Email Best Practices
Through rigorous testing and experimentation, we've developed some best practices we apply to emails we design.
We're sharing them here should you choose to design and send your own emails.
It's worth noting, the technology and consumer attitude landscape changes rapidly. The most effective best practices of today may seem outdated in as little as a year.
For that reason, the number one best practice recommendation we can make is to constantly be A/B testing and experimenting.
With that said, here are our current findings:
Make It Look Like A Button
When designing a call to action (frequently referred to as a CTA), things that look like buttons get people to click more compared to links or text.
- The button should contrast or otherwise be highly visible from the surroundings.
- Copy on the button should include strong, active verbs and first-person language.
- We are currently testing HTML buttons vs image buttons. HTML buttons would have the advantage of showing up no matter the browser or email client type. Image buttons are more customizable.
- Our testing has shown that button color doesn't matter as much as contrast. The button should not blend in with its surroundings. Instead, it should stand out. If you have a photo with a largely green background, consider a red button on top of it. Blue sky, have an orange button. Brown leaves, bright green button etc.
- Buttons should have a fair amount of white space around them (something of a misnomer, as the color of the background doesn't matter). Copy or other design elements should not be near a button.
- Think mobile and "Fat-Finger-Friendly" first. Our standards are for buttons at least 44px wide and 44px high. This is done to give people plenty of room to tap buttons on a phone screen. The majority of emails are read on phones, (especially for business travelers) so removing any anxiety about where to tap helps boost conversions.
Placing copy near the button removes friction, or user objections to clicking a button, and helps increase clicks. This can range from "no risk," "free trial," "nothing to download," to user testimonials from satisfied users (we've had success with testimonials). This is useful for single-button emails. It may become unwieldy with multiple offer emails.
An alternative to testimonials is to include copy or bullet points near the button building a sense of urgency: "Offer good for 30 days only", "Only 3 deals left…" etc.
Generally, the main CTA should be as high up on the email as possible - at the very least "above the fold" (before you have to scroll down) in the email.
External studies and our own testing have shown success with an "inverted pyramid" style of email design when dealing with one CTA. Think of an upside-down triangle, with the button at the point. A headline, photo, and some copy can be the wider-to-narrower parts.
Internal testing has also shown good results for single-button emails with simple HTML type, an HTML button on the left, and a photo on the right. This is good for one-button emails.
Be Mobile Friendly
The majority of marketing emails are now opened and read on mobile devices. Design for mobile first.
Options include writing emails to be mobile responsive - that is for them to appear differently when viewed on a mobile device than on a desktop.
Another, simpler option is to design the emails to be mobile-optimized. This is where the email is designed to be viewed only on a smartphone (because chances are, it will be).
Here are some best practices for the design and build of emails, as determined by our data and testing:
- In links, include the HREF alias.
- Referencing categories (restaurants, shopping, entertainment) tends to get more opens than referencing specific merchants.
- Restaurant deals tend to draw more opens and clicks.
- A visual button draws more clicks than a text link.
- A highly-contrasted button draws more clicks than a "clear" button.
- User testimonials near the call to action button can increase clicks.
- Using first-person language on button copy tends to increase clicks.
- Placing the button on the left side of the screen draws higher clicks than placing buttons on the right.
- A higher button placement in email draws more clicks than lower down.
- Make the call to action button as conspicuous as possible, both in design and placement.
- A designed image at the top of emails equals higher clicks than emails without.
- Photos should be sized to 75-80kb.
- Animated GIFS draw attention and increase engagement.
- Include alt-tags for images or logos, so if images don’t load, the email still makes sense.
- Balance images and HTML. HTML will appear no matter what. Some users do not load images by default.
- If the full offer cannot fit on the email, include ellipses (…) and ensure the landing page has full terms.
- Directory-style emails, listing all types of deals in certain categories or themes, can increase click rates, and tend to draw more clicks over time.
- Including icons for types of saving categories at the bottom of emails allows customers to find more deals, even if they are uninterested in offers included in the email. The icons draw more clicks than a single button pointing to the landing page does.
- Including a menu bar above the email referencing more categories of savings increases clicks.
Subject Lines And "From" Names
The primary factor in whether a person opens an email is if they recognize who the email is from. This is why Access Development works with our associations to show as coming "from" them (or a name they select).
This works if - and this is very important - the member has opted to receive the email. Being aware of and complying with the U.S.' CAN-SPAM law and Canada's CASL legislation is crucial.
The second most important factor in getting a recipient to open an email is the subject line and preheader. The subject line usually shows in the inbox before a person opens the email. Often a preheader, a sort of smaller secondary subject line, appears in the inbox also.
The subject line must be truthful. Deceptive subject lines are prohibited by CAN-SPAM.
After that, feel free to experiment. Just remember - always be honest with your recipient. Deceptive or bait-and-switch subject lines lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and greater chances of your program being marked as spam.
Here are some current best practices for subject lines:
Personalize it - somewhat
Names are a good way to personalize, though external sources say their ability to impact opens is declining some. Recent in-house testing found that simply putting "Your" in the subject line increases opens.
Sense of urgency
Same as in content, a sense of urgency - expiring deadlines for instance - has led to more opens.
We tested questions in subject lines. They generally performed worse. Apparently the danger in a question is that the answer can always be "no".
Shorter is better
With the exception of when going against "your," the shorter the subject line, generally the better the open rate.
Write useful, distinct copy for your preheader, but make sure the subject line works if the preheader is not read.
Most email clients will automatically fill in the preheader with the first part of copy from the email unless a preheader is manually set in.
Preheaders may not appear on all email clients, so don't lean on it. It's still better to have the preheader even if it doesn't show up, than to not have it and have random text appear in that space.
Throttle emails at the lowest threshold possible. An instantaneous flood of emails from an IP address can set off warning bells in email service providers. A steady trickle won't be as concerning.
This way you can maximize your inbox placement and help avoid the spam traps.
Some more send strategies:
- There are good times and bad times to send emails. Late at night, on Fridays, and on Sundays have shown poor email open and engagement performance. Early in the morning, on weekdays, and on Saturdays have shown us good email open and engagement performance.
- Resending emails can be effective. We've found that, when used sparingly, resending an email to addresses who did not open the initial send, can boost clicks, and get high-importance messages to the recipients. We caution against overusing the resend strategy though.
- Sending emails repeatedly to unengaged customers can affect your sender reputation.
- Focus on engaged customers, and periodically run re-engagement campaigns to get unengaged members back into the fold.
- Consider cutting back on sends to unengaged customers to protect your sender reputation.
All email must comply with the U.S. CAN-SPAM act, among other requirements, including
- A clear opt-out link must be present, and opt-outs must be honored.
- A physical address is required.
- Don't lie: You must identify yourself truthfully and not use deceptive language.
- For more information, read Can Spam Act Compliance Guide.
The bulk of our emails will be sent to the United States and Canada. Canada has recently enacted an aggressive anti-spam law, known as Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation (or CASL). CASL came into force in 2014 and carries stiff penalties for lawbreakers, with fines up to $10 million Canadian for corporate violators.
The safest bet, even if you aren't sure email addresses belong to Canadian citizens, is to comply with CASL. Compliance with CASL will help ensure we comply with CAN-SPAM.
Some highlights of CASL include:
- You can't send emails (or any electronic message) to a recipient without their consent.
- False or misleading representations are prohibited.
- You must identify your name and business, the name of anyone else on whose behalf you are sending the message, and a current mailing address, as well as a phone number, email address, or web address.
- As in CAN-SPAM, opt-out links must be included, and honored within 10 days.