Saturday, July 05, 2014

HTML Email Design & Deployment - Part 1

HTML email for marketing

Our email inboxes have become quite a lot more colourful (and cluttered) in recent years, thanks primarily to the rise of HTML and CSS support for email readers. This means web designers can develop emails in much the same way as web pages. These emails can then be used for marketing and business communication, or as extensions of a company’s website.

However, even though modern web browsers are fairly uniform in how they display HTML and CSS, email readers are still somewhat at the infant stage in terms of HTML and CSS support. In addition, the sheer number of email readers with varying security settings - from stand- alone programs such as Outlook and MacMail to browser-based tools like Yahoo!, Hotmail/Live Mail, or Gmail – makes it difficult to confidently design for the bulk of your potential audience.

So, before we jump on the HTML email bandwagon, let’s explore a few key considerations.

It help or hurt the message

When deciding whether to send a plain text email or an HTML email, the first step is to determine the purpose of the message. Email is, at its core, a method of communication. Traditionally, this communication has been accomplished with text. Adding images, color, and other formatting is great until they distract or inhibit users from receiving the core message. Keep this in mind as you decide on just how much designing to invest in your email.

For example, a confirmation message – such as one for an order or registration – is critical. Images and other styling techniques likely add little to the core content, and should therefore be eschewed in favour of plain text which is more likely to be received by the widest possible audience.

Conversely, a plain text message probably wouldn’t do much to inspire recipients to visit a new theme park. In this case a colourful, photographic or illustrative message would be better suited for the purpose.

Will users even receive the email message?

The answer to this question depends on two things. First, we must deal with the dreaded four-letter word of
email: spam. To put it another way, any time you send email to a large group of people at once you are at risk of having that message fast-tracked to the junk folder. You can reduce your chances of sending perceived spam by following these basic rules:

• Send messages only to people who have given you permission to do so. Not only is this good business, it’s the law. Most people consider this to include anyone who is a current customer, as well as those who have requested information from you. And this means it is not OK to troll the web looking for email addresses to
market to, or to send messages to every single address in your address book. (Imagine, if you will, an electronic entity surfing the web to find more unsuspecting email addresses to receive nasty spam messages. This is the ‘trolling’ we speak of.) Leaving aside ethics and the law, you might hope such mass marketing campaigns would lead to a few new sales, but it is much more likely you’d get new customers by marketing to people who have expressed an interest in your products or services.
• Follow legal guidelines. Apart from avoiding stiff fines, you can help ensure your messages don’t contribute to the spam epidemic by following your country’s restrictions on commercial email. (We’ll cover the specifics of such guidelines shortly.)
• Avoid spam trigger words and phrases. Let’s face it: most of us have without asking received more than our fair share of emails promising to grow our bank accounts (among other vitals). That’s one of the reasons certain words and phrases have been identified as spam triggers. Using them in your subject line or title is almost certain death for that email.
• Be honest. The final piece of advice sounds self-evident, but is worth mentioning again given how tempting it can be to stretch the truth in marketing. One of the best ways to avoid wanting to send spam is to be truthful and forthright in your marketing, with no overselling or promising what you can’t deliver.

Unfortunately, even if you followed all these guidelines your emails could still be classified as spam. Therefore it’s essential to stay on top of your electronic customer communication. This means becoming familiar with the ways in which your customers check email, and following up to confirm they are actually opening your
messages. In addition, always provide them with alternative methods of accessing the information you wish to impart. For example, if you email a customer his/her transaction receipt, also make that receipt available in his/her account on your web site. Here are a few articles to read to learn more about ensuring customers receive and welcome your messages:
• Getting Your Emails Delivered
• 10 Tips to Keep Your Emails Hitting the Inbox!
• Avoid Spam Trigger Words

Will users even open the message?

Traditional print marketing messages often end up in physical trash cans, just as electronic messages frequently end up in the virtual bin. But just because a message isn’t immediately trashed doesn’t mean it will be opened. Many users judge a message’s relevance by its subject line and sender. We’ll talk later about ways to improve the rate at which users open your messages, but we mention it now so you can consider the potential drawbacks of using email for marketing.

Will users even see the message?

We already mentioned the wide variety of email readers available. Not all these readers are set up to display images either by default or even at all. This means image-based content may be invisible to a large portion of your target audience. Let’s take a look at above to see what this means to marketers.

This is a perfect example of how the message, without images, is completely lost. And it’s the reason why the company included a link at the top of the email to view the message in an alternative method (such as in a web page). If you decide to market to customers through email, it’s critical that you consider how your message displays without images. While you can set up test accounts with each of the popular email tools (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and so on), a more efficient method is to use a single testing tool that allows you to preview your messages in a variety of email programs at once.

Email Marketing cost effective.

Now that we’ve covered a few of the potential drawbacks of HTML email, it’s time to focus on the positive side. First and foremost, email marketing can be extremely cost effective. When compared to print and direct-mail marketing, the design costs are typically similar, but the delivery costs are much less. You can send a thousand emails for a lot less than you might mail a thousand postcards in traditional methods.

Email Marketing is fast.

Second, you can send those same one thousand emails before the corresponding postcards are even back from the printer! This means you can send messages about a certain holiday, or current event, much more efficiently than you might otherwise with traditional mail.

Email Marketing enables you to target specific customers.

Have you ever received an email from a company offering a special discount for a product you recently browsed on its web site? The nature of having user accounts on various websites allows site owners to track their products and services of interest to particular users. If a customer doesn’t purchase within a set amount of time, discount or a special offer can be sent in an email. Sales are much higher from targeted emails such as these than from more random mailings sent to a broad range of customers.

Email Marketing provides measureable results.

Finally, email can be tracked in a way not possible with traditional mail. This means companies can find out which emails were opened, and which were ignored, to determine how to increase the rate at which future emails are opened. It is also common to follow which links were clicked more often. (This is referred to as the click-through rate.) Likewise, emails resulting in sales are tracked, so they can be emulated in future marketing efforts.

Read Next - HTML Email Design & Deployment - Part 2

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