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Lessons in Effective E-mail Design

March 11, 2001 

Think an e-mail campaign is easy? Then why are response rates so low? Why does everyone complain about it? Why do people prefer receiving plain old text messages, with their limited capabilities and poorer legibility, when they could get HTML-formatted messages with better typography, helpful charts and graphs, and images that can make those messages more colorful, easier to understand and just, well, better? E-mail marketing is not the simple process most people think it is. Doing it right is not easy. Getting your messages opened, let alone read, is a challenge few are willing to investigate.

Here are a few of the lessons learned from real-world experiences and ongoing usability testing that you can incorporate immediately to ensure that your e-mail message succeeds where others fail. Surprisingly, very few companies invest in usability testing around e-mail messaging. Yet the findings are often counterintuitive to what most companies actually implement.

Lesson #1: Get to the point.

Give the main message of your e-mail upfront. Don't elaborate unnecessarily. Be concise and accurate. According to IDC, there will be 35 billion email messages per day flying around the Internet by 2005. That doesn't even take into consideration the growing proliferation of instant messages popping from desktop to desktop using ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger or a half dozen other free applications. And what about wireless? Palm Pilots, mobile phones, BlackBerries, beepers and 2-way text messaging devices are further increasing the signal-to-noise ratio that your message needs to penetrate. A warning, though: don't err on the side of brevity, either. It's easy to consider e-mail a disposable commodity and treat it as such. Your e-mail messages are an important part of your overall customer strategy, and should be treated that way. Keep your messages short and sweet, but avoid making them stunted and abrasive.

Also, make sure you know what the point is. Give customers what they ask for. Be it account balance information, stock portfolio summaries, or special seasonal offers, when customers receive your message, they expect to get what they signed up for - so give it to them. This may seem obvious, but we've seen countless tendencies to tack on unrelated offers and information to an existing e-mail, confusing the message and ultimately diluting the original e-mail goal.

Lesson #2: Have one clear goal and stick to it.

If you're designing promotional e-mail, introduce the offer and provide a link for more information. Don't fill up the e-mail message with every detail of the promotion. When customers are faced with too much information, no matter how useful it is, they get turned off. They may decide they'll look at it later when they have more time and never get back to it. Worse, and more likely, they'll decide it's too much trouble and delete the message without ever reading any of it. Make it simple for your customers to understand your offer by keeping it simple.

In the midst of all this slimming down and getting to the point, don't ignore your brand - particularly your company's voice. If you haven't defined this aspect of your communications, you're probably in a lot more trouble than this article can pull you out of. Defining how your company speaks to its customers and prospects is essential to making them feel comfortable with you and, in time, trust you. Carefully compose each message with your corporate voice in mind - especially since every word counts! You'd be surprised how often a company sends out conflicting signals just because one department uses "you're" while another says "you are."

Lesson #3: Use graphics subtly, but effectively.

When one starts designing HTML-formatted messages, the tendency is to go all out and incorporate pretty images of people smiling, a big, bright company logo, lots of color, lots of different text styles - just lots of everything. Guess what users dislike? When you begin designing HTML e-mail, by all means use your logo, but don't overwhelm the reader with it. They'll feel like you're hitting them over the head with it. Your company name should appear in the subject line and what you should be doing is reinforcing a feeling of comfort and trust you're attempting to engender, not thrusting your face at them. Most e-mail is still in plain text format. A huge graphic anything, whether that's a logo or an image or a headline, is disorienting and visually abusive when it suddenly appears in your email message.

Use color, but don't overuse it. Consumers in test situations said they liked seeing color, it caught their attention and was an effective visual cue to bring that attention to specific parts of a message. The downside was that if too much color was used, that's all they saw. "I liked how colorful it was," they would say. Ask them what the message was about and they drew a blank. In essence, they liked the use of color too much. So use it sparingly, and to draw attention. Don't forget: the most useful capability of HTML is also its most basic component-embedded linking. Everything else is window dressing and should be used sparingly and for a reason, not just because you can.

Every company is different, and it's advisable to perform some usability testing with your own customers to uncover their particular expectations for your electronic communications. But by incorporating these general email-messaging guidelines now, you'll be one step ahead in a very crowded field.

Lance Arthur is Director of User Experience at Quris, Inc., San Francisco, CA and Denver, CO. Reach him at

© 2001 Lance Arthur, Contributing Writer. It is taken from a

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