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Seven Steps to a Better Template

  |  May 24, 2006   |  Comments

An effective redesign can eliminate factors that hurt deliverability.

The best way to avoid getting blocked, filtered, or blacklisted is to minimize spam complaints and bounces. But that’s not what most marketers focus on, according to our recent deliverability survey. Instead, 50 percent said they redesigned their message templates.

Template redesign alone won’t help deliverability if your messages generate too many spam complaints or your IP address gets blocked or blacklisted. Yet an effective redesign can eliminate factors that hurt deliverability, which includes delivery to the inbox with the message properly rendered.

If you suspect something in your message is hindering delivery, first test your template. Follow these steps, or contract with a deliverability service to do it for you:

  • Strip out all variable content (any text, images, personalization, etc.), and run the template through an HTML code validator and a spam content checker.

  • E-mail the template to test accounts in various email clients, such as Yahoo, AOL, Gmail, and Hotmail.

  • View the message in different browsers (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera) and platforms (PC, Macintosh, cell phone).

Once you correct any problems, add in text and other typical elements. Then, run through the diagnostic process again.

The following seven-step redesign process can help you resolve both deliverability and rendering issues.

1. Redesign for the Preview Pane

Issue: Does the email message deliver its punch in a space roughly 4 inches wide and 2 inches deep? That’s all that shows up in the preview pane, the feature in many email clients that lets email readers partially scan messages without opening them.

Our 2005 survey found 7 of 10 business-to-business (B2B) readers use the preview pane to scan messages. Some read all their messages in the preview pane, while others use the pane to decide whether to open or discard the message.

Action: Redesign the template with a more horizontal format, and pack as much information at the top as possible: a link to your Web site, a summary of the message content, or a newsletter table of contents. Use text instead of a single big image (see next item).

This helps deliverability as it can reduce spam complaints. Readers should more easily be able to tell who you are and what you’re doing in their inboxes.

2. Redesign for Blocked Images

Issue: Templates that place all the message content into a single large image commit a major design error, because many spam filters flag large images as potential spam content. Also, those images might not render correctly. Major email clients, both desktop and Web, now block images by default.

Action: Reduce reliance on images that link back to your Web site. Replace navigation images with text links, or add descriptive "alt" tags that describe the photo or desired action if the picture doesn’t render. Watch font size; some filters flag large point sizes (36 points or higher).

3. Review Broken Code

Issue: Broken code is a prime spam indicator. Filter programs such as SpamAssassin look for it. Sometimes the problem is just forgetting a closing symbol, such as ">," or you may have an outdated tag, such as .

Actions: Avoid scripting. Spam filters are likely to flag any message with JavaScript or VBScript as spam or to strip it out. Also avoid CSSs (define) when possible. Web-based email clients usually disable linked CSSs that are defined outside the message and reference and even some in-line CSS styles to prevent corruption of the Web client interface. Keep it simple, and use vanilla HTML formatting.

Test your email in a Web-based client, such as Yahoo or Hotmail, and use an HTML validator to highlight code problems.

4. Tone Down Message Content

Issue: "Free" won’t automatically get a message blocked or filtered, but aggressive language and excessive punctuation or capitalization will ("Click here now!" "Get quotes today!"). If your market is particularly spam-sensitive (financial services, pharmaceuticals, gaming, adult-oriented content), you can’t avoid content that may trigger spam filters. But you can moderate the impact.

Action: Place sensitive language in an image instead of in text copy or links. Reduce the number of "click here" commands. Beware third-party ads that can insert objectionable copy beyond your control.

Find more guidance in our earlier ClickZ column, "Tune Up Your E-Mail Program With SpamAssassin."

5. Add Essential Elements

Issue: Every email message, whether newsletters, offers, confirmations, or bulletins, needs these six elements somewhere:

  • Link to Web version

  • Working opt-out link

  • Company name and physical address

  • Recipient’s email address

  • Link to preference-update page

  • Working "contact us" link or phone number

Action: Group these elements in an administration center, and put it in the same place (usually at the bottom) of each email. This makes it easier for respondents to unsubscribe, change preferences, or contact you, which can keep them from going for the "report spam" button.

6. Test-Drive the Redesign

Issue: Once you redesign your template, you must test it before going live.

Action: Repeat the procedure you used to diagnose problems. Also, enlist others in your office to receive and report on the redesigned message.

7. Compare Before and After Delivery Rates

Issue: Post-send delivery reports reveal what percentage of the total mailing list was actually delivered. If you correctly identified and fixed troublesome message elements, you should see a measurable increase in delivery.

Action: Compare recent pre-redesign delivery reports to those from your test drives and the first few post-redesign deliveries. If you don’t see an upward trend, maybe it’s time to pay closer attention to spam complaints and bounce reports.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.


Kirill Popov and Loren McDonald

As director of ISP relations and delivery, Kirill Popov creates and enforces strict usage and anti-spam policies, maintains ISP and community relations, and oversees all abuse and policy investigations and inquiries for EmailLabs clients. Kirill works with clients on best practices, content, design, and list hygiene to minimize potential delivery issues. He's a registered member of the SpamCon foundation and representsEmailLabs on AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail.

Loren McDonald is vice president of marketing at e-mail marketing automation company EmailLabs, overseeing corporate marketing activities and client consulting services. He has 20 years experience in marketing, consulting and strategic planning. Earlier, Loren was founder and president of Intevation, an e-marketing services firm specializing in e-mail and SEM. He's held executive marketing positions at companies including USWeb/CKS (marchFIRST), NetStruxr, and Arthur Andersen.

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