Here's more on two of the biggest problem areas: preview panes and landing pages.
The First Mile of Email Design: Preview Panes
Your subscribers are in a hurry under normal circumstances, but during the holiday season, when there's more on their to-do lists and their inboxes are fuller than usual, you've got precious little time to catch their attention. Optimizing your emails for preview panes is critical to getting a second look.
First, don't let your preheader text suck up vital preview pane space unnecessarily. Try to limit yourself to one line of text -- certainly no more than two. Last week, Lands' End redesigned its preheader text, collapsing it from three to two lines, while adding whitelisting instructions. The change resulted in the new preheader taking up about 20 pixels less than the previous design. Considering that most preview pane windows only show about 200 pixels, that's a pixel savings of 10%.
Second, look for opportunities to use the space to the right of your logo. Often this space is underutilized. A few months ago, Old Navy updated its email design with its new logo, but in doing so opened up a lot of white space in the header that would be ideal for preheader text (or at least something else). I posted a mock-up on my blog noting the effect that moving the preheader text into this space would have on the amount of information that would appear in the preview pane.
And finally, don't design your creative as though people are viewing the whole thing. For instance, don't center headlines and other text in the middle of your creative. Move those up toward the top of the design. Backcountry provides a good example of falling into this pitfall. The redesigned template that the company debuted at the end of last month also wastes the space to the right of the logo, so there's two strikes against their appearance in the preview pane.
The Last Mile of Email Design: Landing Pages
You've captured my attention, I've read your copy, and I've clicked on your call-to-action. What happens next has been a disappointment too often for me lately. Landing pages close the deal, so don't neglect them.
First, make sure that you actually carry the products that you're promoting in your emails. Sounds crazy, but I've seen this a few times during the past year or so. For example, in an email in March, Neiman Marcus promoted Easter collectibles from Patricia Breen that the retailer actually didn't seem to carry. In fact, a site search for "Patricia Breen" turned up no hits. In this case, beyond demonstrating that Neiman Marcus clearly wasn't optimizing its landing pages, it also showed that the retailer wasn't doing any baseline quality assurance.
Second, make sure that the links in your emails work properly. For example, when I clicked on the Braun logo in a recent Target email, the landing page told me that there were 0 items available. A search for "Braun" on Target.com returned 15 hits, though.
Third, used targeted landing pages for the items promoted in your email. The more clicks you force your customers to make, the higher the chance that they're going to abandon your site, so eliminate a click or two by linking to the right product, category or department page. For example, last week Lands' End sent an email with a nice checklist design that listed different categories of summer products. However, despite what you'd think, the different categories all linked to the same landing page that included a giant mish-mash of products from all the categories, forcing subscribers to scroll through the selection, navigate to a department or perform a search. Instead of making your subscribers work to find what they want from your email, do the work of creating intuitive links from your emails to landing pages that serve up the right information.
And finally, have a way to handle out-of-stocks. For instance, in an email last week, Crate & Barrel promoted a Habi Storage Cube. When I clicked on it, the landing page informed me that they couldn't locate the product I was looking for. It turns out that the Habi Storage Cube comes in three colors and that the color promoted in the email had been pulled from the site because it was out of stock. However, the other two colors were still available. Regrettably, the landing page told me none of this.
You can be sure that inboxes will be busy places again this holiday season. Make it easier for your subscribers to do business with you by paying extra attention to the first and last miles of email design.