Since its first broad use for marketing purposes less than 15 years ago, permission-based email has consistently delivered one of the highest ROIs of any tool in the digital marketer’s toolbox. This track record comes with one significant caveat however—namely, that not all email marketing efforts are created equal. Indeed, email program performance still varies widely from company to company and industry to industry.
One of the primary reasons for this wide variance is that a surprising number of companies are still treating email as an afterthought rather than a primary marketing channel. These companies cling to the notion that sending an email is enough regardless of what happens after they “push the button.”
Fortunately, this “send mentality” is easily remedied by respecting the tenets of email design optimization (EDO). Much like its kindred spirit, SEO, EDO is an ongoing process, not a finite destination. EDO practitioners constantly look for ways to improve email ROI by better leveraging the nuances of the email medium, the realities of the inbox, and the mandates of email clients such as Outlook, Lotus Notes, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Gmail.
So whether you’re looking to shake your company of its “send mentality” or find additional ways to improve ROI, the following Principles of Email Design Optimization should help you get more from your email marketing efforts.
EDO Principle #1: Design Email for the Email Environment
This may seem self-evident, but you would be surprised at the number of marketers who still repurpose direct mail or print designs in an email without a single change to the creative. To say this approach does not work would be an extraordinary understatement.
Email is an interactive medium that is consumed by subscribers in a variety of environments including their personal inbox, their corporate inbox, and—increasingly—their mobile phones. As such, EDO demands creative with clear, hyperlinked calls-to-action as well as content that recognizes the subscriber’s attention is fleeting. Remember, just because you worked all day on an email doesn’t mean that a subscriber is going to spend all day reading it. You have seconds to gain attention and inspire action. Use them wisely.
EDO Principle #2: Embrace the Anti-Design Requirements of Effective Email Design
The only thing that the email clients developed for Outlook, Lotus Notes, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Gmail have in common is that they all render email designs differently. Outlook and Gmail both initially deliver messages with images off, and while this preference can be changed by the user, a great many subscribers only activate images on a message-by-message basis.
As a result, if you don’t want your entire message to arrive as a big red X, you must incorporate HTML text in your emails, use alt-tags to describe the offers contained in images, and test creative workarounds such as table cells to effectively communicate your message. Moreover, you must test how your email designs render in the major email clients. Tools such as Pivotal Veracity’s e-Design Optimizer can help automate some of this process, but nothing has quite the same impact as making your email designer and developer view your emails in their personal Outlook, Gmail, and Yahoo accounts.
Designers may pull their hair out at the anti-design hoops that you have to jump through for EDO, but kindly remind them it’s not about them—it’s about the subscriber getting your message loud and clear.
EDO Principle #3: Embrace the Email Header as Part of Your Email Design
The email header consists of two key areas for our purposes—the FROM line and the SUBJECT LINE.
Studies have consistently shown that the FROM line—both the “friendly sender name” and the return email address—has the greatest impact on whether a recipient will open a message or report it as spam. Make absolutely certain that your FROM line provides a consistent name and reply address that communicates that your company is the sender. Do not vary the reply address from message to message as this may not only suppress response but also negatively impact your delivery rates.
As for the SUBJECT LINE, use it wisely. Most email clients will only display up to 60 characters in the email subject. Accordingly, you need to be short and sweet in a manner that creates the necessary intrigue or clarity to inspire the subscriber to open the email. Do not leave the subject line’s contents to your designer or developer—it could be the most important copy in the entire email, so make sure you put your best copywriter on the job.
EDO Principle #4: Take in the View from Your Subscriber’s Inbox
A high percentage of email clients such as Outlook and the new Yahoo Mail default to a preview pane view where only the first 3 to 5 top inches of the email design are displayed for the recipient. The best EDOs are extremely focused on optimizing the content presented in this preview pane real estate to ensure that it displays the company brand, communicates the primary message, and has a clear call-to-action.
Another area to optimize is the content “above the fold,” i.e., the non-scrolling area that appears when an email is first opened. This area is where your prime messages and calls-to-action should appear. Design elements should compliment and clarify, not overwhelm and obstruct.
EDO Principle #5: Map the Design to Your Objective Not Vice Versa
There are no secrets to designing an effective email message. It takes a process of trial and error informed by response metrics (opens, clicks, and conversions). Email service providers such as ExactTarget, in combination with web analytics services, provide a feedback loop that should help any EDO-minded marketer improve their email design efforts over time.
Too often, however, the temptation is to cut corners with gut instinct instead of effective testing. This can lead to your email designer running the show rather than your email data. The best EDOs are those who let their subscribers decide what works through A/B tests of subject lines, calls-to-action, and overall email design elements. Instinct has a part to play, but it must be used to craft better tests instead of supplant them.
So is there a “magic bullet” to ensure that all your email designs perform optimally? No. But the good news is that by designing for the medium and measuring performance at each viewing stage through to conversion, you can constantly test and improve your email design performance—and that’s something that a CMO (let alone an SEO) is sure to respect!
As Vice President of Marketing for ExactTarget, a leading provider of on-demand email marketing software and solutions, Jeffrey K. Rohrs helps clients devise strategies that boost the ROI of their one-to-one marketing efforts. ExactTarget’s whitepaper on The New Email Design Essentials provides email marketers with a roadmap on how to design their emails for optimal performance.