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Written by Caroline Cox on Sep 29 , 2020

In marketing, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it — that’s where good email design comes in.

Here, you’ll find:

  • The elements that make up an effective email design
  • How visuals and copy complement one another
  • Tips for testing different email elements
  • Tried-and-true email tips from experts 

Whether you’re looking to grow your audience, promote new brand developments, or land new customers, email marketing is where it’s at. In fact, a McKinsey & Company report shows that email remains one of the top ways to acquire customers — nearly 40 times more so than outlets like Facebook and Twitter combined.

While your email open rate is an important goal to measure (what’s the point of spending time to craft an email campaign that no one sees, after all), getting recipients to read and take action is just as key.

A well-designed email can help your company achieve all this and more. So, what elements make up a proper marketing email design? Keep reading to find out.

email design tips

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is focusing on the subject line much more than the preheader. (Image via Unsplash)

1. Make it personal

When comparing customized emails to those that aren’t, it’s clear that personalization matters. When you include things like the recipient’s name in the subject line or greeting, the email just feels more personal, professional, and tailored, as HubSpot reports. 

In turn, those qualities can help humanize your brand and allow the message to resonate more than a generic one would, potentially reducing unsubscribes as a result.

But personalization doesn’t have to stop at adding a token that automatically populates someone’s name. Depending on your email platform, you can potentially customize emails by creating static sections that are segmented by audience. 

For example, you can create an email with a section offering a free consultation that’ll only be shown to prospects, while current clients will be served different content, such as a longform guide or whitepaper.

2. Spend time on the subject line and preheader

If you’ve spent much time crafting email campaigns, you know the subject line is often a key factor to a garnering decent open rate. It’s always a good idea to be testing your subject lines to see which ones resonate most with your audience. 

You can experiment with things like length, personalization (like adding the recipient’s name as mentioned above), format, emojis, and more.

But one of the biggest mistakes you can make is focusing on the subject line much more than the preheader. This is the preview text that shows up to the right of the subject line in most inboxes. 

The preheader basically works like a subheader does for digital ads: it provides the reader with more context about your email’s content. While a general rule about preheaders is to keep the copy short, you still have around 50-70 characters to work with, so try out a few different verbiage types and see how your audience responds.

3. Keep copy concise

Let’s be frank: These days, it’s hard to keep your inbox under control. Most of us are inundated daily with emails from colleagues, industry newsletters, updates from brands we’ve purchased from, and much more. 

When you’re creating your email design, it’s important to keep in mind that people are busy, they’ve probably got lots of emails to sort through, and they likely don’t have time to read through dense paragraphs.

The most effective marketing emails are scannable and easy to digest. There are a variety of design elements you can use to break up your copy. You can add graphics or images, create color-blocked backgrounds to separate sections, or simply leave room between every few sentences so there’s ample white space.

email marketing tips

Your marketing message should always be speaking directly to your target audience, regardless of the platform. (Image via Rawpixel)

Pro tip: White space is a perhaps underrated, but crucial, email design element. It’s a great way to keep your emails polished, uncluttered, and clean while making it easier for the reader to see important information.

4. Make the email’s tone and aesthetic mirror your website

Just like with landing pages and paid ads, your marketing emails should be similar in look and feel to your website. You want to give readers a seamless, consistent experience. 

Not only does this negate potential confusion about why they’re getting your email, but it helps them get a better feel for your overall business aesthetic and voice.

You can easily transfer your website’s look into your email design through things like color and font choice. Beyond that, make sure you adopt a similar tone of voice. After all, your marketing message should always be speaking directly to your target audience, regardless of the platform. Your emails should be no different.

5. Don’t forget visuals

Sure, there’s a time and place for plain-text emails. Many sales pros use these emails as part of their cadences to make the message feel more personal, like it’s coming from someone they know. 

But when you’re building a marketing email — like a newsletter, webinar invitation, or company update — visual elements can be a game-changer for grabbing (and holding) the reader’s attention.

Of course, you want the visuals you use to be on brand. That could mean graphics that are similar to those on your website, or photos that mirror typical customers doing activities associated with your product or service. 

These visuals can also break up text and serve as teasers for readers to click on to learn more on your website. You can even experiment with things like videos or GIFs and see how recipients respond.

email design tests

Some email platforms allow you to preview your emails to see how they’ll render on mobile, tablet, and desktop. (Image via Rawpixel)

6. Organize content by importance

When it comes to organizing your email design, it’s a good rule of thumb to put the most important information at the top, the second-most important info under that, and so on. 

As Mailchimp explains, creating a hierarchy of content puts “the most important information first for people who are short on time.” Your most important content will change over time, and you can also test out different items at the top of the email, such as an intro teasing the content below, a call-out about an upcoming event or webinar, or something more.

Need more marketing email help? Let’s talk. 

7. Keep mobile in mind

We’ve talked before about the growing use of mobile for everything from online searches and social media scrolling to email reading and writing. 

For that reason, checking for mobile-friendliness should be a necessary part of your email design process. This way, you can avoid things like emails rendering beyond the margins of a smartphone or having calls to action (CTAs) not clickable. 

Some email platforms allow you to preview your emails to see how they’ll render on mobile, tablet, and desktop. If not, you can manually email yourself a preview, then pull it up on your smartphone. (Ideally, if you have an iOS phone, someone else can preview it on Android as well, just to make sure everything looks right.)

8. Stick to minimal CTAs

Once you overcome the hurdle of getting your emails opened and read, the next step is to garner clicks. For that, most marketers add CTAs to their email designs. Often, these are in the form of buttons with phrases like “learn how” or “read more,” though they can technically just be hyperlinked text as well. 

One mistake some email creators make is to add too many CTAs to a single email. Even with the hierarchy design, this can cause readers to get information overload or not know which calls to action are most important or relevant to them. 

It’s fine if your email needs more than one CTA. It’s also fine to include both buttons and hyperlinked copy in your message, with the understanding that the buttons will likely attract more clicks. 

For something like a webinar invite, you can use multiple buttons and hyperlinked copy that all lead readers to the same landing page via differing copy — just make sure not to overdo it.

9. Experiment with emojis… if it makes sense for your audience

Recently, Search Engine Journal conducted a series of tests on millions of their emails to track how their readers responded to emojis in email subject lines. The results were decidedly mixed. 

They found that emoji usage didn’t necessarily affect open rates, and that just because an emoji grabs attention, that doesn’t mean the attention is necessarily positive. However, they did find that emails with an emoji in the subject line got higher click-through rates.

It seems like emojis won’t have a huge affect on your email campaign either way, but they could be worth trying out. 

Before you throw a random emoji into your subject line, it’s a good idea to consider factors such as:

  • Your target audience demographics
  • The tone of the email’s content 
  • The relevancy of the chosen emoji
  • Where you place it in relation to the subject line copy

The takeaway

Design is just as important as the content when you’re creating marketing emails. These tips should help you create a template for your email that’s easy to read, to the point, and visually appealing.

Once you’ve got a few sent emails in your roster, you can test out different elements to see which styles and formats bring you the most success. At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing value to your readers in a way that’s clear, digestible, and that makes them want to keep reading. 

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

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