When I was asked to write about how I go about designing and creating our emails, I was stuck. I’ve been creating emails for nearly 10 years and now it’s second nature to me. But email clients (like Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo! etc) update for better or worse, design trends come and go and coding adapts to take into account both of these. That’s probably the most enjoyable thing about working in digital; you never stay still for long.
First things first: Since I hand code our emails, it gives me a lot more freedom to do whatever I want with our emails. I can be a bit more experimental with progressive techniques that may not always work in every client, although I always ensure that the email looks good, even in the very unfriendly email clients like Outlook.
If you’re not aware, most email clients need quite old-fashioned methods of coding to display well so that means you can’t always do the fancy things that websites do within email. Of course, as email marketers we’ve found ways around these things from time-to-time but it does make our job harder.
For instance, I coded the product review modules so you can submit reviews within the email itself. I’d tested them and put the whole thing to bed, satisfied I’d done a good job. By the way, I’d spent A LONG time researching how we’d make it happen in the best way possible. Just two days before we launched them, Gmail released an update to their code which meant that we were only seeing the products without the ability to review them either in the email or via a link, so I had to rewrite all of my code in one day.
So here’s my thoughts on our own emails, the how and the why…
Turn around time
We have a very quick turnaround time for most emails, usually one day. That means I have to come up with an idea and execute it really quickly. For me, this works well since I perform better with the threat of a looming deadline. Usually, I’ll outline the copy element of it first so that’s done, and then move onto the more fancy design stuff afterwards.
One of my biggest issues with customer emails is that they make emails TOO LONG. Putting more and more content into an email is off putting for the reader who looks at a swathe of products and information and could be so put off they avoid focusing on any element and don’t read any part of it.
We pretty much stick to just one or two things to say in an email, because we’ll be talking about a new feature, or a new blog post. And we want you to go off and use that new feature, or read that new blog post. Any extra time spent on reading means we’re just increasing the likelihood of you not doing that thing we want you to do.
Ensuring you have this kind of focus, or having a theme/subject is very useful. It keeps it all of the content relevant and related and ensures you’re not just trying to put everything into a single newsletter to save time.
Undoubtedly the most creative and challenging part of creating any email I send out!
Although we have a definite style and branding thanks to our super awesome designer, Adam, we can be quite flexible to ensure that not everything we send out looks the same all the time. It’s good to adapt so our subscribers don’t get bored with how our communications look.
I’ve definitely toyed with imagery quite a lot since I started working here, especially for some of our “drier” subjects. Take this situation for example: We decided that all of our free users should get one free Follow-Up email to use. How can you convey that in a picture?
The answer for me was to use the Follow-Up icon, but make it flash, like a faulty neon light. This makes it quite attention pulling and I simply added a very clear heading underneath explaining what the deal was and a further explanation in a few short sentences below.
In another email, launching improvements to our emails (lovingly titled The Email Bonanza), I adapted some of the ideas we’d used on the webpage and used them to create an animated gif. On the webpage, the image we used stated the new features with arrows. However, my goal was to generate click-throughs to the webpage with this information on and to achieve that goal, I needed to create an air of mystery otherwise there’d be no reason to click through to the site. So I replaced the feature descriptions with pulsing circles showing where the new features were on our email, but not revealing what they were. Clicking on the image, or on the call to action took you to the feature page.
I don’t believe in making everything flashy all of the time. A nice subtle animation that you simply notice out of the corner of your eye as you read the email keeps things classy. And I do believe in mixing things up a bit too, like the launch of review widgets. It could again have been so boring. We might have shown the reviews in place on a website. It’s not a particularly persuasive image and the reviews would end up looking pretty small. So instead, we took the reviews by themselves and had them sliding in from the right.
At its most basic, the layout of our email content is very formulaic: Image + Short text description + Call to action. I always have a piece of hero content which takes up the biggest amount of space in the email and therefore has the most visual impact. You can actually find out more about that in my free eBook “The secrets of the elusive newsletter”.
The most important thing about a layout is to make sure it flows correctly. Take our email about our Product Reviews for example. There’s a brief introduction about the fact we have this new tool first, then using a two-column layout below it, provide 1–2 sentence explanations of some of the features. Doing this in the reverse order would make no sense.
Post-rebrand from Receiptful to Conversio, we’ve gone a little more boxy with our designs, which allows us to draw attention to certain bits of content using colored backgrounds. Since the rebrand is still in its infancy, I’ve kept fairly safe and standard with my designs. However, as we do more emails, I know that we’ll progress this further.
Keeping things short and sweet is super important in email copy. Yes, there’s a few people that can break that rule, like Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter but her emails have quite a different intent to one either you or I are sending. The main goal of our emails is to make you aware of new features and to help you use Conversio so you can generate more revenue.
So when I write copy, I always keep this in mind and when reviewing what I’ve written I check whether it fulfils that criteria. Essentially, make it clear to the subscriber how they can benefit from the tool and briefly explain what they need to do — be that how to turn on the new tool or get them to read a blog post.
Also, although I have worked specifically in marketing in previous roles, I do find writing challenging. That’s why I write down what I want to say and get my esteemed colleague Kim to “Kimify” my copy and make a 1000% better to read than the original. This also provides a more coherent style and tone to everything that we do.
We will always advocate sending emails which are going to be of the most interest to the recipients, because it helps to keep open rates up and unsubscribes down. Which is why we have automated segments for your newsletter subscribers built in.
One of the annoying things about our email tool is that it doesn’t offer a preference center, so you either get everything, or nothing. So we built our own one. This means that you can choose what you want to hear from us about, which is nice.
Secondly, we always try hard to send you relevant information and a majority of that is based on whether you’re on our Free Plan or Premium Plan and subsequently what features you can use. Of course, there’s plenty of other things we can (and do) segment by, particularly during our onboarding process. For instance, we’ll send you different information if you’ve not put your receipts into live mode.
There’s nothing ground-breaking or illusive about the way I tackle emails. Like I said at the start, I’ve been doing this for a long time and now ALL I DO is emails (which is awesome by the way). I like to keep an eye on what the rest of the email community; that could be learning about new coding techniques, or looking through a whole load of newsletters I’m signed up to for inspiration.
Learning takes time and a sending a few newsletters to know what does and doesn’t work. I’m still learning, and I hope I never stop!