XING Design
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XING Design

The Good, the Bad and the E-mail

Our love-hate relationship with marketing e-mails and why they’re here to stay

Illustration by © Nuno Amorim

Does your company send out marketing e-mails? We do just that at XING, as was the case at every business I’ve ever worked for. I even tried to build my own personal mailing list, although it was probably the last thing this world needed: another newsletter.

As we’ve become accustomed to our inboxes being flooded every day, e-mails remain a high-performance marketing channel — often declared dead, but still very much alive. For me as a creative, e-mails hold a strong and yet strange fascination somewhere between reduction, romance and revenue. From the looks of it, we won’t get rid of them anytime soon. So we should start loving them more again — as creators and readers. We all can benefit from a little bit more appreciation.

Built to last

The mid 90s saw free upcoming services like Hotmail make e-mail available to a broad audience. It didn’t take long for marketing professionals to see the potential here. 25 years later, the game hasn’t changed all that much compared to our web experience on the whole. On more than one occasion in the past, experts have predicted that other technologies will take the place of e-mails, and yet they’re still here and kicking.

Sales, traffic, customer retention, branding, you name it — marketing e-mails come in many different guises and usually serve many masters. We at XING are a diverse social network with products ranging from news to events, backed up by several paid memberships and flanked by various other offerings. In other words — we have a lot of stakeholders who all have plenty to tell our users. Of course, our marketing mix is also diverse, but it probably comes as no surprise to you that e-mails sometimes have to deliver where other channels missed the spot. As such, e-mail acts as a beloved fallback, a universal bullet relegated to playing second fiddle.

E-mails do their job very effectively without us even realising it. Hardly anyone would consider their inbox to be eye candy, as is often the case with websites. Or compared to a favourite app, no-one would be overwhelmed by emotions while browsing through e-mails. We overlook the magic in mailings, not because there’s so little delight to be had, but because it’s getting harder for readers to determine what they should actually be looking for.

I love my inbox. Said no-one ever.

Are you one of those people who get excited about opening their e-mail app? Probably not. Too much tasks, bills, notifications, summer sales and worse have already flowed into the ether. When designing e-mails it can be helpful to visualize why they actually trigger more negative emotions than well-being:

  • E-mails have become a symbol of our modern working world and in the mobile era they also stand for permanent availability.
  • Our inbox is no longer a private domain but a semi-public space where we grant access to chosen ones — and they can become quite a lot over time.
  • The more party guests, the more conversations and surprises — Pandorra’s (mail)box is in your pocket.

From security aspects to legal issues, rather unpleasant topics are circling our e-mail inbox. Especially creators should be aware of following basic guidelines such as frequency and predictability, because in the end they’re all in the same boat. From their perspective, it’s quite dangerous to become a victim of collateral damage: If only a few players are out of line, there’s a good chance that more than one e-mail subscription will be cancelled.

Luckily all these negative impulses are not always equally present and there are great ways to tackle them. If we do it right, there are good reasons to spread more love in inboxes again. It’s just time to rethink e-mails as an overused marketing channel. This heralds major potential for improved communication.

Shine where you really have to

When designing e-mails you may encounter a lot of restrictions depending on the target groups you want to reach and the e-mail clients you need to support. Usually that’s defined very broadly, so it’s best to cross out exotic ideas and focus on the essentials. Here, restriction gives way to creativity — a tried-and-proven working principle that makes us reflect upon the cornerstones of successful communication.

In recent years, e-mail marketers and designers have done their best to keep pace with the web and have now hit the glass ceiling of what’s technically possible: things are now more responsive, more interactive, more intelligent, more visually focused. But somehow we’ve managed to overdo things. There is a change of direction to be seen, the channel shifts emphasis from the packaging to the actual message. Even big players are sending out text-only campaigns, causing the higher-faster-stronger pendulum to swing back swiftly.

Visual and motion designers have already been complaining due to technical limitations, with their role in e-mail design consequently taking a back seat, yet this leaves plenty of scope for other aspects to take up the slack, especially copy.

The beauty of text

Time is a precious commodity, just like attention spans. You can kiss goodbye to your subscribers if you bore them. It’s not necessarily the amount of information you’re pushing their way, it’s about casting off ballast. You need to ask yourself what you really want your campaign to tell your readers. Try taking a look at the plain-text version or simply blocking all the images in your e-mail — you may well be surprised by what is left.

Without a strong visual framework to hide behind, the words suddenly stand out a lot more and gain an entirely new level of importance. Fixed aspects such as the sender, subject line, preheader and body helps us balance things better, while also guiding us through a marketing 101: the AIDA model of attention, interest, desire and action. In an ideal scenario, the sender is enough to entice the reader to look at the subject line and then open the e-mail, at which point readers are taken by the hand and gently guided on their customer journey.

Inbox mock-up showing a minimalist but well-performing text-only invitation campaign for a XING event.
XING test campaign for an event invitation: a solid performer without any visual enhancements. (Pro tip: raw URL links sometimes click better than nicely designed buttons)

But keeping subscribers motivated entails far more than just delivering catchy copy in the right places. E-mails are a perfect medium for sequential communication and storytelling. This is where the digital domain becomes quite analogue again as it’s a bit like a pen pal relationship. Think of the situation where someone is reading YOUR e-mail — it’s an almost romantic moment that draws a very fine line between pushing for performance and fostering trust and a reputation. And trustworthiness is hard currency in e-mail country.

The mentor in your e-mail

E-mails are essentially a very fair game as everyone uses the same building blocks and plays by the same rules, which are closely tied to the recipient’s behaviour. If you break these rules, you get punished twice — first, you’re likely to end up in someone’s spam folder; second, readers will simply unsubscribe if they feel you’re messing with them. This is why it’s always worth investing in good content and in your name as sender.

At XING we have a communication model called ‘the mentor’, which was not exclusively coined for e-mails but as a general guiding principle within our tone of voice. Among other things, communicating in a mentor-like way means being reliable, inspiring, close and human. These values are clearly geared towards building trust and respect among users. We certainly have a lot to tell our members, but we don’t want to bombard them with e-mails, so we deliberately cap our send-out rate to reflect our commitment to our values and pay into our brand in the long term.

XING mentor values (Side fact: Correctly arranged they form the acronym RICH) — illustration by © Nuno Amorim

Writing in a more mentor-like way involves a reader-centric approach, no matter whether the content is a marketing campaign or a system e-mail. Here, even little details can have a big impact. Take the sender’s e-mail address, for instance. It subtly reminds the recipient about who’s getting in touch and what will happen if they respond. Have a quick look at your inbox. There are probably a few charming examples of good sender addresses, but you’ll certainly be surprised how many “no-replies” leave readers with no easy way to answer.

User experience and experiencing users

It wouldn’t be fair to say that e-mail designers are constantly forlorn as that’s only half the story. Indeed, they only have a limited set of tools available, but this is well compensated by useful customer insights. E-mails are not only a well-oiled vending machine, but also a perfect testing environment for UX designers and researchers.

No matter what you intend to send out, it’s bound to generate some important data points soon after you roll it out. Opening and click rates, actual revenues — e-mail makes it fairly simple to determine customer interests and then use A/B tests to hone the content. When it comes to completely new products or features in the discovery phase, fake-door tests may save you a great deal of time.

Every send-out will teach you a lot about your users without the need for any major development effort, and this kind of data is often hard to come by via interviews or questionnaires. Determining the most effective send-out times, keywords, price points and other individual triggers enable you to create new subgroups you can target to help you achieve your business goals.

E-mails in the crystal ball

Technical limitations are not only a pain point for e-mail creators but also for readers when the most active thing to do is clicking a link. But that might change soon enough. We shouldn’t really trouble ourselves with the question of whether there will be e-mails in the future, but how will they evolve going forward?

A key development driver here is the increasing use of e-mail on mobile devices, with modern clients simply able to do more on a technical level. In general, the lack of interactivity options forces e-mail recipients to accomplish more complex actions away from the actual e-mail, e.g. adding a product to an online shopping cart. If a mailing doesn’t provide any actual added value in itself, it merely serves as a springboard for the sender’s app or website.

Example of dynamic email in Gmail for  commenting in Google Docs instead of receiving individual notifications.
Example of dynamic e-mail in Gmail | © Google

Developments like dynamic e-mails in Gmail aim to overcome this situation by not only delivering better quality in the form of live or self-updating content, but also by providing more opportunities without actually leaving the e-mail. This gives users a reason to stay longer and, even more importantly, to complete their task without getting lost along the way. This is music to the ears of e-mail creators, although you probably won’t hear any users shouting eureka. Having said that, it’s clearly a nod to the Kano model.

If the development costs can be covered, there’s of course a lot of potential here for both senders and customers alike. Nevertheless, changing an e-mail’s call-to-action won’t affect its subject line, so if a message contains nothing more than “buy now”, even the most advanced e-mail technology isn’t going to help your revenues to skyrocket.

Real love takes time

Marketing e-mails can annoy. Not all, but many. On a scale from “Oh no, them again!” to “How nice, what’s new?”, it’s actually not too hard to take a good position in the middle ranks:

  • Respect your users and their private zone —the granted inbox access is a high good, don’t play with it.
  • Don’t be pushy or too loud, don’t send too often — once a user’s gone, they’re gone.
  • Be transparent, make clear what recipients can expect, what you want and when, how to get in touch.
  • Keep it simple and focus on what you really want to communicate, also consider plain copy and let the given architecture of e-mails guide you.

To climb up from the middle ranks and earn real reader love, however, it takes a little more. And that goes beyond delivering relevant content: time and a constant effort to foster the relationship with your reader.

  • Experiment a lot, generate insights from your send-outs and monitor user-centric KPIs, not only revenues.
  • Invest in your brand as sender and build a strong reputation, ensure a consistent and appealing brand voice, that also sounds familiar across channels.
  • Rethink e-mails as the personal medium it is, establish a continuous conversation to develop a real pen pal relationship with your reader.

As e-mail creators we’re also e-mail recipients and we should be mindful of the experiences we’re having to evolve them for the benefit of all. So the next time you open an e-mail you might want to ask yourself if you were really just bored or if it happened to land in your inbox at the right moment and offered the right triggers to make you open or even click it … Let’s make a difference in the inboxes of everyone, evolving this staid communication channel that for better or worse is here to stay.

tl;dr

Exhausted by marketers, somewhat frowned upon by design departments, and hardly ever welcomed by recipients: E-mails don’t come easy, but they do tend to perform extremely well as part of a company’s marketing mix.

Despite the many efforts made to catch up with the web, e-mails are experiencing a minimalist trend which puts the copy in the spotlight. This represents a new, yet persistent challenge for designers and copywriters focusing on the channel’s strengths as they need to deliver clear and condensed text, with personalised messages on an equal footing based on sequential storytelling to foster engagement and build a good reputation.

E-mails don’t just push KPIs, they’re also a valuable source of customer insights and a useful testing ground for new products. Developments like dynamic e-mails in Gmail help overcome technical limitations and introduce exciting impulses, but they’re not a game-changer for the e-mail scene. Turning users into enthusiastic e-mail readers is ongoing content and brand work, but also very rewarding in the long run. Hardly any other marketing channel can establish a close relationship between company and customer at this level. That’s what makes e-mail such a great medium.

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Stories from our designers, researchers and copywriters in Hamburg, Munich, Barcelona, Valencia, Porto and remote.

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Manuel Blex

Manuel Blex

Designing, writing, creative thinking, guitar playing, skateboard shredding and craft beer drinking. mandolinie.com

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