Designer Interviews: Fresh Tilled Soil

Richard Banfieldst

Today we're talking to Richard Banfield, founding partner of Fresh Tilled Soil, a Boston based design firm whose fantastic email designs have been featured on a number of ocassions in our email design gallery. We asked Richard all about making the transition from web to email design, pitching and pricing his services and for any email marketing secrets he's learnt over the years. We certainly weren't disappointed with his responses and there were a number of gems in here that we hope you can all benefit from.

Has it been hard to convince your clients to embrace email marketing? How do you approach this?

Fresh Tilled Soil

It's not hard at all. Email marketing is a standard marketing vehicle for most of our clients. The biggest obstacle is figuring out what kind of content they should be pushing to their clients.

Most clients initially want to send out boring office announcements and stuff that should be reserved for press releases. Our job is to find out what the audience wants to receive in their inbox, so that they even look forward to opening that monthly email. As spam has changed the nature of email we have to become increasingly creative and insightful.

How much of your current schedule is spent on email marketing for your clients?

"We've used other email marketing software before, but it made a big difference to have a system that was built with the designer in mind."

The answer is much less then you might expect. We've worked hard to develop a process and find the right software, Campaign Monitor, that reduces the time required to setup and deliver a campaign. We've used other email marketing software before, but it made a big difference to have a system that was built with the designer in mind.

Because of this we have cut out most of the costs relating to maintaining a consistently scheduled campaign like monthly newsletters. Generally there is a bigger time investment up front to get the client up to speed and get the template looking perfect but then we can streamline the following monthly emails down to a few hours.

How do you charge your clients for your email marketing services?

Monthly or quarterly retainers. The retainer is calculated as an amortized cost of the time required to design, maintain, edit and distribute the emails. This also takes into consideration that we might spend several hours initially to design the template which we don't have to recreate each time. The longer the contract the more discounted the monthly fee.

What do you think is the biggest benefit of email marketing?

It's still the primary means of affordable communication for businesses so it's still the best bang for the buck. How else can you reach tens of thousands of customers for a few hundred bucks?

From your own experiences, what's the biggest challenge right now in email design?

On the technical side the big challenge is to create designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and can still get through the recipient's email application without being butchered.

In terms of content, the biggest challenge is to remain relevant and concise which means you need to always be closing the loop with clients and getting feedback from the recipients.

How do you communicate campaign results back to your clients?

"We find that most clients would rather pay a little extra for us to deliver a report to them, which Campaign Monitor makes it all too easy to do."

Many of our clients use the Client Report Access feature, especially early in our relationship.

Having said that, we find that most clients would rather pay a little extra for us to deliver a report to them, which Campaign Monitor makes it all too easy to do. This also adds an additional layer of tangible value we can provide. The reports give the clients something they can share with colleagues or their bosses which makes them look like they are doing their job more effectively.

Has it been hard for your team to transition from web design to email design?

Not really. We have had to broaden our CSS skills a little but it has been a smooth transition.

Any email marketing secrets to share with your fellow designers?

The best trick we have learnt is to encourage storytelling to build communities. Whether you are selling shoes or insurance your audience will have lots of great stories to tell about their experiences. These stories make excellent content for both the newsletters and the website.

Through the newsletters we have encouraged audiences to tell their most touching and empowering stories which help other readers to feel connected to the company and the customers that surround it. Telling stories is as fundamental as communication goes but it also happens to be the most sophisticated marketing strategy any company can adopt.

From the Fresh Tilled Soil portfolio...

We've featured a number of Fresh Tilled Soil concepts in our email design gallery. Here's a quick sample from their Campaign Monitor portfolio.

Startup Business School
Magic Beans
Clever Kingdom
Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 7 Comments

Inside the New .Mac Webmail Client

Apple has introduced a new webmail client for their .Mac customers. It’s a truly phenomenal webmail client, functioning nearly parallel to that of their desktop client, Mail. For a brief moment I became disoriented, because while in my browser I was experiencing what I do every day in Mail. Whoa.


Of course my first thoughts were concerns for how they may now be handling HTML emails. As I noted in a previous article, .Mac’s previous webmail client had amazing support for CSS and standards-based markup. The two major oddities were easily remedied, and we were on our way.

So how does the new .Mac perform? I ran some tests and the results are in: the plane has crashed into the mountain! (A reference for the Lebowski fans out there.)

Testing: Round One

My first tests lead me to believe that .Mac’s support for CSS completely disappeared. (And that consequently produced a brief daydream wherein I was Tony Soprano chasing down the .Mac developers for some revenge.)


Quickly realizing there were roughly 10,000 lines of AJAX markup (have I mentioned how cool the interface is?) in the .Mac interface, I turned to the amazing Web Developer extension for Firefox to help me locate the markup for my rendered test-message. Once I was in, it didn’t take long to locate the problem.

The new .Mac takes an approach similar to that of Yahoo, whereby a message ID is applied to a new all-encompassing container DIV and every style is prefixed with the respective ID to create child selectors…

Original HTML:
<div id="BodyImposter">
<h1>Headline h1</h1>
<p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p>

Original CSS:
#BodyImposter {
#BodyImposter h1 {

Modified HTML:
<div id="messageCanvas_070C9153">
<div id="BodyImposter">
<h1>Headline h1</h1>
<p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p>

Modified CSS:
#messageCanvas_070C9153 > #BodyImposter {
#messageCanvas_070C9153 > #BodyImposter h1 {

This process is obviously aimed at foiling any modifications to the .Mac GUI caused by the use of type selectors. And if properly executed it would not impact the appearance of the source email. However, .Mac adds a gratuitous DIV just inside the new #messageCanvas DIV, consequently rendering all CSS useless…

.Mac-rendered HTML:
<div id="messageCanvas_070C9153">
<div id="BodyImposter">
<h1>Headline h1</h1>
<p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p>

In order for the .Mac styles to work, #messageCanvas_070C9153 > #BodyImposter would need to become #messageCanvas_070C9153 > div > #BodyImposter. Such a seemingly harmless little DIV topples the entire email. The .Mac developers obviously didn’t thoroughly test this process.

Testing: Round Two

I ran a second test to see if I could overcome this problem, but came up short. I added my own child-selector system in the CSS, but did not add it to the HTML…

<div id="BodyImposter">
<h1>Headline h1</h1>
<p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p>

div > #BodyImposter {
div > #BodyImposter h1 {

This would account for the gratuitous DIV that .Mac tosses into the mix because I didn’t actually add the new DIV to my HTML. Sure enough it worked like a charm, and .Mac’s support for the CSS in my test email was flawless. But using this process would render the CSS useless in every other email client because the new DIV would only appear in .Mac. Oh, the conundrum.


Grim Conclusion

So the result is that we’re at an impasse with .Mac: either we support other clients or we support .Mac. The former is the obvious choice, leaving us with .Mac emails looking like those rendered in Gmail and Hotmail. Bummer.

I contacted Apple about this bug, but since they do not communicate directly with their customers we can only hope my message is routed/attended to by their .Mac developers. Until then, we just have to live with it. Unless someone out there has a creative solution up their sleeve?

UPDATE: David/Rumble’s recommendation works wonders

I ran a couple tests using this remedy, and all is well with .Mac. The downside is this solution requires a significant increase in markup because every selector must be declared twice. So for anyone considering this technique to preserve formatting in .Mac, I recommend first assessing how many .Mac addresses are on the subscription list.

Read this post Posted by Administrator - 9 Comments

Gallery: Taylor Bowls Newsletter

See the complete email design

Today we’re featuring a fantastic single column monthly newsletter called The Clubhouse for Taylor Bowls, a Glasgow based company specializing in lawn bowls gear.

As opposed to simply promoting their products, The Clubhouse is packed with relevant and interesting content for their subscribers. This includes international competition updates, survey results, interviews with champions, a competition and plenty more.

All of this great content is wrapped in a smartly laid out single column email that’s a breeze to navigate.

Designer:  David Kelly  |  See the complete design

Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 2 Comments
  1. 1
  2. 2

Sign up for free.
Then send campaigns for as little as $9/month

Create an account