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Email Blast Guidelines: Design and Strategy (Part 2)

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In my first post in this two-part series, I discussed strategic concerns related to the design of email marketing templates (or what some folks call “eblasts.”) Much of that post reiterated the observation that “best practices” within the context of email marketing is really very situational. What make a lot of sense for one client might not be the best fit for another.

In this post, I thought I’d talk a bit about design issues relating to email marketing. Although I give a reasonable overview of the “big picture” issues to think about, I’m going to stay pretty conceptual, in the hopes that what I say is digestible by both marketers and designers alike.

Design Point Number 1: Think Carefully About How You Want to Use Image-based Content

We all like beautiful photography or illustration. Within the context of email marketing, though, images offer both opportunities and challenge. The biggest problem with embedded image content stems from the fact that most email clients don’t download images by default. Rather, in order to display content, the recipient has to instruct the client — Outlook, for example — to display it. What that means is that, if the image is large, for example, a vast part of the designer’s “canvas” might display as blank. (Alt tagging image content with text is an important practice to remember for this situation.) When designing an eblast, then, it is important to balance the need for images vs. the possibility that a less motivated recipient will just skip over your email, when they see a blank area where that image should be. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re marketing a product that is visually sexy and that visual appeal is a large factor in why people buy it (houses and consumer electronics come to mind here) then it might be worth the risk to feature a big beautiful image at the top of your email. For other products or services, you might want to feature a smaller, header style image. And, finally, a really smart trick which some marketers use is to embed HTML headline text a little above the image, which lets your viewers know something about your product or service, even if they’re confronted with blank space.

Design Point Number 2: Design Above the Fold

The online marketing world has a phrase for content which appears in the top part of your browser or email client window. We call that area “above the fold” and, basically, you want to make sure the most important part of any offer you’re making falls within it. This tip is pretty self-explanatory but the idea is that, as we open email, we tend to scan it for content initially. If your most important content isn’t appearing within the scanned area, you stand a good chance of losing your reader’s attention.

Design Point Number 3:  Wider is NOT Always Better…)

Many people don’t realize that there are practical width limitations for email marketing. Even though the desktop you get most of your email from might have a screen resolution of 1600 pixels across, the wide variety of platforms people check mail from these days encompasses a  range of mobile devices and other resolution challenged platforms. Most authorities recommend keeping email widths to around the 600 pixel mark. Besides ensuring maximum compatibility across a broad range of devices, designing at this width also means your mail will be viewable within the email applications message “window pane” which represents that area (usually to the right of your message list) where individual messages are previewed.

Design Point Number 4:  Be Wary of CSS and All Manner of Embedded Content (besides images and text…)

Although CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) can be great for webwork, they can be problematic in email marketing. Remember that your email is being displayed in an email client and not one of the standard browsing platforms. And, remember, there are a lot more email clients out there than browsing platforms. The trouble with CSS is that it is only marginally supported in many email clients and those features unsupported vary from client to client. Furthermore, designers might have trouble designing their blast in a standard web authoring tool (like Dreamweaver, for instance) because such tools tend to “auto generate” CSS, which might not be widely supported. Luckily, most email distribution services (like Mailchimp) feature tools which allow you to preview the appearance of your blast in a variety of email clients before you actually send it. These tools can be Godsends.

This concludes my two-part series on email blast design and strategy. My own personal limitations on time led me to be brief in these posts but, if anyone out there is interested in more detailed reference sources, feel free to leave a comment and I will point you in some hopefully useful directions.

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