Seven Tips For Good E-mail Creative

Hoping to hit the jackpot with an e-mail program that makes all your hard work behind the scenes worthwhile? Of course you are. Then you need good creative execution. However, the definition of “good” is often in the mind of the beholder. With so many options to test and so few good creative strategists in the space, where do you start? Here are seven areas of focus to improve your e-mail creative.

1. Simplicity. It’s the old KISS metaphor (Keep It Simple, Stupid). E-mail has an attention-capturing window of opportunity that is greatly diminishing. Some say three seconds, some five, but either way, it isn’t a lot of time. Nielson Norman Group produced a newsletter usability report in June of 2006 (“E-mail Newsletter Usability’) which indicated an average newsletter has the reader for up to 40-50 seconds, while a marketing or promotional e-mail retains the reader for less than 5 seconds. The fact is we read less, scan more, and make decisions based on where we are drawn into the message--some through a contextual hero image, some through flow of images, typography and layout, and some by modularity. You should understand the basic principles: a simple call to action, buttons, text links and image roll-overs make quick comprehension easier. If it doesn’t pass the scan test, then it won’t be compelling. I recommend you test your design on an internal focus group. Flash the e-mail in front of them for five seconds and have them tell you what it said and what the call to action was. If they can’t tell you, then you should consider revising.



2. Typography. You don’t want your message to resemble a ransom note. Keep typography to two or three fonts and styles at the most. If you don’t have brand guidelines that detail typefaces or if you haven’t modified these for e-mail, you should. Remember, it has to scan quickly (see #1).

3. Type size. Pretend you’re designing for your grandmother. If she can’t read 8-point type, don’t use it. Venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki said at a conference that your font size for presentations should be your oldest audience member divided by two. While perhaps not realistic for e-mail, this standard is a sanity check for Web designers who love to produce offline font sizes for digital messages.

4. Color.  Go back to the principles of design and use contrasting colors, but do so for the right reasons: to draw the eye, reinforce a value statement, and amplify the call to action. In addition, you have another consideration--how your colors appear within the e-mail inbox interface. Do your light blue borders get muted out in AOL’s predominately blue interface? Cool design can get blurred when there is an animated image of an eBay “IT” campaign flashing at the bottom. Is there a competition of cohesive?

5. Proportion. While the e-mail industry has migrated to a concept of design in which the top 200-300 pixels are a virtual banner, too many designs have disproportionate layouts (almost like an hourglass).  Your e-mail should flow smoothly and be evenly distributed if your intent is for the reader to flow through content.  Eye tracking studies show how most users scan e-mail and apply those logics (if you want more information on this, check out  If the intent is to design a singular message, then design it to a five-second preview. That way the eye is conditioned to the flow and not tempted to roam.

6. Border patrol. Not every picture needs a frame. Borders can enhance an image, but they can also stop the eye along its natural scanning path. I’m a huge advocate of modular design, but use borders, horizontal bars and framing with restraint. You can ruin a good design with too many frames and boxes.

7. Message focus. E-mail is direct response, not a Web site. Infuse what you know about good media and banner design into your creative by minimizing your real estate. This will cause you to be more concise in your messaging and creative treatments. Just because you have a never-ending scroll doesn’t mean you need to use it all. Use imagery to quickly communicate a message, not merely for beautification. While I love the retail industry, the cataloger view of delivering e-mail messages (with the large hero catalog image) has shown diminishing response. Catalogers are continually amazed when simple “SALE” messages, without that great hero image, result in a boost in sales. Never forget that because this is a sales message, a response is required.

Creative these days is judged through a variety of lenses. The business team cares that it is on-message and all about the product. The e-mail team cares about trying something new and striving to stretch the boundaries so it can learn. Members of the executive team judge your work through the filter of their own e-mail behavior.

Sure, you want results and increasing revenue, but if your creative is not valued by all the teams involved, they will always think you can do more with your e-mail program.

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