Email Redesign Part 1: A distributed team’s workflow and the definition of done

If you subscribe to our newsletter, you may have noticed that it's had a considerable overhaul. Not only has the format and layout changed, but so has how our team collaborates to bring you our latest tips, techniques and updates. So, why did we change a good thing? And given the distributed nature of our team, how did we coordinate marketing, code and design across multiple timezones?

Old vs new newsletters

A "before" and "after" look at our monthly newsletter - view all our previous issues.

In the coming weeks, we'll be covering our redesign across a three-part series. In Part 1 of this series, we'll be looking at our team's workflow - including the challenges that come with email projects and our personal definitions of "done". Part 2 will cover the code techniques we used, while Part 3 will look at the results.

In order to really get behind the scenes, I talked to Agata, the head of our marketing team, Stig our email coder and Tim, our designer, as to get three differing perspectives on why we redesigned our newsletter, how we did it and what happened next.

Before we get into the grit, what were our main motivations for redesigning our monthly newsletter? What was working and what wasn't?

Agata: The short answer is that the newsletter gave us an opportunity to put into practice quite a few things that we've been working on: new responsive email layouts, different techniques for animations, our bulletproof button generator and our other new tools. We were excited to showcase and share those things with our users and the email community.

Beyond that, we noticed that our newsletter performance, while steady, was… Well, steady. We’re strong advocates of continual email marketing optimisation, from testing to using techniques like dynamic content. It was time to take our own advice and see if we could leverage great design to increase our subscribers’ engagement with our content.

We’ll publish more details on the results for this campaign in Part 3 of this series, so stay tuned.

Is it essential to have your content set in stone prior to the design process?

Tim: It definitely helps. Our old newsletter was quite a simple process from a design point of view. A day or two out from sending, I’d create a header image based on whatever the feature article was going to be and make small tweaks to the newsletter if necessary. For example, for a newsletter featuring our white-label iPad app we used media queries to target iPads with a big “download” call-to-action instead of a simple text link. But more often than not, it was simply creating an image and changing a color or two.

Our freshly redesigned newsletter, however, is at it’s best when the design can make the content sing, so to have that content in advance gives us plenty of time to understand and execute the newsletter in the best way possible. We’re no longer bound by a single column and a hero image, which has opened up a range of possibilities to putting the good stuff that our team creates front and center in your inbox.

How did you get design and code to coordinate on this project, across multiple timezones to boot?

We’ve been developing this process as we go to fit our own way of working at Campaign Monitor.Tim: We currently work in silos. Stig, being in Norway, and myself, being in our Sydney office, have very limited time that we’re actually awake together - so we’ve developed a good back-and-forth. I’ll wrap up a design, doing my very best to make the PSD as easy as possible to read without Stig having to make too many assumptions. Whatever I’ve left out, Stig fills in the gaps and communicates anything that I’ve missed, he’s changed or that needs clarification. Rinse, and repeat. We’ve been developing this process as we go to fit our own way of working at Campaign Monitor.

Most importantly, there is a trust - which is essential when working in silos. With a common goal and trust, if you’ve dropped the ball on something your colleague will be there to pick it up and keep running in the right direction. It means the other person can rest easy knowing the project is in good hands overnight.

Stig: As much as I’d love to hang out with the Sydney team in their swanky office, the antipode commute prevents that. Instead, we have the internet, and have made use of some good tools - including Dropbox and Layervault - and processes that help us collaborate smoothly.

Tim’s intentions are generally very clear just by looking at the design, and when something requires clarification, he’s good about providing meticulous documentation. Since he’s usually on the train home by the time I start my day and get to coding, I do sometimes need to make assumptions or wait until the next day with some details. But I think the fact that we can work on a project through different hours of the same day actually speeds things up more often than not.

Geography aside, what other challenges come with email jobs like this?

Tim: In most cases I think getting the email looking great across a never-ending collection of email clients is the hardest part. Designing, in this instance, is the lighter load.

The more you code, however, the more you’ll pick up and remember about each email client and how it renders your design. If only there was a helpful chart to let me know how CSS properties render across the board... (there is, haha! - Ros)

Stig: Any time I open a new PSD from Tim, I know there will be something in there that requires at least the repurposing of an existing technique, or almost as often, a brand new hack.

On a good day, I’ll know before I run the first design test which parts of the email won’t work in certain email clients, but it’s hard to predict how long it’ll take to iron out all the kinks. Especially the kinks that invariably wiggle their way in right before send time.

Finally, given that there's a lot of back and forth between veritable perfectionists here, at what point do you feel the job is complete?

If you think you’re done because you’ve hit send, you’re not making the most out of your email marketing.Tim: The point when everyone is happy enough to click ‘send’. This may take a while, with plenty of to-ing and fro-ing, but I’m fortunate enough to work with some crazy talented people; who have an eye for design, the brains for coding an email and a knack for content, so when it’s passed through everyone and given a thumbs up, it’s good to go!

The standard for the newsletters past is not the standard for the newsletters to come, however, and we are always trying to improve. It’s a never-ending process.

Agata: Truly, the job is never “complete” - creating a beautiful email is only step one! There’s always something you can learn and apply to your next campaign to improve your results and make your email that much more valuable to your subscribers. If you think you’re done because you’ve hit send, you’re not making the most out of your email marketing.


3 things we learned...

  1. Make sure you have tools and processes in place prior to kicking off an email project, especially when you have multiple people contributing. We rely heavily on Dropbox, Layervault and Basecamp.
  2. Always allow for extra testing time. Email client issues can really blow out your schedule.
  3. Improving an email programme is a never-ending process. There's always room to iterate, such as by A/B testing content and subject lines.

Many thanks to Agata, Tim and Stig for discussing both the motivations and process behind our email newsletter redesign. Our previous discussions on workflow - from the informal, to Atlassian's structured process - have always lead to interesting community discussions, so I'd like to take the opportunity to turn this over to you.

So, what is your email workflow like? Or, do you have a question for our team? Let us know in the comments below.

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

4 Comments

  • Veronica
    3rd December

    Hi,
    Thanks for all the great info you guys have been sending me! It has been helping me a lot with our emails here.
    Just want to give you a heads up that your email “Email Redesign Part 1: A distributed team’s workflow and the definition of done” didn’t display correctly on Outlook 2010. I know, Microsoft should be better about rendering emails by now.
    Take care,
    Veronica

  • Ros Hodgekiss
    3rd December

    Hi there Veronica, thank you so much for letting us know about our RSS blog subscription email not displaying properly in Outlook 2010. Would it be possible for you to send a few more details (and possibly a screenshot) to our team? We’ll see what we can do to improve the template we’re currently using. Thanks again!

  • Simon
    4th December

    Oops, your basecamp link doesnt work.

    Great blog, we do enjoy reading it :)

  • Chris Bowler
    4th December

    Ah, nice catch Simon! That link is updated :)

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