10 don’ts when designing for email

Email marketing is probably the oldest and the most successful form of marketing for the web. Broadly, email marketing involves sending specialized custom emails to generate leads, promote an offer, serve targeted advertisements or initiate deals. Email marketing increases your brand’s radius, allowing you, the marketer to build robust brand value around your product.

But most marketers make a basic mistake – not creating email templates that are optimized for a typical user’s inbox. Sending emails that aren’t formatted, designed or properly structured actually reduces your credibility and when users see a scattered email in their inbox, they simply dont pay attention.

Now, how do you optimize your email templates for maximum conversions? This generally depends on  the subject of the email but regardless of the product or service you’re trying to “sell”, here are a few basic tips to create inbox optimized email templates for better conversions:


1. Don’t use a word processor to compose email templates

Office applications and word processors such as Microsoft Office and Open Office are great for writing documents but when it comes to composing or designing email templates, I would strongly advise you not to use word processing tools at all. This is because when you copy content, images and other elements from a word processor to your email inbox, the word processing application copies additional code into the HTML source of the email message. This can break the design of the email and in the worst case, the recipient may see abrupt code instead of the email text.

Instead, its a good idea to use HTML editors like Microsoft Frontpage or Adobe Dreamweaver to design email templates. If you’re not familiar with HTML editors, use the good old notepad application but please do not use a word processor for composing email templates.


2. Don’t ignore web-standards for HTML

When you write the HTML code for the email, be careful of how the HTML renders in different browsers. Precisely, the HTML code you use should be standardized and free from errors. Using obscure codes that are not supported in older browsers is considered a bad practice. Pay close attention to HTML formatting, alignment and the best practices that each browser supports and understands.


Email image via Shutterstock


3. Don’t use CSS for layout

Even kids know that CSS is the best way to design for the web but in the context of email templates, I would suggest going back to tables. This is because tables make it super easy to customize your email template, anyone can modify the content without having to touch the code. Moreover, some email clients do not render CSS rules as well as a full featured browser does, so it might be a good idea to use tables instead of using CSS designs.

CSS gives you more options and grounds for creative design, but from the usability and compatibility perspective, tables are preferred. You never know how many of your recipients are still rooted to their spartan email clients that do not understand modern day CSS rules.


4. Don’t use external CSS files

I know proficient designers won’t hit a key until they are allowed to write CSS. If you must use CSS, I would suggest writing inline CSS and not calling an external CSS file into your email template. Most email service providers such as Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Outlook.com will remove <head>, <body> and other tags from your code so if you’re using an external CSS file in your code, the email body will break.

The best way to ensure that your CSS styles are rendered properly across every email service provider or client, is to use inline CSS for every element. This could mean writing more code but it’s not as fragile as external CSS.


5. Don’t use relative paths for images

If you write code in an IDE such as eclipse or use an HTML editor like Dreamweaver, you may be using relative paths for images. By relative path, I mean the IDE is given the local address of the image, with reference to your computer or your website’s internal folders. Whatever it may be, you should change all relative image paths to absolute image paths. An absolute image path will work universally while a relative image path will work only in a given set of development environments.


Email image via Shutterstock


6. Don’t forget alt attributes for images

Alt attributes for images help search engines understand what your image is all about. Other than search engines, alt attributes can be useful for users too. For example, some email clients tend to block images by default, so the alt tag can give a clue about what the image is all about. If the alt tag appears meaningful to the user, he might be enticed to click through to learn more about your offering.


7. Don’t forget a plain text version

Always offer a plain text version of your email message, no matter how compelling and attractive your HTML email template might be. Some email clients or third party email apps may not support rendering email messages crafted in HTML, so you should also convey your information in an alternative plain text version.

Before you deliver an alternative text only version of your email copy, double check to ensure that the text only version is a mirror copy of the original email message. Both messages should exactly be the same, or it might create discrepancy in communication.


8. Don’t use long URLs

If your email body is long enough and has links in plain text, it’s going to mess up the presentation. A much better and prettier idea would be to shorten the hyperlinks with a URL shortener e.g Goo.gl or Bit.ly. URL shorteners are indispensable, especially for plain text emails where the hyperlinks are enclosed within braces (). At the end of the day, you want the email to look professional and plain text hyperlinks can mean outright disaster.


Email image via Shutterstock


9. Don’t use video

I agree, videos are worth a million words, but embedding videos in email might not prove to be fruitful enough to justify the overheads — unless of course you upload the video to video sharing sites like YouTube, Vimeo and embed from there.

If you fetch the video from your website or attach the video as an email attachment, it’s going to take ages to load on the recipient’s end. Moreover, some email clients are pre-configured to filter emails with large file sizes, so attaching a video file can sometimes land your message in the spam folder.


10. Don’t forget etiquette

Okay this one is not really a design tip but it is of no less importance than the ones discussed above. You should be aware of email etiquette — proper salutations, tone, spellings, formatting, grammar, composition; all things that come into play here. If your design is outstanding but your copy sounds boorish, your email may go against you, instead of creating any impact in a positive way. Depending upon the subject of your email campaign, you have to compose the copy of your email, add salutations, compose opening and closing lines and so forth. Using the same lines in every other campaign is certainly a schoolboy error.

What mistakes have you come across in the mail that lands in your inbox? What else should email designers avoid? Let us know in the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/BranchingOutEU Branching Out Europe

    The CSS and Alt tag tips are very important.

    Many moons ago when we first started designing email’s those two tips would have been gems!

    Thanks for the article!

  • http://twitter.com/JackFilose Jack Filose

    ‘Don’t use a word processor to compose email templates’… Really WDD? Given your audience this is a weak article. No mention of mobile optimisation. No mention of image blockers. No mention of preview panes. Disappointing.

    • http://twitter.com/niceupdesigns Amanda Bloomfield

      I definitely agree with this. These are ridiculously simple “dont’s”, where I expected at least mobile optimization.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.lafferty1 Jason Lafferty

    With the differing ways people are now accessing your email it would be interesting to see a bit of discussion as to how some elements of responsive design could apply to emails….

  • ciaranofathaigh@gmail.com

    Great post – thought I’d add a little bit:

    Use a tabular layout with nested table elements if necessary. This is because Microsoft Outlook does not render CSS defined div layout and 90% of recipients of e-campaigns will be using the Office suite.

    Use inline CSS variables for text formatting and inline table/image variables for aligning image/graphic elements.

    Avoid CSS in the document head if possible.

    Remember to add size variables for images as this will affect the layout/appearence before the image content is downloaded by the reader.

    Keep a high text-to-pic ratio. Text is the first thing your audience will see, images need to be downloaded after opening the email, generally.

    Don’t overload it with loads of copy, keep the message focussed and suscunct.

    If you have dispaly advertising on your template[s], use dynamic tagging if possible as it will count towards your overall ad inventory.

    @ciaranofathaigh – digital manager for TTGMedia

  • http://twitter.com/alexcwilliams Alex Williams

    “8. Don’t use long URLs”
    Most deliverability folks will tell you that using URL shortner links will get your email flagged as spam. Easy to spoof.

    • jaystrab


    • http://twitter.com/sonicgarbage jk

      Came here to say the same thing. URL shortners is not a good option for email.

  • http://twitter.com/EdNichter #CardNation

    Let me summarize this article. Use Mailchimp.

  • http://www.matthaff.com/ Matt Haff

    Don’t use FRONTPAGE!!! For the love of God, that program has more code that it injects into your content than Microsoft Word. I’m with CardNation, just use MailChimp…problem solved!

  • Sarah Pulis

    Thank you for a great article Lior. I was extremely please to see you mention alt attributes which in addition to the reasons you mentioned are absolutely essential for people who are blind or vision impaired.

    With regard to number 8: Don’t use long URLs, I’d also like to encourage people to use meaningful link text in HTML emails rather than URLs. In addition to making your email look cleaner and more professional it also helps increase the accessibility of your content.

  • http://www.magnetsocialmedia.com/social-media-blog.html Karen Moran

    I was hoping for significantly more substantial tips/take-aways since most small business emails these days are sent using Constant Contact or MailChimp – which resolves a majority of the “don’t” in this post. Best days, time of days, testing subject titles, how much is too much, layout – would have better better suited for this headline.