Best Practices for Designing Compelling Email Experiences
Ah, the email newsletter. The (oftentimes) bane of our inboxes. The love child of every power hungry marketing department. It all starts with such good intentions – you really do want to sign up for updates from your favorite brand – in hopes of a coupon or contest, or because of that sweet freebie download. Suddenly, your inbox is overflowing with endless emails from companies and people you don’t even remember signing up for. Notice me! Buy stuff! Free free free!
The UX of email is a fascinating topic. Email is on the rise: one report puts number of emails sent and received per day in 2015 at over 205 billion, with that number expected to grow 3% per year over the next four years. Despite newer services like Slack and Intercom, email is here to stay, at least for now. We constantly see attempts to iterate on and improve the email experience – the now defunct Mailbox, Gmail’s introduction of categories and tabs, and services like unroll.me specialize in trying to deal with the hydra headed monster that is email newsletters.
If you are tasked with designing or writing one, what are some ways you can make it a good experience for all concerned and avoid the dreaded ‘mark as spam’? How might we best meet business goals, get great open rates, and lots of conversions, all while respecting the user and maybe, just maybe, making the email entertaining, compelling and fun? Here’s a roundup of best practices to keep in mind.
Manners, manners, manners
First things first, good email etiquette is crucial, before getting to the design and content of an email.
Make it easy to unsubscribe! This is the number one email UX tip. Burying the unsubscribe link is just going to irritate users and make them more likely to mark the newsletter as spam or junk, which is not good for business! Good email newsletter etiquette means having the conversation on the user’s terms, and letting them define when they want to step away.
Providing a clear unsubscribe also means you are making sure your email list is an engaged and loyal audience. Best practice includes regularly pruning lists to ensure open rates are high and the people getting the email newsletter actually care about it. It is a myth that bigger lists are better. The truth is that the more engaged your list, the better, even if it is small.
A top complaint among consumers about email newsletters is that they receive so many. Good UX includes letting people determine their desired frequency. Taking this a step further, you can also let users define what types topics of they want to receive email about. This honors the usability heuristic “user control and freedom.” Of course, depending on the system you are dealing with an other constraints, you may not be able to offer robust user driven settings. In this instance, advocate for finding a good sending frequency balance. The email newsletter is after all a play for the attention of your customers or users, and in many cases less is more.
Beware of the ‘mobile open’
Email open rates on mobile devices have been soaring and it is thus increasingly likely that your email newsletter will get opened on a mobile device. The challenge here is of course figuring out how to design for that scenario of constrained screen real estate.
Responsive email is the technique of creating emails whose layout will respond to the screen they are being viewed on – much like responsive web. There is a catch however, which is that there is still not 100% support for media queries in all mobile email clients. Which means, even if you make the email template responsive, you don’t have full control over whether the user gets served a responsive version. Keep an eye on which clients are supporting media queries, and cross reference this with analytics about your particular email list opens. If you need 100% coverage across all email clients, you can look into using a hybrid approach.
The mobile email conundrum is partly the reason for all of those ‘view email in browser links’ – in case there is some malfunction with the email itself or the client, the user can choose to get served an HTML version in the browser.
Content, content, content. As with much of UX design, the content is really key. Creating email content that users actually care about it a real art. Coming across as too salesy or desperate will damage your reputation and open rates. Really think about what is relevant to your readers and what they will care about. Taking a user centred perspective with the content is a must.
Of course, the email content itself is not worth talking about without mentioning the subject line. This is often the information with which a user will make a split second decision whether open the email or move on. A 2015 report identified the average subject line length at 41 – 50 characters, but did not find any correlation between subject line length and open rates. A typical mobile inbox displays between 25 and 30 characters of a subject line, so ensure the crucial information is at the start. Keep subject lines short, sweet, and above all clear. There is also lots of analysis available online which can support you in making decisions about the wording of your subject lines, based on data.
Bonus! Several email clients now support emoji in their subject lines, which opens up a whole world of fun. Emoji can be a fun way to convey personality, tone and emotion in an email subject line. An Experian report identifies that symbols in subject lines can increase open rates for some brands. When thinking about using emoji in a subject line, think through whether it adds value and clarity, and whether it fits with the brand personality. Using less commonly used emoji may also be a way to catch the user’s eye.
GIFs and animation have become a popular trend in emails in recent years – and provide a fun way to creatively engage users. This can often be seen in retail emails, which use GIFs in their email newsletters to show off the products in a fun way. Again, support for GIFs vary across email clients, and so it is best practice to ensure the first frame of the animation contains the important information that you want users to see.
With great power, comes great responsibility
Compelling email experiences are not simple to achieve, and there is lots to consider in order to create a successful user experience. Focusing on good manners, mobile-friendly design and great content will go a long way to improving your email newsletters. A user handing over their email address is an act of trust – respecting that and making a great email experience will be worth the investment.