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Table of Contents
Chapter 1

Planning Is Essential

As designers, we might consider the planning phase to be outside our scope and handled by the client instead. Often a client will have the same opinion, relegating a designer to the technical work and the pretty pictures. Although this is a valid approach, it can lead to a beautifully designed but ineffectual email. That’s bad for your client, and for your prospects of future work.

If we can help our clients to create campaigns that actually work, they’ll be happier, and we can charge more for our services as specialized email campaign consultants. We’ll discuss this in more detail in Chapter 6.

If you have ever worked on a website larger than a few pages, you will know how frustrating it is when you’ve sunk hours of work into the project, only to find out that the client has changed their mind about what the website is actually meant to do. Without a clear plan up front, a website can often end up being a collection of disconnected pages lacking the structure to help visitors make sense of it. An email can suffer exactly the same problems, albeit on a smaller scale.

Of course, we’re talking about business, rather than personal, emails here. There’s no real planning required to send a photo of your cat to your friend; you just need to remember to actually attach the image. If we want to create a really useful email newsletter, we’ll need to do more planning beforehand. What’s the purpose of the email? Who are the people it will be sent to, and what are they expecting to receive? What will success look like for this project?

When you’re approached to create an HTML email, it will be your job to find answers to these questions before you crack open Photoshop or your favorite text editor. Otherwise, you may end up with a gorgeous, beautifully coded email that’s only ever opened by filtering software and cats walking across keyboards.

Rather than just explain how you can apply planning principles to your next project, we’ll take a typical client and work through the planning, designing, and coding processes required. I always find that building it for real is a much faster way to learn than just reading the theory.

Chapter 2

Meeting Our Client

Today’s busy supervillain has no time to do basic death trap maintenance, or deal with the Home Owners Association over concerns that their volcano lair is “not in keeping with the area.”

Enter the henchman (or henchperson, if you prefer). Every villain needs at least one henchman to fire inaccurately, put gas in the submarine, and laugh deferentially at all the right moments.

But good henching doesn’t just occur by chance, and successful henchpeople need to be on a path of continual improvement. Modern Henchman magazine is the journal of choice for the professional henching community.

We’ve visited them in their decidedly nonsecret lair and chatted about their ideas for a new email newsletter, and they’ve agreed to work with us to make it happen.

To kick it off, we’ll need to answer some basic questions. These questions will be always be more or less the same, whether you’re working for a client, an internal team, or your own startup (in the latter case, they’re questions you need to be asking yourself).

You can find these questions in an editable document included in the book’s code archive download, and use them for your own projects.

The Modern Henchman Magazine Client Briefing

Who are you sending these emails to?

  • Current subscribers of the print magazine
  • People who sign up on our website
  • Customers who purchased from our site

What is the main reason for sending these emails?

  • To increase sales of our Modern Henchman line of products, by encouraging people to buy for the first time and by making readers repeat buyers

What type of emails are you planning to send?

  • Customer newsletters
  • Subscription reminders
  • Invoices and purchase receipts

What type of content do you want to send?

  • Special offers
  • Informative articles that tie in to our products

How often would you be sending emails?

  • The newsletter will be sent once a month, with other reminders and notifications as required

Do you have an existing visual design you would like the email to match?

  • Yes, the website at

Do you have examples of other emails that you like?

  • product emails
  • Apple sales emails

Our client realizes that subscribers with an ongoing connection and past purchasers are the most likely people to purchase from them in the future. Sending an email newsletter or offer to their customers once or twice a month is a very cost-effective way of staying in touch.

It also keeps them in their customers’ minds, ensuring that when they need a freeze ray or an exploding hat, is their first stop.

Now that we have our client brief, we can start to work out what needs to be done in order to complete the project. The first step is to define in more detail what a successful project will look like.

Chapter 3

Setting Goals

Any time you approach a design challenge, you need to have a clear target in mind. This is no less important for an email newsletter than it is for a website or printed matter.

Taking the client’s answers from our initial brief, we can restate them in the form of measurable goals. More than just measurable, the goals should also be as specific as possible.

Our client has said they want to increase sales to print subscribers, and convert new customers from email-only subscribers to active customers. That’s a good start, but it’s wise to try to nail down some more specific goals. For example, what exactly do they mean by “increase sales”? Is it enough to have just one more sale? That might sound ridiculous, but there are some products and services where a single sale could pay for an entire year of email campaigns. Your client may sell consulting services for thousands of dollars per engagement, or they may sellWeb 2.0 gradient stickers for a dollar per box. We need to be detailed and specific in order to set useful goals.

Some clients may be uncomfortable giving you specific financial information; they might instead state their goals in terms of the number of visitors arriving at their site from links in the email. If they know that 1.8% of website visits convert into a sale, knowing how many people visit the website from the email can be roughly converted to a dollar value.

Sit down with your client and show them some example goals you have come up with based on their brief. That may lead to follow-up discussion that can help them clarify in their own minds what they want to achieve through their emails. For our client, we might suggest this primary goal: generate at least $400 in sales directly from newsletter subscribers within the first week of each email being sent.

Your client may not have a goal that’s directly tied to a financial return. For some businesses, a reply from the reader might be exactly what they want to achieve.

Here are some other examples of goals you could consider:

  • Re-establish direct contact with 5 previous clients
  • 40% of subscribers open the email
  • 20% of subscribers click at least one link
  • 30 people visit this specific page on the site

You get the idea. All these goals can be easily measured, so you’ll be able to identify when you’ve achieved them. Sometimes that won’t be possible. For example, it may take years for a customer to commit to buying a new warehouse layout system or mainframe installation. The measurable goals in those cases could be about maintaining a relationship, where the measurement is email replies received from the customer.

This process is about more than just producing goals, it is also to encourage our clients—and ourselves as designers—to think carefully about why we are sending the emails in the first place. After all, if the person or company sending the email does not really know the point, the chances of the recipient caring about it are very poor indeed.

Chapter 4

Measuring Success

Once we have one or more goals in place, we’ll need to set up the tools or processes that will be used to tell if those goals have been met. That might include sales figures from a certain department, reports from your email service provider, or analytics from the website.

If you’re using specialized software (whether internal or external) to send the emails, a lot of these measurements may be provided for you as part of the package. The kinds of figures you can expect to be able to track are:

Open rates

How many of the people who received the email actually read it? This number is calculated by monitoring the download of tracking images inside each email. Unfortunately, many email clients don’t download images by default, so not every open can be recorded. Similarly, some email clients only show plain text, with no downloaded images.

Click rates

How many of the people who opened the email actually clicked on a link? Typically, email sending services redirect each link through their own tracking service to record those clicks.


How many people actually used the “send to a friend” function to forward the email? (Assuming your software has this function.)


How many people chose to unsubscribe from further emails using the software’s built-in unsubscribe system?

Conversion rate

How many people who clicked through went on to actually buy, or download a trial, or perform another action you can track? Software like Google Analytics can be used to record these actions, and tie them back to particular sources, including your email campaigns.

The most important measurement isn’t the raw numbers themselves, but the change in these numbers from one campaign to the next (also called the trend). After we send each campaign, we’ll be making changes to the email content and design, even to the day of the week and time of day that we send. The historical measurements will quickly tell us if our changes are successful or not.

We’ve reached the point where we have goals for the email campaign, and we know how to tell if we’ve reached those goals. Only now should we start putting together a plan for the HTML email itself.

Emails are built with the same technologies as web sites: HTML and CSS. However, there are some big differences in what makes an appropriate design for email.

Chapter 5

Planning Your Content

It’s tempting for web designers to think of HTML email as a little one-page website. After all, it’s just HTML and CSS, and a good number of people will be viewing the email in a web browser anyway, right?

That’s all true, but websites and emails really are two different media. Just as print designers had to acclimatize to the unique constraints and opportunities of theWeb, web designers working with email also need to adjust their thinking.

An Email Is Not a Website

We tend to think of websites as being an online storefront, in that people actively come to our site, whether directly, by searching, or by following a link. When a visitor comes to our website, they normally have some idea already about what they’re expecting to find. Visually, the site takes up their full browser window.

An email is a different case. Your inbox is more like your house than a storefront. Emails come to you without you taking any action. When they arrive, the visible area of the email may only be a fraction of the size of a web browser window. Take a look at the typical email software shown in Figure 2.1.

An example image

Figure 2.1. Standard email software in action

Notice how busy this window is compared to a web browser? The actual email takes up only a small percentage of space at the bottom, and is surrounded by other items competing for attention. Folders, notes, and other emails fight to be noticed.

So our email is going to have a much harder time being understood than a website displaying the same content. This will affect the way we design our email, and the way we write our content. As designers, we need to be respectful of the fact that our readers (or our client’s readers) have let us invade their personal space.

Unless readers are devoted “Inbox Zero” converts, our email will be just another item in a long, long list that’s interrupting their real work.We’re asking them to pay attention to our email, and usually to take some kind of action. In return, we owe them an email that doesn’t take up more time than is necessary, is easy to read, and is actually useful.

Before we dig into the visual aspects of HTML email design, we need to know what content our design is going to be centered around. Every client has their own idea of what should go into an email, and most will have a hugely inflated sense of how important their email is to the people who receive it.

Email in the Real World

Clients have a vision of their readers sitting in their chairs, hitting “Get Mail” every few seconds just to hear the glorious sound of a new email arriving. The reality, as we all know from our own experience, is rarely as positive. To be worthy of more than a cursory glance and a swift trip to the junk mail folder, our email must have immediate, obvious value. This starts with the subject line revealing who the email is from, and what value it offers the recipient.

“Information overload” is a horrible phrase, but we all know what it means. Too much information is given to us, and there’s too little time to actually use it.Websites can be content-rich and complex, but at least you can ignore sections of a website.

An email is much more invasive, coming directly to your computer and into your face. While there are no absolute rules, generally our subscribers will be happier with a shorter email than one that tries to pour a website’s worth of content into that tiny email pane.

It can be tough to sell this idea to clients. They tend to think that everything they produce is important and interesting to every subscriber. Of course, they’re unlikely to treat the emails they receive with the same rapt attention they expect for the emails they send—and this might be worth pointing out.

With those general concepts in mind, let’s sit down with our client and hash out the content for their newsletter.

Planning the Modern Henchman Newsletter

Our client has provided us with this list of content for the Modern Henchman newsletter:

  • information on the featured product of the month
  • teasers for stories in the magazine
  • a link to send the email on to a friend
  • a featured article

Now we need a way to prioritize this list and narrow it down. A simple way to do this is by asking one more question: “What is the one action you want your reader to take after they read the email?” Modern Henchman request that “the reader should click through to learn more about our featured product” when they receive their regular monthly email.

Your client might seek a different preferred action from their readers, such as sending a reply, visiting a certain page, or forwarding on the email.We could go on to select perhaps two or three desired actions. After that, though, we risk having so many possible choices that the reader is paralyzed into taking no action at all.

Now we can rank our content according to what best supports the desired action, and what will most likely meet our overall goals for the email campaigns.

Modern Henchman might end up with a priority list like this:

  • information on the featured product of the month (this directly supports our primary action)
  • featured article (building our reputation for knowledge)
  • link to send the email onto a friend
  • teasers for other stories

With this list we can now create an outline for the newsletter, establishing a structure we can carry through from edition to edition. Based on responses from subscribers, we may change this over time, but always keeping our goals clearly in view.

Our final step before we launch into the visual design is to gather all the content for our first email. This can sometimes be a time-consuming task, typically relying on the client to provide material.

For Modern Henchman, we can grab a lot of the content for a typical issue from their website, which has the article archive and full product descriptions.

It’s Okay to Reuse Content

Yes!While you might think that repeating content from the blog or website is a cheat, the reality is that most newsletter subscribers will rarely visit the website unless they’re making a specific transaction. The most recent statistics show that more than 90% of internet users still have no understanding of what RSS is, let alone how to use it to keep up with websites.

Even at Campaign Monitor, where customers are mostly internet-savvy web designers, we receive a much bigger response from our email campaigns than from our blog entries. So reusing materials from the website is a smart way to go, and can save a lot of time.

At this stage, we just need representative content that we can build our design around, so creating a dummy sample issue with some content from the website is a good idea.

Lorem Ipsum

Yes!I recommend you avoid using lorem ipsum text as filler, even though it’s common in website design. Too many emails (and too many websites) have been designed using placeholder that turned out being totally different in length, style, and shape from the actual content. The design has then had to be tweaked, well after it should’ve been finalized.

Chapter 6

HTML Email Q&A

Before we move onto designing our email in Chapter 3, we’ll go over some common email questions your client may ask, and suggest how to handle them.

How long should an email be?

As short as you can make it, without making it useless. There are some businesses sending very long and complex material in email form, but they’re rare. The typical inbox is exceedingly full already, so is an unpleasant space in which to spend time. So get in, get your message across, and get out.

From reviewing many thousands of newsletters for Campaign Monitor, the typical length for a content-heavy newsletter (as opposed to an invitation or simple notice) is two or three screens’ worth. That seems reasonable. As always, keep your client’s audience in mind, as their needs or expectations may be different.

Should I put the full articles in the email, or just teasers and links to the site?

If shorter is better, linking to the full article online is often the way to go. If you have expansive content, putting it all in the email will be overwhelming. On the other hand, if you can write a shorter version, or carry your point across in a few paragraphs, you could save your reader time by giving them everything they need without having to click through.

How often should I send emails?

As always there is no single answer, but a 2009 survey found that 73% of respondents cited “sending too frequently” as the main reason for opting out of an email mailing list. Conversely, email that’s too infrequent risks subscribers forgetting they ever signed up, or finding another solution to the problem you’re trying to solve for them.

In general, it’s better to err towards too few emails than too many. The answer in any specific case will depend on what the subscribers expect, as well as the timeliness of the content.

But then, you can simply ask your subscribers—and even people who’ve just unsubscribed— how often they’d prefer to receive your content. Check out a post on this topic on the Campaign Monitor blog.

What is the best time to send?

Endless theories have been proposed and tested about the perfect time to send an email campaign. Studies have been unhelpful, because the mystical perfect day and time seems to shift unpredictably from one study to the next.

See Email Marketing Reports for some study results and a few ideas that can help you find a suitable starting point.

Of course, you also need to consider your content and your audience; some types of content will lend themselves to a Monday morning arrival, others to a lazy Sunday afternoon. The only really useful answer to this question is, “Try a few different times and see what works best for you.”

Is it okay to buy or rent an email list?

Generally, no, it isn’t. Although there are services and products that claim to have fully opt-in up-to-date databases, you have no real way of confirming that. Most email service providers and anti-spam systems take a very dim view of purchased email lists. The risk is too high, and the chance of success too low to bother with.

Take the slower approach of building your own opt-in list over time, by interacting with people yourself.

What is a good open rate?

This is yet another question for which there is no simple answer. There is such enormous variation between industries, companies, and recipient lists that overall statistics are unhelpful. Still, we all know clients will ask anyway, so it’s good to have some general idea. Broadly, a typical range is 20-40% of the subscriber list. Read more about how open rates are usually measured and what’s considered normal for different industries and sectors on the Campaign Monitor website.

Often the real question your client is asking is, “Why don’t I have 100% open rates?” so you’ll need to discuss their expectations and the reality of email marketing with them.

How many clicks should I expect?

This follows on from the previous question, but is even less likely to have a reliable answer. Email marketing industry reports tend to quote a 2-15% unique clickthrough rate as typical. This means for every 100 people who open your email, less than 15 would typically click a link.

Business to business emails are often at the higher end of that range, and mass market consumer emails the lower. Emails that are targeted and valuable to the recipient can go much higher, of course.

How can I avoid my email being filtered?

Use magic, if possible. Otherwise, you’re unfortunately stuck in the land of trial and error. No email service can honestly guarantee your emails will escape filtering, except in very particular circumstances. The vast majority of the time, it’s your actual content (subject line, message body) and possibly your “From” address that filters are checking. Your email service provider is unable to control this, so it’s largely up to you.

Some topics, such as pharmaceuticals and mortgages, are so heavily targeted by spammers that legitimate senders will always struggle to avoid filters.

The best approach is firstly to avoid highly common spam words (good luck if you ever need to send an email campaign about Viagra!), and then test your email with as many different clients and filters as you can. If your email is filtered in one or two of the tests, but the rest are okay, you’re probably fine. If your email is systematically filtered, there could be a broader problem.

In that case, try using one of the email testing services that give spam filter results with reasons why the email failed. Otherwise, cut out half the content and send the rest. If it passes, there could be a problem phrase or word in the half you omitted.

There are no easy solutions to spam filtering, but you need to make your clients aware that even the same email client in two different installations can behave differently. The best you can do is to test, test, test.

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