The Four-Year Search For Stellar Emails

After releasing our 4th annual Email Design Look Book a few weeks ago, I was asked how the fourth edition was different from the first. It was a great question -- not only because there were quite a few differences, but also because those differences are in part a commentary on how our industry has become much more tech-driven, and how what constitutes email “design” has changed over the past four years. Having had more time to dwell on the question, here’s how I’d answer it now:

First, in addition to looking for great creative design, over time we’ve put more focus on strategic and tactical designs, such as those that involve personalization or cross-channel integration.

For instance, British cable provider Sky’s emails include personalized TV show recommendations and allow subscribers to record those shows directly from the email. Integrating the email all the way back to the cable box elevates their customer service with convenience. And Pizza Express and Helzberg Diamonds are great examples of taking the lowly first-name personalization to the next level with personalized images.

Second, we’ve put more emphasis on targeted emails. The first Look Book was 20% triggered and segmented emails, while the latest is 30% -- and I expect that number of continue to rise. While broadcast messages will probably always dominate the email marketing mix, we’re likely just a few years away from the majority of big brands seeing most of their email marketing revenue generated by triggered and segmented emails.

Illustrating this trend, charity: water sends segmented emails to all donors whose money went toward a particular well-digging project, allowing them to create a highly relevant message. And U.K. travel company Thomson sends destination-themed emails to subscribers that browse those destinations, looking to extend the discovery period and move them closer to conversion.

Third, we’ve put more focus on mobile-friendly email designs, a consideration that was pretty much nonexistent when we created the first Look Book in 2009. The adoption of smartphones and tablets has exploded over the past few years, and so has email reading on those devices. That is increasingly requiring marketers to make adjustments to their designs, although most brands are playing some serious catch-up in this department.

Those that are ahead of the curve include REI, which is using responsive templates that use @media queries to display content that’s formatted for the screen size; and JCPenney, which used a swipe-friendly sidescrolling email that was optimized for tablets.

And fourth, our search for great emails has become a worldwide effort. Whereas the first Look Book only had emails from U.S. brands, 30% of this year’s are from international companies. U.S. brands are undeniably the world’s leaders in email marketing, but European brands are not far behind, and there are some great gems to be found in Latin America and elsewhere. As the world gets smaller, marketers should cast a wide net when looking for inspiration.

The emails from Pizza Express and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, both from the U.K., are two of my favorite examples from abroad this year.

But while those four issues have had a major impact on our selections, what hasn’t changed is that there are still emails that illustrate email design fundamentals like creating strong calls-to-action, visually delightful creative, and copy that engages. No matter what changes come our way, these foundational design elements will continue to be critical to crafting successful emails.

Tags: email
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