Email is not a webpage

I’m going to let you in on a little-known web marketing secret.  Ready?  Email is not a webpage. It’s true: your emails are actually different than your website.

Ok, maybe that’s not a big secret… actually, it’s not a secret at all.  It seems pretty obvious.  And yet, too many email marketers ignore that fact when they’re designing, writing, and sending emails.

An email is typically created with a single purpose in mind.  In that way, it’s no different than any page on your website, but the purpose itself probably is different.  Your email is targeting a different, narrower audience.  It is also probably asking the recipients for something, in a way that a typical webpage is not.  The email will also be displayed by a different technology (email clients are not like web browsers – all the standards-compliance sins of IE6 are a shadow compared to the bad behavior of most email clients) and will be viewed under very different circumstances: in a browser, in a stand-alone email client, in a preview pane, on a mobile device.

Keeping those differences in mind, here are some web practices to avoid when creating emails:

Don’t rely on images! It’s sad, but true: all your beautiful, carefully-crafted images simply won’t appear to the large percent of your users whose email client blocks images by default.  Even the alt text might not show up. No one knows exactly how many people have images disabled, but estimates say that about 50% of your recipients won’t see images.  Yet, many email marketers use images heavily – some even send emails that are entirely images!

You should still use images to drive your message home, but make sure your message will still make sense without them.  Don’t let your images be the only source of key content. Similarly, make sure they don’t take up too much space – because that space will show up as blank if images are disabled.

Some studies have shown big changes in action rates when images play a smaller role in the message. It’s not surprising; look at this email I got after reserving a hotel room, with and without images:

An email from the Hilton, with images disabled, is illegibleThe same email makes sense with images enabled

In contrast, here’s an example from Green America that does it right: even without images, I can see all the information in the message.  With images, it just looks a bit nicer.

More tips after the jump.

Don’t duplicate your page wrapper in your emails. Your email list doesn’t need to see your site navigation – and it could even distract them from your message. As long as the styles are consistent with your site, they don’t need to replicate it.  Your users know how to get to your site if they need to – just a link to your homepage is enough.  Any other links in your email should be action-oriented: your landing page, forward to a friend, and of course an unsubscribe link.

My personal favorite type of email wrapper is the Obama minimalist style: simple logo, linked to the homepage, with almost all of the content as text.

Keep it short. Email is typically viewed in a much smaller window than a webpage – and may even be seen in a tiny preview pane or mobile screen.  The longer your content, the more they need to scroll to read it.  Make sure you include an action link above the fold – and remember that the fold is higher than you think.  If you can make your point and a call to action in the first few lines, so much the better.

Keep it simple to edit. Your email templates are likely to be reused much more frequently than some of your webpage templates – and because email coding standards are so convoluted, emails are much more likely to break when you edit them.  If the people doing your content entry are not coders, they may be endlessly frustrated trying to keep an involved look-and-feel consistent.  It doesn’t help that you can’t use stylesheets in emails.  Since all styles have to be inline, formating content in a WYSIWYG can be a lot of work, even for the tech-saavy.  Basically, the cleaner your email template, the better your chances of consistently sending out emails that display correctly in the major email clients.  This is especially important if you don’t have the resources to do a thorough, cross-client QA for each message you send.

All these best practices have held true for a while, but they’re increasingly relevant now as more and more people are reading their email on mobile devices.  If you agree that image-heavy, lengthy emails are a problem for the average user, reading their email in a browser, think of how much worse they are for the mobile user: images are almost never enabled by default, connection speeds are slow (and sometimes non-existent), and the screen is truly tiny.

Of course, not everyone in your organization will see it this way.  Some people will be drawn to shiny, rich, beautiful email designs – in the design, and even in your test sends to primary stakeholders, it’ll look just great.  It won’t be immediately obvious to them that many of your supporters won’t see the same thing.  In that case, it may be up to you to test, argue, and advocate for email styles that work for all your supporters.

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