Testing Email Creative

What makes great email creative? Is it the design, format, use of images -- or do you simply roll it all up into what you call a good customer experience?

My team gets endless requests to review email creative, both for our clients and for our many agency creative teams. They all think there is some magical formula for great email creative. I guess I've been so close to the email space for so long that I can't see what is so difficult about creating compelling email.

In my opinion, email design is relatively straightforward. Unlike a Web site or microsite, where you truly have to concern yourself with usability and functional design, email is much simpler. Too many companies try to do too much with creative, spending too much time on the considerations when the consumer will spend three to four seconds scanning it.

To simplify this, my team uses a combination of template designs or wireframes that help set up the functional elements of an email template. We use this to help designers do several things:



  • Think about the functional elements required of the piece (directory, header, images, line breaks or dividers or copy section flow).

  • Think about what can be tested in a design (we try not to keep them in a box, but we start there).

  • Give the client and designers a framework to structure content. It's hard to start with a blank page -- and the days when you simply copy your Web site header to an email design has long since passed.

  • It allows us to simplify best practices in use of copy, width, design -- and break it up into manageable chunks.

    The challenge with testing email creative is identifying what you are trying to accomplish. Ultimately it is about moving the needle and creating the best experience -- but testing creative is really about operational excellence. What is most visually appealing isn't always the best for the business, so if a piece that took 10% less time to develop performs at par with another, think about what that extra time could afford you. Maybe this will allow you more time to optimize a landing page?

    Successful creative is about streamlining options. It takes time to create new imagery, think about new designs, and blend copy with flow -- and, if you are guessing each time, add 20% to your design costs.

    So, what is the real art of testing creative? Here's a simple formula.

    1. Draw a wireframes of several templates (they vary by purpose). These are simply boxes designed for the optimal width and length. Rule of thumb is, keep promotional messages and email that is designed for early lifecycle simple and straightforward and minimize the length. Newsletters and community publications can support longer-form wireframes.

    2. Assign a description to each box and bullet the things that you can potentially test within those guides. For example, if your top box of 50x 700 is for "Click to add your email address to the address book," think about what else you could test in this area. (User Name, Promotional Message, site reminder message, or leave it out altogether). If it's a header image or text block, then think about testing typographic treatments, background colors, blending with imagery and replacing with imagery.

    3. Sit down with your designer and walk her through the wireframes and what options she has for each section. Ask her, if she had two things to test in each box, what would she test -- and if you tested them and they worked, what would that do to help streamline creative next time?

    4. Lastly, show her past results of emails that performed, which links performed best (in a visual format). Most email systems will give you a click map overlay report to show clicks by popularity and color code.

    Do remember, you aren't limited to the email only. The email is designed to get the receiver from the email to the landing page, so test the exchange between the two. You may be surprised at what can be left out and provide better value at the point of conversion.

    Knock 'em dead -- and if you have great creative or one you're struggling with, shoot it over and I'll give you my two cents. (

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