Design with the mangle in mind: E-mail creative tips

Ahh, if only we could go back to the good old days when designing direct mail collateral involved simple decisions such as paper stock, colors, fonts and where to put the “call to action.”

Enter commercial e-mail, the only channel in direct marketing history in which the designers must make choices based on the knowledge that a significant percentage of their messages will be mangled beyond recognition by the time they reach recipients.

With images and links turned off by default as the rule rather than the exception at most inbox providers — such as Yahoo, Gmail, AOL and Microsoft Outlook — commercial e-mail designers now face the task of simply getting their copy points to appear.

And even when e-mail graphics do appear — or render, as e-mailers prefer to say — they do so differently from account to account.

“In print design, you can go any which way your imagination takes you,” says Len Shneyder, director of partner relations and industry communication for e-mail deliverability consultancy Pivotal Veracity. “Your only limitations are the size of the page and how much it’s going to cost. In e-mail there is a different problem.”

For example, he says, there’s no standard governing how HTML graphics are to be rendered when they are received. “Every receiving body can render it differently and choose to support different aspects of the HTML standard,” Shneyder says.

As a designer you have a standard for how to code, but that doesn’t translate into how it’s going to display, he says. “And this is across the board for the entire receiving ecosphere, from mobile to desktop Web e-mail clients. They’re all a little different.”

But there are some fairly simple techniques e-mail marketers can use to help them get their messages across to as many subscribers as possible.

Shneyder’s first piece of advice will be recognizable to traditional direct marketers: “Test, test, test,” he says. By this he means viewing the e-mail on as many platforms as possible, such as Yahoo and Gmail accounts, an Outlook address, and on mobile devices. “You cannot rely on any single e-mail account as being the basis for display,” he adds. There are even display variations within various iterations of Microsoft Outlook, says Shneyder, though getting an Outlook 2003 account and an Outlook 2007 account will cover most of the Outlook market.

E-mailers can also gain insight into which e-mail readers they should be designing for simply by eyeballing their lists.“Understanding your demographic and where the majority of your e-mail is going to land will narrow down the scope of your design requirements,” says Shneyder. Pivotal Veracity has recently published an e-mail design guide for its customers that explains the quirks at the various ISPs.

Keep it simple

In e-mail design, less is more. “You don’t have to package every offer under the sun,” says Shneyder. “Make sure your call to action is clear and keep it simple. Deliver a few choices, not so many that recipients will be prone to not making a choice.”

Shneyder also urges marketers to employ so-called ALT tags, or HTML instructions that provide alternative text to appear when graphics are shut off. For example, a “50% off shoes” graphic with an ALT tag would at least display the words “50% off shoes” if the graphic came through broken.

The number of people who don’t use ALT tags is shocking, says Shneyder. “It’s a second line of defense and it’s so easy to do.”

You don’t need to do this with every image, he adds, but if you have a main body graphic that’s carrying your brand name, or a call to action, give it an ALT tag that explains what it is. “That’ll be your next best way of conveying the message if the image is disabled.”

Another challenge for e-mail designers is the prevalence of preview panes, those little windows that show a portion of the message when the e-mail is highlighted but unopened in the recipient’s inbox. A significant percentage of people read much of their e-mail solely in preview panes.

“You always want to put your branding and your prime content as far to the left and as far up as possible,” says Shneyder. “The default state of the preview pane is either under the list message view or to the right, meaning the preview pane will cut off things on the right and on the bottom.”

He also advises marketers to “get away from delivering a Web page to the inbox.”

But this bit of advice runs counter to a recent study by interactive agency eROI.

Just over 30% of marketers include navigation tabs from their Websites in e-mails, according to eROI. But of those who use it, 15% said site navigation tabs are better than the main content of their e-mails for driving clicks, and 11% said the tabs are better at driving conversions than the main content.

“Site navigation [such as, say, ‘shoes,’ or ‘shirts’ on an apparel site] is a familiar way to browse content,” says Jeff Mills, the head of research at eROI and author of the study. “If I can get better clicks and conversions from [including] site navigation, why am I not putting it in e-mail? I just think it’s an opportunity, and that marketers should be at least testing it.”

The subject of subject lines

And speaking of testing, eROI found that just 25% of e-mailers test their subject lines on a regular basis.

Mills believes marketers’ lack of e-mail subject-line testing stems from a drive to create the perfect message. “People want to create the perfect e-mail, and that means a perfect subject line,” he says. “Or it’s simply a case of the CMO wants that subject line in there.”

He also says marketers will avoid A/B split testing because they’re afraid half their campaign will flop. “But think of it this way: Do you want 100% of your campaign to flop?” he says.

Moreover, marketers tend to create the subject line at the last moment even though it is easily one of the most important parts of the message — if not the most important part.

“People get very focused on what the creative will look like,” says Ernie Vickroy, marketing director of Time Consumer Marketing. “A lot of times, we’ll get down to the wire and people will say: ‘What’s the subject line?’ ”

Vickroy is a vocal advocate of spending the time to craft subject lines and test them against one another.

The reason: As is the case with traditional direct marketing, the most effective subject lines are often not the ones a marketer would predict to win.

For example, Vickroy says, his firm recently tested its control subject line, “Your Subscription Information Page,” against “Manage Your Account Online.”

“You read so much about how the customer wants control,” he says. But the control subject line won by 25%. “I don’t really know why it won, but it won again.”

He adds that marketers should treat their e-mail creative as they would direct mail.

“How much time would a direct marketer spend on an outer envelope?” he asks. “Subject lines don’t get the same kind of attention. Yet they’re just as important.”

Brevity is also important in a subject line. Pivotal Veracity’s Shneyder recommends keeping subject lines to 40 characters or fewer if possible.

As for the “from” line, Shneyder advises branding the company in it and nothing else because the majority of people decide whether or not to open an e-mail based on who sent it. And no matter how strong the urge to start pitching, the from line isn’t the place to do it, he says.

“Your from line is your calling card,” he says. “Don’t turn it into a door-to-door salesman.”

There are some fairly simple techniques e-mail marketers can use to help get their messages across to as many subscribers as possible.

  1. Test, test, test
  2. Eyeball your lists
  3. Less is more
  4. Employ ALT tags
  5. Keep in the confines of the preview pane
  6. Test your subject lines
  7. Brand your company in the “from” line