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How to design an email newsletter

Email marketing makes sense to any business owner looking for a simple way to reach customers. It’s inexpensive, widely accepted, and can be highly targeted, depending on how succinct your customer database is.

To learn more about using it for your business, read 5 steps to getting customers with email marketing.

As with anything to do with online marketing, email isn’t as simple as it seems. Aside from drumming up good content to make your subject line stand out in crowded inboxes, the actual appearance of your email needs to impress the recipient, or at least avert their scepticism, if it’s going to get clicks.

This is where the template comes into play. An email template is effectively a simple, single webpage layout formatted to look good in the context of an email client. Used in conjunction with online marketing software like Mailchimp, AWeber, Constant Contact, Vision 6 or Campaign Monitor, a good template can frame marketing messages so that they appear inviting and eminently clickable. There are a number of different approaches to template design, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. It’s important you understand each so you can take the approach that bests suits your business.

Getting started

First of all, it helps to think of a template as a simple webpage. As with a webpage, what’s displayed in most emails is determined by HTML code. Although there are ways to avoid coding altogether, if you want to make even the tiniest changes to a template yourself, you will need an HTML editing software. Adobe’s Dreamweaver is an industry standard. Komodo Edit provides a good, free alternative.

The next step is to choose an email marketing service to host your database and co-ordinate campaign sends. Most of the major services, like Campaign Monitor or Mailchimp, go out of their way to provide you with tools and code to help build your own template, or customise pre-existing ones.

While you may have grand visions for what you want your email to look like, it’s best to start with something humble and build from there. If you choose to experiment with creating your own template, make use of the instructions and editing tools offered by the service you’ve chosen. If it proves to be too tall an order, find a good web designer. For them, the creation of a template won’t be a huge task, and shouldn’t cost you the world.

Email essentials

Before you get stuck into which approach to template design is most appropriate, there are a few things that any template should include.

The first consideration is branding. It’s important that your business logo is prominently displayed as part of the email. Typically this appears in the header of the email – a banner that stretches across the width of the page. While it’s simple enough to experiment with logo variations when creating an email header, it’s best to get a designer to create this for you. Once designed, it will only need to be updated occasionally. The more professional it looks, the better the impression it will give of your business.

“Imagine if McDonalds sent an email out about a brand new burger they’re launching, but nobody knew who it was from,” asks Luke Humble, managing director of Pixel Perfection. “If they have their logo there, that brand recognition automatically induces a direct communication with those receiving the emails.”

Above the header, it’s crucial to have a link that lets the recipient view the email as a webpage. In the interests of the user, many email programs like Outlook and Gmail deliberately gut pictures and some content out of templates. If a user opens an email to find a bunch of blocked images, it can turn them off – but having a link to view an unobstructed email as a webpage gives them the option to override over-zealous spam filters.

Finally, the footer of the email needs to provide recipients with a way to opt out of receiving the email.

“From a legal point of view, and according to the Australian electronic communications act, you must have the full contact details of your business stated in the email,” says Humble. “You must have an unsubscribe link, and you must have permission to actually send the email to that person.”

Having decided on the template’s header and footer, it’s time to choose a design approach that will best suit what you’re trying to communicate. There are three basic approaches to template design, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Consider which of the following would best suit what your business is trying to do with email marketing.

For a fuller idea of what else your email campaigns need, read Nett‘s Top 20 email marketing tips.

A single image

The simplest way to create your own template is to design an image that details the goals of the campaign and frame that with a header and footer.

“We start off by actually creating a static graphic – JPEG, PNG, GIF – which actually houses all the information within it,” says Humble. “Then, depending on the target audience, we may even leave that as just a solid graphic or image, and place it within an HTML email. The image itself would include the company’s branding and logo, and there would have to be a good catchphrase or sentence that actually draws them in.”

The advantage of this approach is that it makes the template easy to put together – all it needs to do is display the header and the content as images that link to relevant webpages. It also gives the business the opportunity to send out content that’s visually striking.

“As a whole, it graphically has an impact to draw that person in, but its purpose is to perform an action, and that action is to drive that viewer to a particular page or site,” says Humble. “The design of it is very fundamental in gaining that action.”

There are two downsides to this approach. Firstly, the success of the email depends on how good the image is. If you don’t have the resources to design a GIF that contains your company’s logo and some punchy messaging, then the campaign is unlikely to do well.

Also, many spam filters automatically block images to stop recipients having to look at unsolicited advertising.

“For example, Microsoft Outlook, out of the box, actually disables image viewing by default within emails that are not part of your address book,” says Humble.

If the content of your email is contained entirely within an image, then this kind of filter will defeat the purpose, and prevent your message from being read.

Custom HTML template

While the single-image approach has its appeal, it’s a much safer bet to create an HTML template that balances images with plain text.

Creating a custom template requires HTML authoring software that includes a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editor (Dreamweaver, for example).

In this type of software, the WYSIWYG editor allows the user to lay a template out like it was a Word document. It then creates the equivalent of the end result as an HTML file, which can be uploaded as a template into your chosen email marketing software.

This approach to template creation gives the user much more flexibility and control over the end product. It also means that the template can catch the recipient’s eye with bold text headings in case their spam filter blocks images.

The only major drawback is that it can be difficult to get a custom HTML template to appear the same in Hotmail or Gmail as it does in Outlook or Mac Mail. For example, the spam filters in some major email programs automatically strip certain types of code out of emails – like CSS (cascading style sheets), for instance, which is used to specify font style, size and colour. If the editing program uses CSS to reproduce what you’ve laid out as code, then the resulting template might look completely wrong depending on which email software it’s displayed in.

Most major services offer a way to test whether a template will appear the same across a range of different email software. While this won’t fix any code or formatting problems that arise, it can at least help to avoid sending a campaign that doesn’t consistently look the way it’s meant to. While there are ways of altering the code to anticipate these problems, this sort of complication can make creating a custom HTML template on your own a lengthy and involved process.

Pre-made templates

For small businesses, one of the major upsides of using a service like Mailchimp is the array of pre-made templates included. These are usually easy to modify, and provide a range of different layouts for presenting content.

“The goal [of pre-made templates] is usually just so that someone can easily get their message out,” says Colleen Amos, owner of Your Virtual PA. “So you can pretty much just press a few buttons, and you can have an e-newsletter going out. Although it won’t look fantastic, the functionality is there, so they can do it quite quickly on their own if they wanted to. “

Amos notes that, although she creates custom templates on request, pre-made templates are more time-efficient.

“I find that most of the work’s done, so you’re better off spending your time making it look fabulous and building on it as well at the same time, rather than spending the time to get it up to the point of standard,” she says.

Most importantly, pre-made templates are designed in such a way that allows for different email programs, as well as devices like smartphones and tablet computers.

“They’ve already been coded in a way that they will degrade gracefully,” says Humble. “What I mean by ‘degrade gracefully’ is that, in terms of any design elements, if code is stripped out in the likes of Hotmail, it will still visually retain the same layout.”

The only major drawback to using an off-the-shelf template is that it may come branded with the email marketing company’s logo, which is not a very professional look.

“The downside is that the email service is hosted by a third party provider that is out to advertise themselves in any way, shape or form,” says Humble. “That means that it is actually advertised within your email campaign.”

For this reason, always find out if a service offers the option to pay to have logos removed, or for a ‘white-label’ template – one that will allow them to display their own branding without it being diluted by that of the service.

Less is more

Regardless of which approach you take, it’s wise to keep in mind that less is more when it comes to designing emails. Email marketing services usually offer tools to modify the HTML of their pre-made templates. While this may seem like the best of both worlds, Amos notes that, even with pre-made templates, over-modifying a layout can cause problems in different email programs.

“Trying to do too much with it can sometimes make it look a bit tacky,” she says. “If you make too many changes and you don’t know what you’re doing, then it could look different in certain browsers.”

This ethic extends to how you use the template to position an email’s content. Too many product images or article previews will overwhelm a visitor rather than drawing them in to click on something. It’s best to keep the focus of a template down to a single link to a product, or an array of between three and five links.

“Don’t overwhelm people with pages and pages of text in the email,” says Amos. “Instead, have little summaries. You might have a thumbnail picture and a little snippet of an email of the article, and then you link them through to your site. Let them click through if they want to read a full article to get someone to interact with the website, as well.”

Finally, it will work in your favour to remember that the content, and not the template that frames it, is what’s most important in email marketing. It helps if the template looks and feels professional, but not if it means distracting from the message of the email.

“The best way to do that is to keep your email campaign simple and focus more on the content than on the design itself,” says Pixel Perfection’s Humble. “Although the design is the eye-catching element for those receiving the email, as long as you’ve got the right marketing message in there, and you’re starting off on a strong footing with your main title, the design will be only adding a slight benefit to it.”

To learn more about creating online content for your business, read How to make online marketing content.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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