bad email marketingintermediate

Ah, your first email message from the latest list you opted into. Cool! Let's check it out and see wha ...

... AAAH!

Eyes burning? Yeah, you just got burned by some really unpleasant email marketing design.

Okay, so maybe I'm being a little hyperbolic, but you must know what I'm talking about. What's with the flashing GIFs? Color overload? Excessive font experimentation? If you're guilty of any of those (or what we're about to talk about in this blog post), you might be rocking your email recipients' worlds, and not in a good way. Ugly email design can distract from your email message, confuse recipients, hinder click-throughs, harm your brand's image, and even result in unsubscribes for the seriously offended.

So to ensure every email you send looks pleasant, use this list as a reference point for the qualities of reader-friendly email layout and design -- and never send out a frightful email again!

How to Design an Email for Superior User Experience

1) Use a Clear "From:" Field

A great email experience begins before your recipient even opens the message -- it all starts with the "From:" field. People are extremely protective of their email inboxes; they're personal spaces that, when violated by spammers and bad segmenters, prompt recipients to unsubscribe. So it's critical you establish some level of familiarity right away by making it easy for your recipient to recognize who you are, and why you're in their inbox. Some marketers have found they have better open and click-through rates when they use their company name as the sender. Others, however, have found more success using the name of an employee -- like the recipient's account manager, for example. Some companies actually see the best results when they combine the two, using both a personal name and a company name -- we conducted our own test to confirm this suspicion:

email test

Whichever method works best for you, make sure to also include an actual email address to which the recipient can reply to reaffirm that you are, in fact, a real person.

2) Make Sure Your Subject Line Displays Fully

The other part of your email that can make or break a reader's experience before even opening the message is the subject line. We've written about how to write excellent subject line copy, but you also have to consider how long that subject line looks in an inbox. Think about it -- if your subject line is "'s domain names are going on sale tomorrow," but your recipient's inbox cuts off even the last few words, the meaning of the email is totally lost -- and probably your instances of email opens, too. So try to keep your subject lines brief and to the point, frontloading any words that are critical to the meaning of the email. While every email client displays a different number of characters, trying to keep the subject line under 50 characters is a good rule of thumb. If you have a large mobile audience, shoot for 20 characters or fewer.

3) Keep Images to a Minimum, and Properly Optimized

Most email clients accept some level of HTML formatting. The problem is, richer text elements like images aren't supported across all clients, nor do all of your recipients allow images to display in their inboxes. So when your entire email hinges on images displaying, the meaning will be hindered for those who don't end up seeing the images in the message. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't use images in your email -- they should simply be accompanied with text that also tells your story! That means more than just the copy in the email body itself, too; it also means optimizing your email's images with alt text so, if your images don't render properly, there's descriptive text that explains what your image was. Take a look at this email from Groupon, for example:

groupon email images

What's good about this email is that there's sufficient explanatory copy to make up for the fact that the image didn't render. What's bad about this email is that there's no alt text that describes what was supposed to appear there. Uh oh! What should appear there is something to the effect of, "Brookline Hair Removal Center" (not, "Image 1" or something equally non-descript) so the recipient isn't in the dark on half of your entire email message.

4) Use a Background Color That's Compatible With Your Font Color

Now we're getting into the fun stuff! Sometimes marketers get so carried away designing their emails, they forget to reign themselves in. Your brand's colors are red, white, and black? That's cool ... but think about the best way those colors can work with each other. And it's probably not like this (names censored to protect the well-meaning marketer):

email font colors

These colors are rather jarring together, and would work together in a calmer manner with a simple white background, black text, and red accents throughout. Be sure whatever combination of font and background color you use, they stand out (no dark gray on light gray, people!), but do so without assaulting the recipient's eye.

5) Limit Font Sizes and Types

If you're interested in fonts, you may have also noticed the email above uses the oft-bemoaned Comic Sans. However you feel about the use of Comic Sans (it's okay to feel no way, by the way), just be sure to find the font you like and stick with it throughout your email message. That means if you want to use Comic Sans 'til the cows come home, you can, but it shouldn't be supplemented by his buddies Bookman Old Style and Wing Dings (but seriously, just don't use Wing Dings in your email marketing). Too many fonts in your email -- or the same font that jumps from small, to big, to medium, to medium-big, to smallish-medium -- is hard for your reader to visually take in. And that means the message you're trying to convey will be equally compromised in the process.

6) K.I.S.S., Also Known As, 'Keep It Short and Scrollable'

I know it's tempting to tell your entire story in an email message, but that's what web pages are for. Your reader has other messages to attend to, so it's unlikely he or she will spend several minutes scrolling through your email, reading all the details of your latest ebook. Nope. If they want your ebook, they'll click through to a landing page on your website to learn more about it, and redeem your offer. So make sure when you craft your next email message, you find just a few short nuggets of information to highlight, limit the amount of scrolling necessary to get to your call-to-action, and then drive readers to a page on your website to get the more in-depth information they might need.

7) Use Short Chunks of Text

To help make your emails even more scannable and reader-friendly, try to use short chunks of text instead of long, dense paragraphs. In addition to the brief paragraphs you see below, you can use other visual tricks to keep the reader's eye engaged in your content like we've done with the blue, hyperlinked text. Between the short paragraphs and hyperlinks, our busy recipients can scan this content quickly to find out exactly what they need to do without feeling visually overwhelmed.

ebook download

8) Make Your Call-to-Action Easy to Find

Speaking of finding out what you need to do in an email, there are things you can do when laying out your email message to make your call-to-action more identifiable to your reader. And the less your recipients have to think, the easier your recipients' lives will be, and the more they'll love you. Oh, and also, you'll have a better click-through rate.

First, include more than one CTA in your message -- you should give your reader multiple opportunities to click through to your landing page, not just one! Start by finding opportunities to hyperlink text that leads to your landing page, just like we did in the email example above. Notice how the hyperlinked text is extremely clear? If you click it, you'll get either access to your ebook, or if you choose the second chunk of hyperlinked text, you'll get a custom demo of our marketing software. There's absolutely no mystery there -- save that for your love life, folks.

Next, supplement your text-based CTAs with visual ones. Really, really bright ones. People are used to pressing a button to redeem an offer in their emails, so you'll find that your recipients that aren't reading the copy of your email will gravitate toward a visual button they can press -- that is, if they can find it. Use a color for your button that stands out from the rest of your email so your reader's eye is drawn there, and alleviate any potential confusion with exceptionally clear button copy that tells them what they'll get by clicking the button -- "Access Your Free Ebook," for example.

9) Eliminate Distractions

To ensure your recipient can actually get to your call-to-action, you need to let them focus. Just like when you're creating a landing page, it's critical to eliminate any distractions that might drive your recipients away from performing the action you want. This means two things for you as you lay out your email. First, it means you should leave the animation and dancing GIFs at home -- if they're there for entertainment value, and not to help clarify your message, they're a distraction that will make your email marketing metrics look pretty sad. Second, you need to eliminate distractions by ensuring you don't provide competing calls-to-action. Take a look at this email, for example:

hubspot email ctas

There's more than one call-to-action, but they don't compete with our ultimate goal from sending this email -- moving prospects further down the sales funnel. For example, the first two links you see above both lead to the same landing page. And the third link, while leading to a different landing page, helps us reconvert this lead on a more middle-of-the-funnel offer. So sure, while some might convert on the first offer and some might convert on the second offer, they're also both giving us the lead intelligence we need to determine whether the email recipient is actually interested in our software, or simply still learning about inbound marketing.

10) Optimize for Mobile

Did you check your email on a mobile device yet today? I sure did. Actually, it's the first thing I did when my alarm went off. If you think it's generally kind of hard to read emails on a mobile device, just think about how much more difficult it is to read them before you've had your first cup of coffee and your eyes are still adjusting to the morning light. All the more reason to optimize your email marketing for mobile! That means you limit the amount of scrolling and pinching necessary to read your emails on that tiny screen, you stay away from tiny fonts, your subject lines are brief (remember, shoot for under 20 characters!), and your links and buttons are easy to see.

11) Test Your Email in All Clients

What email client do you use? Gmail? Hotmail? Yahoo? Outlook? AOL? Other? What about your leads and customers? Your emails should be easy to read in all email clients, especially the ones your email recipients use to read your emails! Do some testing of your own -- or use an ESP whose templates have already been tested to look good in major email clients -- to ensure the user experience is flawless no matter where your emails are read.

12) Offer a Browser Version of Your Email

You know that link I'm talking about ...

view in browser

Including this link in your email helps those who are reading your email and suffering some rendering issues, but still want to read your content. Every ESP should make it easy for you to include this link, and it's a lifesaver for those on your email list struggling with inbox problems that are hampering their ability to consume your email content.

Like most marketing content, clarity and simplicity are good rules of thumb to guide you in your email marketing layout and design. So if you don't have this nitty-gritty cheat sheet to walk you through your next campaign, just ask yourself whether your recipient can easily figure out what to do in your email. You can even test it out on an unsuspecting coworker to see if they can easily parse the message! If they could identify your email in their inbox, open it, read it, and click-through without skipping a beat, you've probably nailed the fantastic email user experience!

What else makes for a reader-friendly piece of email marketing? Share your tips in the comments!

Image credit: lucianvenutian

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Originally published Jun 25, 2012 3:54:00 PM, updated October 20 2016


Email Marketing