Compose Great Emails for Your Best Campaign

You can have a great list of email addresses and a top notch product, but to have your best email campaign, you must craft a great email. It must convey your business objective clearly and precisely—and do it fast. Otherwise, your recipients will delete your email and your message will be lost.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for structuring your email—your design should be informed by your strategic goals. But as an introduction in how to think about email design and content, consider the following example of one very successful, highly customizable approach.

It’s a digital take based on a classic style, used in the ad business since the days of hot type and snake oil salesmen. It recruits a group of elements (including a Headline, a Hero Image, Body Copy, and more) to work together to communicate a unified message. In newspapers and magazines, this design method has been used to great effect, selling everything from Hathaway shirts (featuring the first ‘world’s most interesting man’) to hammers and cars.

That basic print ad design structure is updated with a digital approach to its content—it’s leaner, pared down to work better with the short attention span of the internet age. Caveat: This design pattern works best for an email featuring only one offer, but once you get the hang of it, the path to creating multi-item patterns becomes vastly clearer.

This structure has been used far and wide in email campaigns. It’s uncomplicated code-wise, aesthetically neutral, and modular. That flexibility enables you to go from shapeless concept to locked design quickly. And you can be sure your email design is singularly you, and that it will look super-sharp on almost all email apps and clients.

Quick Definition

Above the Fold: The upper part of the email that the reader sees first, without scrolling, when the email is opened. Fun fact: ‘Above the fold’ is a phrase from the print newspaper world. To draw customers at news stands, important articles are placed at the top of the front page—above the fold.

Headline

A headline is a short teaser, or hook, that broadly conveys your email’s topic or message in a way that piques your reader’s interest. Evoke an emotional response, keep it strictly informative, or write something in between—tone and content depend on you and your audience. Whichever way is right for you, be sure it agrees with your email’s overall message and goals.

Don’t confuse your headline with your subject line—the headline can be much broader. Instead of stating “75% off Sale,” your headline could state, “The End of Summer Is Better with a Sale.” In this case, the Subject Line should have already given the discount, and the headline frames the sale in an emotional (and time-sensitive) context.

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Keep it short. Readers should be able to understand it at a glance.
  • Keep it simple. Be clever if you can, but not at the cost of confusing your customers. Cleverness rewards your customers, but confusion punishes them.

Hero Image

The classic design structure leverages an image’s visceral power of to increase broad product comprehension, elicit emotion, and convey personality. An image can position your product or service in the market and pack an emotional punch at the same time (like an image of a computer at a coffee bar; a harried professional with a bag of groceries; or a confused teen surrounded by textbooks).

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Stay on topic and on point. Choose an image that communicates your message or how it rewards your customers. It should also clarify your message, not muddy it.
  • Use animation thoughtfully. Animated gifs can be compelling, but not all email apps and clients support them, so some of your readers might only see the first frame. Shoot for high design in your animated gifs and test them thoroughly—a poorly conceived or executed gif drives away more customers than a good one gains. Use animation sparingly. Adding multiple animated gifs to a single email will make your email look chaotic and frantic.

Body Copy

Body copy explains the details of your offer (what might also be called your value proposition). If you’re promoting a sale, you might explain how it works, what’s discounted and by how much, who qualifies, and the sale’s dates. You would also describe your product and list its key selling points to inform and remind customers of what it is you do.

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Be unambiguously honest. Turning customers into dupes, even by accident, will color how they feel about you.
  • How long is too long? It depends on your intention and your audience, but shorter is better. Your email’s goal is to incite your reader to action.
  • Bonus Strategy Tip: Bulleted lists work well.

Call to Action

‘Call to Action’ (CTA) is a fancy term for telling your recipient how and why to take the next step. Basically, it’s usually a link to buy or learn more about your product or service. CTAs motivate customers by describing the reader’s reward or outcome for acting. For example, “Buy Yours Today!” is a CTA. “Sign Up for Your Free Trial Now” is a CTA. “Tell Me How I Can Get A Better Job” is a CTA. Don’t be generic—“click me” or “read more” don’t communicate outcomes to customers.

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Motivate action—be descriptive. Customers are more inclined to act on CTAs that state specific benefits. ‘Click here’ and ‘read more here’ are too generic. (Plus, your reader might not read your body copy, but they might be drawn to click on a catchy, descriptive CTA.)
  • Bonus Strategy Tip: Use a button. Buttons are a universal visual cue that communicate ‘click here to take action.’
  • Bonus Strategy Tip: Place your CTA button above the fold for instant impact the second your customer opens the email. You could even integrate a button graphic into your hero image for maximum impact. Place a copy of the CTA under the Body Copy if that helps its logical flow.

Footer

The footer is a great place for ‘evergreen’ elements that aren’t necessarily related to your email, but that you want your readers to know about. Social Media is a good example. Add icons to make them pop, or even break them out a bit from the design flow. You could include a link to the web version of your email and targeted links to your website, and contact information you want to share (your physical address, operating hours, telephone numbers, email addresses, etc.).  Most email campaign managers take care of adding text to comply with commercial email standards, but if they don’t, add your CAN-SPAM compliance text here as well. For more information on CAN-SPAM, visit Mailchimp’s page on anti-spam requirements.

Fine print

Include detailed information about your email’s promotion parameters, such as sale dates and discount restrictions.

Element Order

It’s a good practice to place the elements that elicit curiosity and enable action above the fold. Customers who are hooked instantly by your headline and your hero image click on your CTA. Customers who are curious to learn the details just scroll down a bit. Either way, no obstacles are in the way of customers choosing how to interact.

  1. Headline
  2. Hero Image
  3. Call To Action
  4. Body Copy
  5. Footer
  6. Fine Print
 InVision's email uses the email structure we've been discussing as its bones, then tweaks it to call attention to some components.

InVision's email uses the email structure we've been discussing as its bones, then tweaks it to call attention to some components.

A Note About Plain Text Versions

You should craft a plain text version of your email for recipients who cannot see your HTML email. Though the portion of your email list that sees the plain text version may be small, it adds legitimacy for some spam filters that otherwise might mark your email as spam. For more information, visit Litmus’ blog post.

Conclusion

Competing for the limited time we have to devote to emails is an increasing challenge, so it’s crucial to craft expert emails that leverage design and content to showcase your product or service quickly and effectively.