Holiday E-Mail Planning: Does Your Content Rule, Too?

Improving the deliverability of your holiday e-mail campaign requires work behind the scenes to build up your sender reputation and keep your mailing list clean and active. But your e-mail content must be ready for prime time, too.

Content optimization goes beyond purging words that trigger spam filters. Yes, they might trigger enough spam filter rules to get your message routed to the bulk folder or blocked. However, they’re a relatively minor problem if the rest of your content is up to par.

The crunch-time fourth quarter is right around the corner, so spend some time now reviewing your copy, images, design, navigation, and inbox appeal. Find and fix problem areas. Test new approaches, and work to make sure your messages are tuned up and ready to go.

Poorly designed and executed e-mail can sabotage all the work you’ve done to improve or maintain a good sender reputation and to engage and energize your subscribers.

Start in Your Own Inbox

The inbox is the doorway to your message. How your message looks here often determines whether the recipient decides to open or delete it. I’ll assume you already subscribe to your own e-mail program so you see what your subscribers see (and if you don’t, your first priority is to sign up now).

See how your own e-mail messages stack up against all the clutter in your own inbox: personal notes, newsletters, offers, notices from your social networks, even spam. Viewed from this perspective, your inbox should show you whether your subject lines stand out or need buffing up, and how your message inspires action or doesn’t.

Pay attention to snippet text (sometimes called the pre-header) and how it adds value to your subject line. I hope by now your messages no longer lead with, “If you’re having trouble viewing this message…”

You might be tempted to tack on a personalized subject line to attract attention, but be careful! Good personalization takes more time and thought than just mail-merging in somebody’s name.

Don’t even consider it unless your subscription process requires at least a first name to complete. Nothing kills your credibility faster than sending an e-mail addressed to “%subscribername%.” (See more advice on personalization in “Personalized Subject Lines: Beneficial or Bad?“)

Bottom line: Does the sender line tell the reader clearly and quickly exactly who sent the e-mail? Does the subject line tell recipients why they should open it right away and what you want them to do?

Does Your Design Help or Hurt?

View your message not just on a full-size screen but also on your cell phone (extra points if you don’t use an iPhone, which is generally more forgiving with e-mail appearance). Remember, in e-mail you almost never see the full message. You see parts of it as you scroll.

You must be able to see the key parts of your message (brand, preheader or headline, body copy, call to action, management functions, such as the unsubscribe or address-change link) without turning on images and with minimal scrolling. Your message should always have at least one main call to action above the fold (about 300 pixels from the top).

Beware of HTML designs that favor art over utility. This is especially important with font color. Black type on a white background might be pedestrian from an artistic viewpoint, but at least you’ll know your key content will render correctly.

White fonts on colored backgrounds are particularly dangerous. An HTML coding error can render your background white instead of your expected color. Copy in a white font becomes invisible, and you could lose critical message components. This can get you dinged by spam filters, make you look like a spammer, and even violate commercial-e-mail regulations.

To see how white fonts can damage your design, read this blog post by my industry colleague Justin Premick, in which he details what went wrong with an e-mail message that tried to use a white font on a gray background for one of the most important parts of the e-mail, the CAN-SPAM administrative content.

Images: Complementary or Annoying?

More retailers are abandoning the postcard-design style, which stuffs all the key message content into a single large image, in favor of a design that puts key copy in text. Others still haven’t figured out that the postcard-style makes the e-mail useless if the image doesn’t load. It also leaves them vulnerable to spam filtering because the image is disproportionately large compared to copy.

Do your images amplify the body copy? Or does your message rely on images to relay key information, such as “buy now,” offer deadlines, and urgency or “navigation” buttons?

Don’t expect readers will see your images. Many readers block them from downloading automatically. Also, the server can fail to deliver the image because of a temporary breakdown or a fault in your message coding.

When you use images, always include a line or two of alt text, which usually appears in the image space if the image itself is blocked or otherwise fails to render. Describe the image in terms of the product or action it represents.

More Advice for Planning Holiday Campaigns

This column is part three of my annual holiday e-mail planning series. If you missed them, check out the previous entries, “Increase Your Holiday E-mail Frequency” and “Avoid Desperate E-mail Tactics This Holiday

As the calendar ticks down and you ramp up for the holidays, make sure all the effort you put forth to drive those fourth-quarter sales doesn’t go to waste.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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