10 Definitive Tips for Writing Captivating Emails

Nov 17 2009 by Dave Sparks | 22 Comments

Emails are a great way to reach people, to keep reminding them that your site still exists and that they really should keep checking you out. After all, the people who receive your emails should already be familiar with you, they will have opted to receive emails from you, but now you have to make sure they pay attention to what you’re sending them.

10 Definitive Tips to Writing Captivating Emails

But, you should keep in mind that every email list is different. You should see what works for your readers and avoid what I call the Amazon effect: just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it’s right for you and your company.

Start with best practice and good ideas, and then tweak your processes to see what works best for your own email campaigns and keep refining your strategy.

1. Get into the inbox

Before anyone can respond to an email, they must first be able to get it (logical enough, right?). If you haven’t taken the steps to ensure you don’t fall at the first hurdle, it’s not even worth clicking "send".

Know about the CAN-SPAM act

Everyone knows about spam and how much of a nuisance it is, so in 2003 the CAN-SPAM act was passed in the U.S. and it set out the guidelines that most spam filters today enforce.

A can of Spam

If you can’t be bothered by reading the entire CAN-SPAM guideline, here’s a brief guide to what you need to do to ensure you don’t fall foul.

The seven main points of the bill are:

  • Don’t use false or misleading header information.
  • Don’t use deceptive subject lines.
  • Identify the message as an ad.
  • Tell recipients where you’re located.
  • Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you.
  • Honor opt-out requests promptly.
  • Monitor what others are doing on your behalf.

What does all of this mean? It means that you are to make sure that the email is accurate and honest, includes a postal address, an unsubscribe method, and a text version. You also have 10 days to unsubscribe anyone from your email if a recipient requests it.

The Sender Policy Framework

Many filters also make use of the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) to verify the sending server. You can see how to setup and SPF record at the Sender Policy Framework overview page.

Don’t just assume that because you’ve done everything, your email will get through – you should check it and perform thorough testing! Any decent piece of email campaign software will give you the ability to test an email as spam–you should use this feature.

2. Make a good first impression

Once you’ve gotten into an inbox, it helps to make a good first impression. When designing an email, always think about what people are going to see first. There are many previewing options in email clients, so the principal of fold design is still very applicable to HTML emails.

There’ll also be a lot of people with images turned off by default, so make sure your background color is sensible and that your image alt attribute can be read and is descriptive of the image it represents. If an image is used for text replacement, make sure the text from the image is equal to the alt attribute.

Given that people use a huge variety of different email clients, there’s a chance that some people may not get a decent look at the email you send at all, so make sure there’s a link to a web based version at the very top of the email. People aren’t going to search through your email to find a link to a web/alternative version and it’s your responsibility to make it as easy to locate as possible. A simple "having trouble viewing this email? Click here." link should do it.

GAME email newsletterThe preview pane from Outlook shows a GAME email newsletter. Notice the "Can’t see this email?" link is at the top is obvious even when the images are off.

3. Use your brand

Your emails shouldn’t be a stand-alone form of promotion and communication, they should tie into everything else about your company and brand.

Colors, logos, and fonts should be carrying over into your email designs. Some emails will even go so far as to maintain the look of the company’s website, complete with header and primary navigation links.

ebuyer emaiThe header from an ebuyer email (top) and the website (below). The branding is consistent, as is the style and feel of the menu bars.

Brand loyalty can be very powerful and the trust that being recognizable and identifiable gives can be priceless. As readers will already be familiar with your brand, make sure they instantly know this is something from you — something they can trust.

You’ve invested time and money on company branding and identity; don’t ignore the value of that in your emails.

4. Provide text versions

The days of sending text-only emails are pretty much long gone as far as email campaigns go — sure, we still use it everyday, but your email campaign should be saying something a bit more special.

You should have already put your text version into your email so that you can get past spam filters, but your job isn’t done there.

A note about mobile devices

A text version is becoming more important as people increasingly read and view content on their mobile phones. Mobile device users often read the text version through a text-based email client so make sure to test for this growing occurrence.

5. Personalize your email messages

Personalizing an email can be a great way to connect with your readers and get a little more attention. An email with the subject "Winter offers for Dave Smith" is more noticeable when the recipient is skimming through their inbox than "Winter offers".

But be careful, people glaze over emails with too much marketing-speak and hard sell. Being overly familiar can be a real turnoff to some people, so don’t feel that you have to use this in every email – use it appropriately and when the occasion suits it.

Personalization doesn’t stop at just putting the recipient’s name in the email. For example, Amazon is a well-known master of personalizing emails to your browsing and buying habits. You can go further and target people’s responses to previous email campaigns as well: you may decide that people who have read the last few emails get different versions to those who have never opened them.

AmazonThe kings of personalized content. An Amazon email sent to people who had previously purchased certain items.

Remember to keep these personalization techniques up to date: if you have a separate list of people who haven’t read any of your recent emails, then make sure you update it immediately before you send your email off.

6. Give people a reason to respond

Think back to any recent emails you’ve actually responded to, where you’ve actually clicked a link or at least paid a bit more attention. I’ll bet that at least one of them had some form of offer, incentive or competition.

If you give people a reason to read your email–a reason to respond–then more than likely, they will.

The incentive doesn’t have to be grand and expensive: a percentage discount off postage on your ecommerce site or a free download for email subscribers can do wonders to the percentage of people who read your emails.

This can be a great tie-in with personalizing an email. For example, a recent email that I got was a free P&P (postage & packaging, otherwise known as free shipping and handling) offer on my birthday, which, of course, I took advantage of straight away.

Competition on a Prestige Guitars emailCompetition on a Prestige Guitars email.

7. Use calls to action

Many people forget that email design is very similar to designing for the web. You don’t quite need to forget everything while you’re reminding yourself how to layout with tables again.

Calls to action are the same as they would be on any web page, make them prominent and their intent obvious, big buttons, highlighted offer codes, just as you would on a web page, and remember: if people click on something, they expect to be taken where it tells them it will.

Prominent calls to action in Travel-ticker.com emailProminent calls to action in Travel-ticker.com email.

Structuring the email well can help, have headings stand out, and for lengthy emails, a summary at the top of the email can be useful. For web based email clients, you can even use internal page anchors to jump to the appropriate content.

8. Content is king

myfonts.com

As with everything on the internet, you need to have good content, the entire point of you sending the email is to get your content into somebody’s inbox!

So make it good, take your time with it, and make sure it gives people some form of value when they read it. I know people who subscribe to the myfonts.com emails because they like reading them and find the information provided in them valuable.

An added bonus? Good content will be forwarded, new people will sign up, and you’ll grow your email database and its reach with little effort.

So all those articles you’ve read to make your website worth reading? Dig ‘em out because you’re going to be needing them.

A focused email from Onitsuka Tiger for a new product launch.A focused email from Onitsuka Tiger for a new product launch.

9. Determine what your goal is

Before you put your email together, it’s a good idea to have a little pondering session about what it’s supposed to accomplish. If it’s focusing on a product launch then maybe a simple "splash email" will be best, but if it’s a lengthy newsletter, then it helps to organize the news items in order of importance to you and to your readers.

Think about what you want the reader to do. Do you want them to visit your site? Do you want them to forward the email to a friend? Do you want them to take advantage of an offer you’re promoting? Your objective determines the way to write and format your emails.

With any email, it also helps to have tied-in web content, so if you touch on a subject, then you might also provide a link to a more in-depth blog post for readers who want to get more details.

10. Get data for analytics

You wouldn’t launch a website without Google Analytics, so why send an email without analytics software? The only way you will know what works is to find out what people do with your email. Do they open it? Do they click on links? Do they mark it as junk mail? Do they forward it to their friends?

Get data for analyticsStatistics from Campaign Monitor interface

As a minimum, you should be tracking:

  • Email opens
  • Any links clicked
  • Bounces
  • If anyone marks it as junk

Then get your stats together and ask yourself what each of them tells you. If people aren’t opening your emails then you need to look at your subject lines, make them more inviting, and split test (also known as A/B testing) them on future campaigns.

What are people clicking on? Are they clicking on your prominent calls to action or are they clicking on links to your articles and blog posts? Where I work, we’ve sent emails and found that our new portfolio items were clicked a lot, so in the next email, they were made more of a feature.

Bounces are good for checking the integrity of your email list and the methods by which you acquire your emails. If you get many bounces from an email user, then it may be time to update that contact.

If people are marking your email as junk, you have determine why. You’ll normally get a few people accidentally marking it as junk mail, but if people do perceive your emails as junk, you may need to rethink your content or subject lines. After all, these folks should have opted in to receive the email, and if they haven’t, then you’ve probably found your answer right there.

I would recommend noting down what email clients your readers are using so that you can make sure your emails display correctly in the most popular clients. For instance, if a large majority are using web-based clients, then you can add a few things like background images. If they are using clients with a preview pane, then you should think about the section that will be seen first in the pane. This will also give you insight on what email clients you should be testing and previewing your email messages in.

This is where it helps to get good email campaign management software. Campaign Monitor, Mail Chimp and Dotmailer are all popular solutions, but it is worth looking around and finding a provider that suits your sending volume and budget.

Share your email tips

Do you have tips and anecdotes with your own efforts in email campaigns? Do share your opinions with us in the comments!

Related Content

About the Author

Dave Sparks is a web designer and developer working for Armitage Online in the Lake District. He can be found writing about various web topics on his blog at Kamikazemusic.com, twittering as twitter.com/dsparks83 and working on his website analytics project - Stat Share.

22 Comments

Jim

November 17th, 2009

that’s some good info if you are rethinking the dynamics of email

Johan de Jong

November 18th, 2009

At the point 1 you do notice Sender Policy Framework (SPF), although there is another method used by some major email servers/services (like Yahoo) which is DomainKeys and/or DKIM.

Setting up an SPF record is simple, but DomainKeys/DKIM is another story. More info about this at http://www.dkim.org/

Peter

November 18th, 2009

Data for analytics:
PHPList is an open source mailer that I think should be mentioned: http://www.phplist.com/
Probably not as flawless as the paid services, but for those who want to have their own system running on their server I think it’s a good alternative.
And it’s free:)
Click- and Open-Rates trackable.

Terrance Charles

November 18th, 2009

Great post, every last one of those factors you mentioned are important especially the “1st impression” one, you have to remember people will judge your emails based on your 1st email to them, so if it turns them off, they won’t open anymore and just ignore it, so you want to overdeliver value in your 1st email to keep them wanting more.

Sarah Lynn

November 18th, 2009

Great article, you covered a lot of good points! I do a lot of email designs and content is king. You have to give your customers a reason to open your emails, otherwise they are going to label you and your company spammers, whether or not you are “technically” a spammer is another story! Thought I would share an article I wrote on online retail and promotions, towards the end there is some ideas on email marketing for retailers. http://sarahlynndesign.com/2009/09/the-impact-of-design-online-retail/

David Mark Horowitz

November 18th, 2009

I like #1, there’s a book by Rushkoff with the title “Get in the Box”

Screen Sleuth

November 18th, 2009

Fine article with a lot of good details. Disagree about HTML emails though; many people with PC knowledge have these minimized or turned off, so I go with text emails by default generally.

Dave Sparks

November 18th, 2009

Thanks for the great feedback

@Johan – I haven’t had much experience using DKIM as I haven’t had problems getting to Yahoo mail boxes but you’re quite right and dkim.org is a great place to start with it.

@Peter – PHP list isn’t something I’ve used but I’m sure it’s a good piece of software, at the end of the day what you choose is all down to your needs and your budget, there’s no point paying loads of money to send out 500 emails a month.

@Sarah – Very true, a lot of people don’t understand the actual concept or rules of spam and often a legitimate email can be marked as spam simply because it’s selling something. This is where using your brand and checking your email list are both very important!

@Jim, @Terrance, thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed that article.

For anyone who is interested the emails shown in the first image, from left to right, are:
Old Navy ,
Light-U Ltd,
eROI
Stamford Clothiers
and
Columbia Sportswear Company

Case Ernsting

November 18th, 2009

I’m interested in getting started with email marketing. How do you find email addresses to send to? Better phrased, how do you appropriately find markets to email to?

Jill

November 18th, 2009

Thanks for writing this! I’ve been wanting to start an email campaign and this is great info.

skyhigh

November 19th, 2009

Suggest to use Spread – email marketing software & service ,it’s a professional web-based Email marketing platform includes all above.

I have already used it and maintain good relationship with clients. It’s also works for explore new customers.

Dave Sparks

November 20th, 2009

Thanks to everyone for the comments, it’s nice to find out what everyone is using to send HTML email campaigns after all I doubt many people will have the chance to check out every piece of software!

@Screen Slueth – I’m not sure I agree with you there, a lot of people will have images turned off for un-verified emails but aside from that most people will receive and read HTML emails.

@Case Ernsting – The email addresses on campaigns have to be compiled to certain guidelines for legal purposes to help prevent SPAM. From what I can remember they either have to be people who have opted to receive emails from you via some form of signup or opt in at registration type process, or if it is relevant such as a business announcement you can send to people whom you have had dealings with over the past 2 years. The CAN SPAM act above has more information or check out this post on the Campaign Monitor FAQ – http://help.campaignmonitor.com/topic.aspx?t=51

viettel

November 24th, 2009

Data for analytics i prefer most is Google Analytic tools :)

Andy Towler

November 24th, 2009

Re the point discussed with Screen Slueth:

Sure I read HTML emails – but I have images permanently and globally turned off in my email clients, to avoid privacy breaches by web bugs. No-one has a right to know if or when I read an email they sent.

So companies that rely on images to make their emails look pretty are wasting their time on me – and on many other people I suspect.

Dave Sparks

November 25th, 2009

@Andy Towler – thanks for the comment, I think generally most people will use default settings for their email clients and it will be a more web savvy user who has turned off images globally.
As you say you still read HTML emails I assume that means that for some you will turn images back on or do you simply read the text portion of the emails?

Christina

November 26th, 2009

Useful info, I’ve been sending out bulk emails for my personal e-mail campaign and almost forgot the importance of tracking it. Thanks.

Michael

December 22nd, 2009

I’ve been working intensively with a company that uses e-mail to generate sales of a service. We go as far as analysing who viewed but didn’t open, who opened but didn’t click through, who clicked through but didn’t buy. We then target them with specific info or offers. Those that eventually buy are thanked profusely, incidentally!

Ted Apostoleris

April 21st, 2010

I think that using the canned emailing systems out there is ok, but I do not think it is a good value. I would just set up a list-serve, and create a program myself. Or, if the time isn’t available, I would try and find a mail program to use, like phpMailer.

jashim uddin

May 3rd, 2010

Mr. Dave Sparks Thanks for writing this! I’ve been wanting to start an email campaign and this is great info.

stena

August 16th, 2010

I like this dude thanks a lot

Felipe Lachowski

September 26th, 2011

Awesome post. Straight to the point, with useful tips.

Kent Anderson

October 10th, 2011

Hello David,

Quick question,

I have a company log that i want to use in my Aweber auto-responders but have been told not to for fear of recipients spam filter.

Yet,your article stress’s to carry over my brand in my email with letter head or logo.

I do use my logo and letterhead in the PDF attache with each email the recipient sign up for.

Who do i believe and what are your thoughts?

Hope to hear from you and thank you for the great post,
Kent

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to the comments on this article.