5 Key Pieces of Effective Email Design

Lisa Cook on Email Marketing

When marketers send emails, we hope they will be opened, read, and acted on. That chain of events sounds fairly simple, but in a world of overflowing inboxes and rampant spam, it can be hard to make your mark.

Despite the intense competition for opens and clicks, coming up with an effective email design doesn’t have to be a daunting process.

By simply focusing on its constituent parts and refining each one, in turn, you’ll have an email campaign that leaps out of inboxes in no time.

In this post, we explore tactics for maximizing the five components of great emails:

  1. Subject Line
  2. Preview Text
  3. Sender Name
  4. Email Body
  5. Visual Design

Effective Email Campaigns Are All About Teamwork

Think of each piece of your email as part of a team. Each one has a distinct and important job to do. Only if all of the components work in harmony can your email marketing drive in the traffic and conversions that it was designed to earn.

The subject line is the point of contact that you have with your customers. You want to grab people’s attention and get them to open your email, but you also need to be forthright about the content they’ll find inside. In this way, you have to show value from the very beginning.

You continue the conversation started with your subject line in your preview text, adding additional details and enticements to drive opens.

Supplementing both of these pieces is the sender name/address, whose job is to establish trust with your email audience.

Once these three have done their job and your email is open, the content goes to work driving clicks and conversions with copy, visuals, and call to action.

Let’s dive into each of these components one by one.

Crafting Your Email Subject Line

The Subject line’s job is to engage and intrigue the recipient to the point where they want to open the email. Ideally, your subject lines will:

  • Be short. Fifty characters or less is best so that it won’t get cut off on a small screen.
  • Create a sense of urgency. You are competing with dozens (possibly even hundreds) of other emails in an inbox. You want to avoid being filed away for “later,” which basically means, “never gonna happen.”
  • Not be a sales pitch. That is unless you actually have an offer or giveaway, or the people on your list signed up to get sales updates.
  • Include the benefits or the value of the email. Make sure you’re positioning your email by conveying value through your subject line.

These are some examples of awesome subject lines:

Warby Parker: “Uh-oh, your prescription is expiring”

Groupon: “Best of Groupon: The Deals That Make Us Proud (Unlike Our Nephew, Steve)”

Rent the Runway: “Happy Birthday Lindsay – Surprise Inside!”

Manicube: “*Don’t Open This Email*”

Refinery29: “The broke girl’s guide to a luxury vacation”

UncommonGoods: “As You Wish”

Eater Boston: “Where to Drink Beer Right Now”

Ticketmaster: “Read your review for John Mulaney”

JetBlue: “You’re missing out on points.”

AddThis: “10 Engagement Tips to Gobble Over Thanksgiving”

Buffer: “Buffer has been hacked – here is what’s going on”

(Examples courtesy of Hubspot.)

Preview Text: An Overlooked Part of Email Design

Preview text is the easiest part of the email to ignore because it’s not typically prominent during the email creation process. However, this is the hook to get your email opened. For many people, this may be the only part of your message they engage with. Make it count.

In case you need a reminder, preview text is the short snippet that appears in someone’s inbox before they open your email.

It doesn’t display in all situations (Outlook users on a Mac won’t see them, for example), but you should take advantage of the chance to add more detail to your subject line whenever you get it.

This screenshot is from a Gmail account, which shows the subject line and a snippet of preview text:

You need to be enticing, but also accurate in your preview text. Nothing gets you an unsubscribe faster than inconsistencies between your preview text and the real content of your email.

Designing the “From” Line

If your email is coming from a company or brand, you’re already at a disadvantage. However, you don’t want to be disingenuous in making your email appear to be from a “real” person when it’s actually a generic sales email from someone the recipient has never heard of.

The guiding principle here is to establish and maintain trust with your subscribers.

If it seems relevant and appropriate, have your email come from a person’s name, but include your company too. “From: Name at Company” is a good template to follow, but be creative and true to your brand.

Whatever your choice, under no circumstances should your sender be from a different domain than the one where people signed up for your list. If I signed up for the IdealPath newsletter, for example, I would not want to receive a newsletter from a generic-looking Gmail account. This looks very sketchy and can get your emails marked as spam very easily.

Email Body: The Heavy Hitter for Your Email Campaign

Typically the job of the body of an email is to get the recipient to fulfill a call to action (CTA), whether that makes a purchase or simply read and enjoy the information that the email contains.

Whichever goal you have in mind for your email, make sure it’s the only one available to a reader.

If you’re trying to get people to take an action, include only one CTA in an email. More than one CTA can be confusing for readers.

Your CTA might be to take advantage of a special offer, to create an account, or to follow your brand on social media. Whatever the aim, limit the option to one clickable component.

This may include eliminating even minor opportunities to leave the email that isn’t related to your primary CTA, such as links to your social media profiles.

Even small clickable icons can dilute the effectiveness of your primary message by siphoning off possible converters.

This goes for content-driven emails as well. If you only want subscribers to read your email, don’t offer them too many distracting links.

Instead, focus on fulfilling the promise of the subject line and preview text, meaning that there should be an easily identified flow and continuity between the subject of the email and what it says. No email bait and switch!

And when it comes to email text, simpler is definitely better. Don’t try to write a novel; brevity is best.

If you find your email is running long, consider creating a separate landing page on your website with an expanded version of your content.

Tips for Great Email Design

Once you know the content of your email, it’s time for design. This is where many email missteps occur, so tread carefully.

A professional, easy to read layout will help your click and engagement rates enormously, while jumbled formatting will only lead to unsubscribes and future poor open rates.

Finding the Right Email Design Templates

Email software like Mailchimp offers drag and drop capabilities as well as pre-made templates, but these won’t do much to help you stand out and may turn out to be very limiting.

Instead, you can grab HTML templates for free from around the internet and then simply switch in your own logo or adjust the branding to match your own.

Campaignmonitor.com, for instance, offers dozens of free templates that can be customized with very little coding know-how.

Your design should also scale beautifully to mobile devices because an ever-increasing number of emails are read on phones, tablets, watches, and more.

Send yourself a test email and read it via mobile; mobile previews in email software are notoriously inaccurate.

Designing Via Logos and Images

Whatever design choices you make, ensure that they are in keeping with your brand and look good with your logo. Subscribers will be looking for visual cues that they actually opted into your email, and a logo is a very simple way to reassure them.

Images need to be the right size and resolution, but you should also keep in mind that many email programs don’t load images automatically. For more on ensuring that your calls to action and other vital visuals stay intact, see our Guide to Best Practices for Email Images.

As the final piece of your email design, make sure your finely tuned content is written in a legible font.

Cool, cutting edge fonts are nice, but they may not read well on small screens. In some cases, they may not even load if the consumer doesn’t have that particular font installed.

Some brief styling commands via CSS can ensure that whatever system your email appears on, it will look its best.

Test Your Email Design, Then Test Again

No email design will be perfect the first time. Emails are not a marketing campaign that we can set and forget.

Instead, we need to be testing subject line variations, alternative calls to action, different button colors, and differing lengths of text to see what works best for our particular goals.

People’s behavior is often surprising, and it can deviate from what they are “supposed” to do quite often. Your email design should be a constantly evolving, constantly tested creature.

Email design is a team effort, and you should always be on the lookout for a weak team member that you can make stronger.