E-Mail Creative Checklist

Last month, I talked about my love of spreadsheets and metrics to benchmark email initiatives. This time, I’ll discuss the other side of email marketing (which I also love), working with the creative team.

Earlier this year, I put together a “virtual interactive agency.” Basically, it consists of a copywriter, a designer, and a programmer, all freelance, who work with me. I handle strategic and tactical planning with the client, then manage the team to bring email and registration initiatives to life.

I’ve got lots of experience working with and managing creative teams on the client side. Now I’m on the agency side, managing not only the team but also my clients’ expectations. Being on this side of things, I’ve learned lessons that will help anyone who’s working with an email creative team.

Make Your Design Work for You

An effective design should do more than look nice. It should support the business message and objective. Correctly executed, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

When you’re talking HTML email, there’s an additional image challenge: keeping the file size reasonable so it loads quickly. Standard guidelines:

  • Keep the size under 30KB for dial-up and/or business-to-consumer (B2C) mail.

  • If recipients are on high-speed connections and/or are business-to-business (B2B) customers, you can probably go as high as 60KB.
  • Don’t exceed 100KB or you risk the message being filtered as a virus.

Getting the Most From a Designer

  • Work with someone who takes the time to understand the business objectives. I’d rather spend an hour on the phone with a designer going over campaign goals than a half hour doing a thumb-nail layout. The former approach yields better, more creative results.

  • Be sure the designer understands email and the online environment. One publisher I know used an in-house design team to create a Web site as a companion to its glossy publication. Great idea, until it realized each page took a ridiculous amount of time to load. What works offline doesn’t necessarily translate well online or to email.
  • Don’t get hung up if a designer doesn’t code HTML. Having someone else code the design is inexpensive. It’s well worth the small additional cost if your designer has a great feel for online design but prefers to work in Photoshop.
  • Focus design efforts on areas that give you the most bang for your buck. These include:
    • Headers, especially those featuring a brand or logo

    • A colored background behind a small but important part of the email message to distinguish it
    • A signature graphic, to make the email appear more personal

  • Don’t spend your limited graphic allotment on things that don’t help get the message across or that could actually damage the campaign. These might include:

    • Colored wallpaper or a background behind most of the text. It’s often a spam-filter trigger and makes email harder to read.

    • Cutesy icons instead of bullet points.
    • Graphics not absolutely essential to your message.

Review Copy in the Design Before Any Major Changes

All copy looks different once integrated into a design. Somehow, email copy looks more different than most. The standard guidelines for email copy:

  • Short, concise paragraphs and message

  • Bullet points whenever possible
  • Key benefits and at least one call to action with a hyperlink above the fold

After a few internal revisions, we now present the first draft of copy to clients as part of the design for two reasons. First, we found we were frequently asked to expand the first draft copy, only to be asked to remove much of it after it was incorporated into the design. The revision was clearly too long for email, anyway. That’s a waste of our and the clients’ time.

Second, we learned a great design can get the message across as well as or better than copy. A good example is a project where the client, after reviewing the first draft copy alone, felt we needed to focus more on the brand. A few hours later, that same client saw the design template, which did a great job of showcasing the brand. They decided the copy was fine as it was. The design did the heavy brand-lifting; the copy didn’t have to.

Another tip: Even though it’s online, print it out. You can focus, make notes, and (if necessary) cut and paste to see if there’s a better layout. As much as I love doing things digitally, proofing copy and design is a task better conducted offline.

Be Sure You or the Copywriter Knows E-Mail Writing

I mentioned earlier a designer who understands online is essential. This expertise is less critical (although desirable) for copywriters if you have a firm grasp of writing for an online medium and can work closely with them as an editor. It’s easier to teach great copywriters how to modify their work for online than it is to teach those who understand online how to write great copy.

Those are my tips from the email marketing trenches. As always, let me know what you think!



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