Email Marketing

Is Your Email Template Killing Your Email Campaign?

Posted on August 2, 2012 · Posted in Email Design

When I first opened a Mailchimp account, I got a little starry-eyed over all their template options. Two column, three column, single sidebar, double sidebar… full-width-two-column-three-column combo. Whoohoo! So I did what most people do in the face of 32 ice cream flavors: I tried them all.

I set up a template with a column here, a sidebar there. I messed around with colors and styles. Eventually I decided I really liked the layout of the full-width-sidebar-three-column-combo. That would look way cool with my stuff in it. If you haven’t seen the flaw in my plan yet, I’ll tell you what it was: I put the template before the content.

So do you know what happened after I set up that awesome template with all those predefined spaces for content? That’s right, I had to figure out what to put in there! Let me tell you, nothing will kill an email campaign dead like a lot of empty template spaces and nothing to put in them. And I’m supposed to be smarter about these things.

So yeah, it happens to everyone. We get excited about trying something, jump in and repent later. That’s ok, it’s all part of the learning process and hopefully we extricate ourselves and live to market another day.

My mistake was obvious – but some email mistakes are not so obvious and we may not even know we’re making them. So in the interest of helping you move your email marketing along, I’d like to share a few ways that the humble email template can make or break your marketing efforts.

1. WAIT, YOU HAVE AN EMAIL TEMPLATE, RIGHT?

Maybe I should’ve started here, but you really need an email template if you plan to market with any efficiency. Now, you don’t need to get stuck with only one email template forever, but trust me, you don’t want to recreate one every time you want to send an email. It’s a time-suck and you’ll start to dread it and then your email schedule will start to slide and suddenly you’ll be thinking maybe you’ll just stick it on Pinterest and call it a day…

A template can be and should be simple and uncomplicated. The easier it is for you to put together, the easier it’s going to be for your subscribers to read and understand. A branded header is a good place to start, and might be all you really need. Avoid my mistake, and start by figuring out what you want to put in the email before you decide how to lay it out.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to change everything about the email every time. For example, you may have a semi-permanent sidebar where you always show your social icons or your latest download. But you can’t have a blank sidebar. Be mindful of that before you choose a layout.

If you know you’re going to have an download sometimes and not others, then create two simple versions of your template, one with a sidebar and one without. This will make it super simple to switch between layouts that make sense for your content.

It will also give your readers a sense of familiarity and knowing what to expect. If your emails are all over the place with different formatting and layouts every time, it could be confusing and overwhelming to your audience. And you know what confused and overwhelmed people do? Delete.

2. SELECT A FORMAT – TEXT VS HTML WHO WINS

If you’re sending text-only emails you won’t have a template, just a standard configuration (intro, content, footer) and there are some pros to doing this.

  • You don’t have to worry about how your email will appear in one of the myriad email programs, from Outlook to Google Apps.
  • You don’t have to worry about spam filters questioning your (over) use of graphics.
  • You never have to worry about subscribers who don’t accept HTML emails. Text can be seen by everyone.

But I think that HTML emails are far superior and have other benefits that outweigh those of text.

  • HTML emails are much more compelling. Think of the power of Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. People are visual and visual emails will catch their attention more effectively than words words words.
  • They can be formatted in a way that makes it easy for readers to scan, digest and understand.
  • You can track your open rate more effectively.
  • Even if subscribers don’t accept HTML emails, you can still provide a link to a web-based version that they can read in all its visual glory.

So assuming you’re going with an HTML template, choose a template style that fits your content needs and make it as simple as possible.

This is not an art project. If you’re feeling creative, do what I do and pull out a pencil and sketch some ideas out. The more design-y your email template, the more likely it is that two things will happen:

  1. You’ll get too attached to using it and less likely to change it up when you need to.
  2. Spam filters will have a field day with you.

By minimizing graphics and using only specific and relevant photos and images instead, you can take advantage of HTML emails without some of the side effects.

3. SHORTEN OR ELIMINATE THE INTRODUCTION

When you’re writing a blog post, you need an intro to get people oriented and to tell your story. Not so with emails.

I know, it makes sense to have an intro. It feels wrong to just jump into products, services, news.

You’ll get over it! Seriously, think about it: when you open up your email program in the morning and there are 36 unread new messages, do you sit back for a leisurely read? No, you scan through them, answer or dump them as fast as you can and then get on with more important things, like checking on your Facebook friends.

Studies have shown that nearly 70% of readers skip email intros completely. You have two options here:

  1. Skip the intro and jump into the content you really want your readers to see,
  2. Or make your intro so riveting that people won’t be able to resist.

Personally I don’t have time to be riveting, so I’d rather stick with option 1. It’s entirely up to you, but before you decide, ‘Hey, he has a point but pft, my readers know me. They totally want to read my intro. I think I’ll work on sprucing it up instead of killing it…‘ check out this additional tidbit first…

4. UNDERSTAND HOW READERS SCAN EMAILS

Have you ever heard of the ‘F-Pattern’? No it’s not related to the F-word. It’s been shown in eye tracking studies again and again, and this is true of emails, web pages and search results, too. That people read/scan in an F-Pattern. That means they start at the top left corner, where, incidentally, they spend most of their visual time, scan to the right, scan down the left side of the page, and across again though not all the way – thus, the ‘F’ shape.

This has huge implications for how to best format email content.

  • Since people spend most of their time to the top left and across the top, this is where you want your most important content. Still feel like taking up that beachfront property with an intro?
  • Since they also scan down the left side of the page, this should be where you provide the ‘hooks’ that will catch their quickly scanning eye. Photos and catchy headings work well. See what I mean about skipping ‘design’ in favor of layout? If your readers’ eyeballs are doing the scan-cross-scan thing, then put your content exactly where you already know they’ll be looking.
  • Sideline that sidebar. The right side of the page is the red headed stepchild of your template. Along with the footer it’s about the least read thing on the page. If you’ve got a hot deal or your most exciting content, that sidebar is probably not the best place to put it.

5. SWEAT THE DETAILS

When you’re thinking big-picture and crafting the most beautiful, riveting email of the decade, it’s easy to lose sight of the more mundane and practical details that can mess up an otherwise fabulous campaign. Here are a couple of dos that can make the difference between a reader and a deleter.

  • Keep your email template to 600 pixels wide (or less). More than that and you risk forcing readers to scroll horizontally. That means if you’re designing an awesome header, do it within that width limitation.
  • Use ALT tags for your images. Most email programs hide images by default. That means readers won’t see them unless they specifically enable them. ALT tags give you the chance to make people actually want to show your images and act as a placeholder/cue when they don’t.
  • Avoid CSS. It’s great for websites, not so much for emails. Use simple in-template styling for your text and headings because many email programs will strip out the CSS and make a mess of anything that should have been using it.
  • Put unsubscribe info in your footer. Programs like Mailchimp put this in the footer by default, but it’s important (and legally required) that you make it easy for people to opt out.

What do you think? Are you ready to work on your first (or new) email template? It’s easy to do! Keep these guidelines in mind and remember to test and experiment. If you start with a simple template and let your content guide you, you’ll be able to try new layouts and ideas to see what your audience responds to best.

Got another template trick? Let people know by sharing it in the comments below.