Great Design Doesn't Always Follow The Rules

A solid, well-branded, flexible template is a must in today's email marketing world -- vital to recognition in the inbox, consistent rendering, and communicating an air of professionalism worthy of subscribers' trust.

However, templates can also become mind-numbing to subscribers over time. If your emails look too much alike, subscribers may think you're sending a lot of the same kind of information over and over and start to tune you out., Sierra Trading Post and a few other retailers sometimes suffer from this problem.

Every once in a while, it really pays to shake things up by skipping your usual template and doing something surprising -- perhaps even radical. Here are four email design best practices that I've seen successfully discarded to create a standout creative:

1. Make your emails user-friendly and intuitive. Over the past couple of weeks, Abercrombie & Fitch has sent several  side-scrolling emails. When I started talking about them on Twitter, there was concern that people aren't used to scrolling horizontally, that it wasn't easy to do because most scroll-wheels don't go that way. I'm sure that many people were a little perplexed by these emails -- and that may have been a very good thing. It probably made them pause for a second to figure out how those emails worked, and the uniqueness surely intrigued some. A&F clearly found success with these sidescrollers or they wouldn't have followed up by sending more.

2. Make your emails highly scannable. When Coach announced to subscribers the relaunch of its We bsite in April, the company did so with a long  email that ditched its  standard branding and navigation, had a bunch of screen-grabs all over the place, and used tiny graphical text in spots. A bastion of best practices it was not.

However, the email contained a lot of information and completely oozed excitement. While most subscribers probably didn't squint to read the print, they were likely inspired to click through to the site to see what all of the hubbub was about, which was the real goal of the email anyway.

3. Be sure to optimize for preview panes. When subscribers opened up their email from HPshopping on March 30, all they saw in their preview pane was the grinning face of Susan/Ginormica, the 50-ft star of the "Monsters vs. Aliens" movie. They didn't see anything about the Monster Sale that HP was holding or the fact that they could save up to 50%. They had to scroll a bit to see that information.

But I'm sure many subscribers indeed scrolled. Even if it was mainly to see the rest of Ginormica, in doing so they learned about the sale. This email kicked off a series of emails featuring the stars of "Monsters vs. Aliens" and likely elevated interest in the rest of the series by grabbing subscribers' attention and raising expectations about what might be arriving in their inbox from HP next.

4. Establish a color palette and stick with It. On Nov. 28 last year, Overstock sent a  Black Friday email that disregarded the company's well-established color scheme. Instead the email had reverse type-white text on a black background -- which is a big no-no in design because it's hard to read in large amounts.

But since most marketers stick to the best practice of dark fonts on a white or light background, Overstock's email popped in the inbox like crazy. If you were quickly clicking through your inbox, this email would have immediately grabbed your attention. On one of the highest retail email volume days of the year, breaking through and getting the attention of your subscribers is half the battle.

When measuring the success of your rule-breaking emails, don't just look at the metrics for the email itself. Look at the performance of subsequent emails and see if you caught the attention of some of your subscribers again with the change of design. Even if the rule-breaking email underperformed slightly, that doesn't mean that it wasn't a success.



3 comments about "Great Design Doesn't Always Follow The Rules".
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  1. Kathy Sharpe from Resonate Networks, July 28, 2009 at 10:38 a.m.

    In the spirit of when something works lets break it, this is great. While I too subscribe to the idea of experimenting with different layouts to get response the examples you sight (unless of course you can quote the results) are silly. Forcing someone to scroll horizontally is just lazy design.

  2. Chad White from Litmus, July 28, 2009 at 11:35 a.m.

    Kathy, I'm certainly not suggesting that every brand should try their own version of these examples. The image and audience of some B2C brands are simply too conservative (and old) to try anything like this. But hopefully these examples get you thinking a little outside the box at ways to wake up your subscribers by varying your design. I don't think that any of these brands were silly to try these designs--and the HP email was probably the most delightful design I've seen all year.

  3. Kelly Lorenz, July 28, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.


    I'm not sure I agree with you. These days as more marketers are turning to email to supplement sales, they have to do more to cut through the cluttered inbox. Designs like the ones Chad cited are precisely what gets subscribers to pause and take a second look.

    Could you clarify why you think horizontal design is lazy? It could be seen as a great teaser - what's to the right of my screen in the rest of the email?

    As Chad said, these are just examples and suggestions, not requirements for all brands. However, I will say that even the stodgy-iest brands could think about testing some out of the box ideas to grab that ever increasing rare attention span.

    -Kelly Lorenz

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