Email Design Principles

Art may be subjective, but design is not… not entirely anyway. For your email newsletter to be impactful and produce results, there are some fundamental best practices that will ensure your email looks elegant, but more importantly, is truly effective in driving response. Over the course of several posts, I’ll discuss some basic design and technical principles that will address both issues, maximizing the potential of your newsletter.

Images in your email, Part 1

The bad news: Email is far behind the times in comparison to other forms of digital media, and so the design approach has to be simpler. One of the most important things that you probably already know if you’ve ever opened an email (anyone?) is that for many email readers, images are turned off by default. This presents two challenges: One, how do I get the reader to click that little “show images” link at the top so they can view my email the way I intended them to view it; and two, if they choose not to click that link (or simply can’t find it), what’s my backup plan? You have roughly 3 seconds to capture their attention, so you’d better think fast.

The good news: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has established some voluntary guidelines (which are required by law for federal websites) for basic functionality to be present in digital media for those who may have a visual impairment… including providing a snippet of alternative text (commonly referred to as an “ALT tag”) for every image that appears in your email. The function of the ALT tag is to provide a description of that particular image, if for whatever reason that image cannot be seen. For those who are visually impaired, software is available to read these tags aloud, along with the rest of the content on the page. While this is good practice in general for every email and website you publish, it also means the difference between someone getting your message immediately, or having to rely on the slim chance that they will take the time to click “show images.”

With most email service providers, you have the ability to add ALT tags to any article image by using the “Caption for the picture” field when creating an article.

Be smart about ALT text. It doesn’t help to simply put something like “New 2013 models.” If you are an automotive dealer, for instance, and your lead article is a lease-offer that takes the form of a well-designed banner ad, make sure you provide as much (if not more) information than the image would convey: “Lease this elegant 2013 IMN Crossclimber for only $299 a month with zero down and 1.9% APR for qualified buyers! Click Here!” This is a direct, impactful message with a clear call-to-action that may get your reader to click regardless of whether the image displays. ALT text is also readable by Google’s spiders (the little pieces of software that find your email or webpage and add it to Google’s search database), whereas text in an image is not readable… so you get the SEO benefit as well.

You may also choose to alert readers that they should enable images by putting a persistent message at the top of your newsletter: “Can’t see the images in this email? Make sure images are set to display automatically in your preferences.” If you are providing a web-hosted version of the email, you can also place a persistent message at the top to get them to immediately click through to this version, which will minimize the pitfalls described above.

Stay tuned for my next post on how to choose the right images for your email marketing campaigns.  If you have any specific questions about email marketing design that you’d like to see covered, please leave your questions in the comments below.


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