I was recently asked by a client if we had a list of email design best practices. The very next day, I was asked the same question by another client. So I realized that this was “blog-worthy” material.
When we design an email at SIGMA, there are 3 very important areas of the email design to consider. There is the messaging side — what are we saying, who are we saying it to, and why will they want to read it? Then there is the rendering side — will it look the way we’ve intended it to look across every possible browser? And lastly, there is the deliverability side — will it arrive in the recipient’s email Inbox?
Below is our list of “5 significant steps to creating a high-performance email.” But first I asked Rich Whitesell, an Art Director at SIGMA, to provide his insights on messaging, rendering and deliverability:
Rich: The challenge comes from balancing all of the aspects of email creation. I’m not a genius cook, but I imagine that creating an engaging, deliverable, and functional email is very similar to balancing the chef’s skill, the ingredients and the preparation to bring out maximum flavor in a gourmet meal.
By creating a very intense, graphic-filled email, we run the risk of losing our message to recipients who may have email images turned off or blocked. There’s also the risk of setting off spam alarms when your email is heavy on the imagery. But, if we make our email too text heavy, it may not be engaging enough and may lose the recipient’s interest. We run the risk of ruining the whole meal because of a flawed presentation. That’s balancing the message with the visuals. But, of course, presentation isn’t everything. There’s the code to think about. The recipe of the email, like with food, must be followed to be functional.
There is a certain misconception about the inner workings of an HTML email. Yes, it’s HTML, but no, it cannot do everything an HTML website can do. That’s because there are many different ways to view an HTML email (Hotmail, Gmail, Outlook, etc.) and, unfortunately, none of them will read your html email exactly the same. The more complicated you make your email, the fancier you get with your code, the more likely it is to break. At that point, it isn’t going to matter what you’re saying, the recipient is going to have a hard time putting the message together.
I often have to explain these limitations to our clients — why something might be impossible to render in an HTML email, but I’ll try to suggest a functional solution, so that the recipient will actually get a “taste of it.”
Thanks Rich! Hope that explanation helped as you try to digest the information below:
5 Significant Steps to Delivering a High Performance Email
1.) Determine objective of message: What is the value proposition?
- Engagement: emotional appeal
- Benefits: rational appeal
- Call to action: What do you want them to do?
2.) Create “wireframe” of message
- Establish a visual hierarchy for heads, subheads, links, visuals, body copy and call to action.
- Include the primary message in upper left.
- Maximize the preview panel.
3.) Respect and reflect brand:
- Make sure copy tone and visuals are consistent with brand image.
- Include brand name in “from” line in preview pane.
- Incorporate graphic guidelines for images, fonts, colors, etc. Proofread!
4.) Design to engage:
- Use indents, color, images, buttons to highlight key areas.
- Subject line should affirm value.
5.) Rendering and testing:
- Design for image blocking in mind.
- Test across multiple browsers and email clients.
- Check links.
Prepare variable data set.
- Check code for avoiding spam (adding alt tags, avoiding unnecessary images, maximizing subject line).
- Check landing pages, purls, etc.
- Use as little CSS as possible, and when used, make sure only inline CSS is used. CSS support widely differs between email clients. What works in one email client, may be broken in another.
- Make sure vital information is not contained within images. Customers with image rendering turned off, or with image blocking email clients, will miss out on important information.
- Avoid background images when possible. Older email clients do not support these. If background images are required, include background colors for customers whose email clients do not support background images.
- Do not use invisible text.
- Do not use spacer images.
- Do not use forms or rich media instead link to them.
- Design emails at 600 pixels wide to accommodate customers with older monitors.
- Always set image heights and widths to aid in email rendering across email clients.
- Use title tags in html links to increase readability.
- Do keep important offer information “above the fold” (at least top 300 pixels).
- Always include a text version of your email.
- Use tags instead of as
is more widely recognized among email clients.
- Keep images in .gif or .jpg format.
- Always clean html code. Remove any unnecessary code to make sure email file size is at a minimum.
About the Author:
Barb Coté serves as the Creative Director at database marketing company SIGMA Marketing Group. Connect with Barb on or follow her on .