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The devil is in the (creative) details

by Andrew O'Halloran, Chief Privacy Officer

The devil is in the details, and no less so when it comes to the email-marketing creative. This becomes even more apparent to both novice and expert web designers just starting in the email creative domain. What works for web browsing may not work for email-client viewing. This becomes particularly frustrating to the seasoned HTML coder who has to unlearn web best-coding practices to work in email marketing.

All good web designers code and test to ensure cross-browser support. So, for instance, you will test to make sure your site renders well in Internet Explorer,  Firefox, Safari  and so on. But email has an added challenge because the designer also has to account for how the creative will render in different web- and desktop-based email clients such as Outlook 2003, Outlook 2007, Gmail, Yahoo (Classic), Yahoo (New), Hotmail, AOL, and so on. This is where, unfortunately, one small line of code or a "one size fits all" approach with the creative can have dramatic differences on how the message renders in different email clients.

For the beginner email-marketer, these rendering differences often come out as unexpected problems such as:

  • Low conversions or anticipated results (because the creative is rendering poorly in a particular email client)
  • High spam complaints (because of a rendering issue whereby the subscriber does not recognize the message and then categorizes it as spam)
  • High spam complaints or even lawsuit* (due to a rendering issue whereby the unsubscribe link becomes camouflaged by a background color). 

*Email compliance is a whole separate topic, but it is important to note that CAN-SPAM and other laws require that the unsubscribe mechanism be clearly and conspicuously displayed. While a font and background color combination may look great in Outlook 2007, the same combination in another email client may render the unsubscribe link and verbiage invisible.

I will cover creative aspects of email marketing in more detail in another blog entry, but until then here are some high-level approaches to keep in mind.

#1 Get an expert consultation

It is just too easy in the email world to overlook a small detail that can have a major impact on your email-marketing campaign. Sure, if you are an expert coder, you can probably figure things out by trial and error, but that is missing the point. Why re-invent the wheel and set yourself up for a lot of pain and frustration?

#2 Learn HTML coding (or have on hand someone who does)

Chances are that you are planning to send more than one campaign. Many beginners in email marketing use HTML design tools such as Adobe Dreamweaver, Microsoft FrontPage, and so on. They are all great tools for web-page design and can be handy for email creative design too - except for some caveats. These software solutions often will add extraneous code that will result in rendering issues within the email-marketing environment. In the end, you want to make sure you know enough about raw HTML coding, or have access to someone who does, so that you can detect these issues and be able to fix them.

#3 Remember your audience's viewing environment

Viewing an email message is like viewing a screen within a screen. This means that your email creative has to be designed for a much smaller viewing environment. The general rule of thumb is not to design anything larger than 600 pixels. I call this a "best starting practice." The reason is that there are so many more variables that should be taken into account to optimize your email-marketing campaign. For one, you will want to consider the preview pane, which varies in size among different email clients. What may come out as a strong call-to-action in one email client's preview pane may be chopped off in another. In the end it is a benefit/cost analysis, but recommend that you build different creatives for each email-client-viewing environment.

#4 Test, Test, Test

Campaign and creative optimization is a process and not an end. Once the creative basics are in place, you will want to turn your attention to improving the results. Amazon is a good example. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tested improvements have been made to Amazon's website. I am not talking here about new features or major functionality that was added to the site, but rather details so small that you wouldn't notice a change from one day to the next. Perhaps a change in color, tweak in layout, icon placement, logo, nomenclature, and so on. While seemingly small and insignificant, over time these can add up to produce dramatic results. The key here is taking an evolutionary approach by constantly seeking and testing improvements.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 30th, 2009 at 9:02 am

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