The Next Wave Affecting Email Design

Email design is constantly changing, blown this way and that by the ever-evolving inbox environment and changes in consumer behavior. In past years, email design needed to adjust to images being blocked by default, the increasing use of preview panes, and the emergence of SWYN functionality, among other factors.

Our upcoming 25-page report, "Email Design & Coding Recommendations," addresses the current wave of changes affecting email design, including the rapid adoption of HTML-friendly smartphones, the exploding tablet market, and the launch of Facebook Messages. Here's a sneak peek:

Small screens. Sales of smartphones that render HTML email well are booming thanks to the iPhone and a mega-slew of Android-powered phones. Not only do these phones render HTML emails well, but smartphones are driving increased use of email. Most marketers will find that slightly more than 10% of their subscribers are viewing their emails using a smartphone, but teen-focused brands may have a much higher percentage.



While there are lots of smartphones out there, iPhones are still dominant, so we use that platform as the basis of our recommendation of limiting email width to 640 pixels or less. Very few of the top online retailers that I track currently meet this recommendation.

We also recommend that marketers:

  • Avoid overly long subject lines because they push the body copy down.
  • Reduce email file sizes so they load more quickly on mobile devices.
  • Use call-to-action links and buttons that are at least 30 pixels large, with 10-15 pixels of padding -- and that's taking not taking into consideration that your emails will likely be zoomed out 25% to 50% depending on the width of your emails.

    Touch-friendly. In addition to smartphones, the other platform explosion has been tablets, driven by the iPad. Providing more evidence that tablets have gone mainstream, the iPad 2 sold out its debut weekend, with 400,000 to 600,000 units sold.

    The primary design concern with tablets is making links and buttons touch-friendly, following the same size and padding that we recommend to be smartphone-friendly. This is generally most effective in the design of navigation bars and recovery modules, where link density tends to be very high. Among the retailers I track, only B&H Photo Video has a touch-friendly nav bar. Link density will have to be re-thought as tablet usage increases.

    Text only. B2C emails have been strongly HTML-oriented for a number of years now. While the text portion of a multipart email has been necessary for the small percentage of users who used BlackBerry phones and other HTML-unfriendly platforms to read email, it has gotten new life from Facebook Messages, which displays text only by default. While it's still too early to see where this platform is going, it's likely to find traction among teenagers and 20somethings. We recommend monitoring your list for new addresses to see how concerned you should be.

    To create a strong text version of your emails, we recommend that you:

  • Drop your navigation bar and submessages.
  • Place the most important message first, even if that's not how the HTML version is laid out.
  • Keep line length to 70 characters or less so the text breaks in a controlled manner.
  • Use capitalization, line breaks, dashed lines and other devices to visually separate different messages.

    We're guaranteed to see more big changes in the future that impact email design. With both Gmail and Hotmail experimenting with JavaScript in the inbox, will emails be much more like mobile apps in the future? How will more sophisticated unified inboxes affect design? Will inboxes add SWYN function?

    What other changes on the horizon do you see shifting the way we design marketing emails?

  • 3 comments about "The Next Wave Affecting Email Design".
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    1. Joy Daniels from Responsys, April 26, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.

      I think increased protection and security and resulting new safeguards (against viruses, attacks etc.) will dramatically shift the way we design marketing emails and corresponding landing pages or sites. Thoughts?

    2. Chad White from Litmus, April 26, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.

      I'm not sure that the increased focus on security will affect email design itself. I'm not a security expert by any stretch, but it seems that any big boost in security against viruses, phishing, etc. is going to come from the ISPs. Of course, back office security for email lists, etc. will be driven by ESPs and marketers.

    3. Justine Jordan from Litmus, April 26, 2011 at 3:20 p.m.

      Chad, I agree that an increased focus on security won't do much to affect email design from a high level. Security precautions, warnings or certifications may start to impact how we present content, though. Tests have shown that including seals and certifications on landing pages help increase trust and lead to higher conversions, so designers and marketers may need to adjust their content plans to account for similar additions. This is assuming that consumers are actually influenced by the media coverage and (gasp!) change their behavior to stop clicking on marketing emails...

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