type messages you can find. These might be newsletters, discount offers, event announcements, and so on. Most of them will have at least one thing in common: they look pretty… well, pretty.

With nearly all of the email sending services, from the giants like Constant Contact to a smaller, personal favorite, Robly, new customers gain immediate access to a trove of pre-built templates covering just about any purpose or intent you may have in mind, from Black Friday sales to Bar Mitzvah invitations. And as I’ve mentioned, they’re nice. I guarantee they all look better than anything I’m able to produce from scratch in any reasonable amount of time.

That’s not the frustrating part. The frustrating part is that despite their sleek design, despite their ubiquity, they are often worse than no design at all. Yes, a plain text email is frequently more effective than professionally designed emails. Not only is this counter-intuitive to what we’ve all come to believe about marketing (that being eye-catching is always a good thing), but it also makes marketers feel a little unnecessary, if only for this one particular task.

There are a few reasons this reliably consistent trend may be true:

Authenticity – More important than being eye-catching is delivering a message that your audience cares about. A email written like a normal, personal message is more likely to be received as such. And even if, two sentences in, the recipient is keen to your “sheep’s clothing” strategy, they’re already two sentences in. That should be more than enough time for you get to the point of why your sending the message. And if it’s relevant enough to your reader, congratulations. You’ve gained your reader’s attention.

Novelty – This borders on divulging a secret, but with so much written on the topic of email marketing, I’d be flattered if anyone changed their strategy just to counter mine. In the continual struggle to find a beautiful, captivating HTML-styled email template, many consumers scroll or swipe through their messages and notice nothing more than varying background colors and corny stock images, not even noticing who sent each message or what it’s actually about. But when that pattern is interrupted by black, standard-font text on a white background, it may very well give them pause — in the exact opposite way many marketers expect them to. Speaking from experience, personal email inboxes tend to be 75% marketing at a minimum, not the 25% or less that would make a pretty layout novel.

Deliverability – I’ve saved this one for last because it’s the most technical (boring) and I didn’t want to lose you, but it’s actually the most important to be aware of. You know how Google and other search engines keep changing the way their algorithms sort search results? They do that not to drive marketers and business owners mad (though they do accomplish that quite well as a by-product), but to attempt to deliver users the results that are truly what they’re looking for. Email services — both the ones you use for sending and the ones your audience use for their own email — are doing something similar. It started with spam filters looking for the most likely junk messages, making it difficult for messages containing “Viagra” and other spammer favorite topics to actually get through to you.

This has now evolved into to these email services looking at the coding in your email message. Even if all you know about HTML is, “uh, that has something to do with the Internet, right?”, it should make sense that an email designed with a background color, a header image, a headline font, three columns of copy, and links to your Facebook and Twitter pages would contain more HTML than the message you sent to your mother about what to get your spouse for his/her birthday. And that’s exactly the sort of thing these filters are based upon. An email with minimal code is more likely to be a personal (and more importantly, wanted) message than one with images, photos, links, and columns. Those bare bones messages are now more likely to make it to your readers’ inboxes at all, never mind what they’ll actually open and read.

Additional Email Marketing Best Practices

With everything I’ve noted above, it’s important to remember that regardless of your design approach, email marketing is still a very important element of your marketing mix.

Hubspot, one of the industry leaders in marketing automation and customer engagement tools, maintains a page with Email Marketing Statistics, that shows useful info, such as:

35% of marketers send their customers 3-5 emails per week. …and… 31% of B2B marketers say email newsletters are the best way to nurture leads. Check out their page for more stats, but also notice that they say nothing about the design of the email messages themselves.

As a final point, I don’t want to discourage you from using great looking email templates at all. They can be very effective, especially when the people you’re sending them to enjoy hearing from you. If you’ve got great newsletter content, exciting special offers, or other promotions that readers will look forward to receiving, by all means dress up them to the nines. However, when it comes to reaching people who may not be engaged customers or fans, try going back to email basics on your next message. You may be surprised by the results, just as I have been time and time again.

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