Skip to main content

Is Your Email Template Killing Your Email Marketing Campaign? 5 Ways To Whip It Into Shape.

By July 30, 2012November 5th, 2014Email Marketing
Is Your Email Template Killing Your Email Marketing Campaign? 5 Ways To Whip It Into Shape.

When I first opened a Mailchimp account, I got a little starry-eyed over all their template options. Two column, three column, single sidebar, double sidebar… full-width-two-column-three-column combo. Whoohoo!

So I did what most people do in the face of 32 ice cream flavors: I tried them all.

I set up a template with a column here, a sidebar there. I messed around with colors and styles. Eventually I decided I really liked the layout of the full-width-sidebar-three-column-combo. That would look way cool with my stuff in it.

If you haven’t seen the flaw in my plan yet, I’ll tell you what it was:

I put the template before the content.

So do you know what happened after I set up that awesome template with all those predefined spaces for content?

That’s right, I had to figure out what to put in there!

Let me tell you, nothing will kill an email campaign dead like a lot of empty template spaces and nothing to put in them.

And I’m supposed to be smarter about these things.

So yeah, it happens to everyone. We get excited about trying something, jump in and repent later. That’s ok, it’s all part of the learning process and hopefully we extricate ourselves and live to market another day.

My mistake was obvious – but some email mistakes are not so obvious and we may not even know we’re making them. So in the interest of helping you move your email marketing along, I’d like to share a few ways that the humble email template can make or break your marketing efforts.

Email Template DO #1: … Wait, You Have An Email Template, Right?

Maybe I should’ve started here, but you really need an email template if you plan to market with any efficiency. Now, you don’t need to get stuck with only one email template forever, but trust me, you don’t want to recreate one every time you want to send an email. It’s a time-suck and you’ll start to dread it and then your email schedule will start to slide and suddenly you’ll be thinking maybe you’ll just stick it on Pinterest and call it a day…

A template can – should! – be simple and uncomplicated. The easier it is for you to put together, the easier it’s going to be for your subscribers to read and understand. A branded header is a good place to start, and might be all you really need.

Avoid my mistake, and start by figuring out what you want to put in the email before you decide how to lay it out.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to change everything about the email every time. For example, you may have a semi-permanent sidebar where you always show your social icons or your latest eBook. But you can’t have a blank sidebar. Be mindful of that before you choose a layout.

If you know you’re going to have an eBook sometimes and not others, then create two simple versions of your template – one with a sidebar and one without. This will make it super simple to switch between layouts that make sense for your content.

It will also give your readers a sense of familiarity and knowing what to expect. If your emails are all over the place with different formatting and layouts every time, it could be confusing and overwhelming to your audience. And you know what confused and overwhelmed people do? Delete.

Email Template DO #2: Select A Format

Text vs. HTML… who wins?

If you’re sending text-only emails you won’t have a template, just a standard configuration (intro, content, footer) and there are some pros to doing this.

  • You don’t have to worry about how your email will appear in one of the myriad email programs, from Outlook to Google Apps.
  • You don’t have to worry about spam filters questioning your (over) use of graphics.
  • You never have to worry about subscribers who don’t accept HTML emails. Text can be seen by everyone.

But I think that HTML emails are far superior and have other benefits that outweigh those of text.

  • HTML emails are much more compelling. Think of the power of Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. People are visual and visual emails will catch their attention more effectively than words words words.
  • They can be formatted in a way that makes it easy for readers to scan, digest and understand.
  • You can track your open rate more effectively.
  • Even if subscribers don’t accept HTML emails, you can still provide a link to a web-based version that they can read in all its visual glory.

So assuming you’re going with an HTML template, choose a template style that fits your content needs and make it as simple as possible.

This is not an art project. If you’re feeling creative, do what I do and pull out a box of Crayola 64s. The more design-y your email template, the more likely it is that two things will happen:

  1. You’ll get too attached to using it and less likely to change it up when you need to.
  2. Spam filters will have a field day with you.

By minimizing graphics and using only specific and relevant photos and images instead, you can take advantage of HTML emails without some of the side effects.

Here’s some more information about keeping your email out of the spam folder.

Email Template DO #3: Shorten Or Eliminate The Intro

When you’re writing a blog post, you need an intro to get people oriented and to tell your story.

Not so with emails.

I know, it makes sense to have an intro! It feels wrong to just jump into products, services, news.

You’ll get over it!

Seriously, think about it: when you open up your email program in the morning and there are 36 unread new messages, do you sit back for a leisurely read? No, you scan through them, answer or dump them as fast as you can and then get on with more important things, like checking on your Facebook friends.

Studies have shown that nearly 70% of readers skip email intros completely.

You have two options here:

  1. Skip the intro and jump into the content you really want your readers to see,
  2. Or make your intro so riveting that people won’t be able to resist.

Personally I don’t have time to be riveting, so I’d rather stick with option 1. It’s entirely up to you, but before you decide, “Hey, she has a point but pft, my readers know me. They totally want to read my intro. I think I’ll work on sprucing it up instead of killing it…” check out this additional tidbit first…

Email Template DO #4: Understand How Readers Scan Emails

Have you ever heard of the “F-Pattern”? No it’s not related to the F-word. It’s been shown in eye tracking studies again and again – and this is true of emails, web pages and search results, too – that people read/scan in an F-Pattern.

That means they start at the top left corner, where, incidentally, they spend most of their visual time, scan to the right, scan down the left side of the page, and across again though not all the way – thus, the “F”.

This has huge implications for how to best format email content.

  • Since people spend most of their time to the top left and across the top, this is where you want your most important content. Still feel like taking up that beachfront property with an intro?
  • Since they also scan down the left side of the page, this should be where you provide the “hooks” that will catch their quickly scanning eye. Photos and catchy headings work well. See what I mean about skipping “design” in favor of layout? If your readers’ eyeballs are doing the scan-cross-scan thing, then put your content exactly where you already know they’ll be looking.
  • Sideline that sidebar. The right side of the page is the red headed stepchild of your template. Along with the footer it’s about the least read thing on the page. If you’ve got a hot deal or your most exciting content, that sidebar is probably not the best place to put it.

Email Template DO #5: Sweat The Details

When you’re thinking big-picture and crafting the most beautiful, riveting email of the decade, it’s easy to lose sight of the more mundane and practical details that can mess up an otherwise fabulous campaign.

Here are a couple of dos that can make the difference between a reader and a deleter.

  • Keep your email template to 600 pixels wide (or less). More than that and you risk forcing readers to scroll horizontally. That means if you’re designing an awesome header, do it within that width limitation.
  • Use ALT tags for your images. Most email programs hide images by default. That means readers won’t see them unless they specifically enable them. ALT tags give you the chance to make people actually want to show your images and act as a placeholder/cue when they don’t.
  • Avoid CSS. It’s great for websites, not so much for emails. Use simple in-template styling for your text and headings because many email programs will strip out the CSS and make a mess of anything that should have been using it.
  • Put unsubscribe info in your footer. Programs like Mailchimp put this in the footer by default, but it’s important (and legally required) that you make it easy for people to opt out.

What do you think? Are you ready to work on your first (or new) email template? It’s easy to do! Keep these guidelines in mind and remember to test and experiment. If you start with a simple template and let your content guide you, you’ll be able to try new layouts and ideas to see what your audience responds to best.

Got another template trick? Share it in the comments below!

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Christine Brady says:

    Hi Carol Lynn,

    Great points about email templates!

    It’s funny because email templates can get very involved and elaborate. I like what you mentioned about getting your content ready first and then choosing a template.

    And, I agree, the details are so important. Emails are one of the most personal forms of communication, so there is no room for error.

    Love the ideas in this post!


    • Thanks, Christine! I usually collect snippets from problems I see other people having (of course, I make some of my own problems, too…) I’ve definitely learned that content trumps template. I spent a lot of time trying to fill empty spaces and finally wondered, why am I doing this??

  • Great details, Carol!

    As of now, I don’t have any email lists, but I do plan to relaunch mine in the coming months. I use Mail chimp for my email marketing needs (and mail chimp offers some awesome email templates). I have experimented with lot of these: I have tried short emails, really long emails (I love writing those!) and medium sized emails – Unfortunately, I still don’t know what the results were, since I didn’t stick to anything for a long time.

    I think the most important thing in emails is the title (the length of the email, not so much – depends, some people prefer to read small emails and many other support it due to the short attention span of people, while others support long emails, because they tend to contain more information).

    It is also important to use appropriate font, font size and color (you don’t want to be too small or too bright!).

    And of course, including bolded or italicized text is the best way to emphasize the important text (since our readers would scan the emails).

    I think it all depends – of course, we could “condition” our readers into reading the entire emails, because they are awesome emails (some email newsletters are just awesome, fun and informative, you can’t just scan).

    Anyways, thank you for the post,

    Jeevan Jacob John

    • Hi Jeevan,

      You brought up some important details about good emails. The font, style and colors are definitely important. In fact, a good email layout is not that much different than a good web page layout. You have to get your reader’s attention, make the content interesting, easy to scan and give it space to “breathe”.
      You’re right, some people read long emails and some don’t. It’s hard to gauge the “right” length except with a bit of trial and error. But if you format it properly and make the layout work for you (with photos, colors and headings) then people will be more likely to at least scan through a long email and choose which parts to read more of.
      Thanks for sharing your insights!

      • Of course, experimentation is the key (From my own experiments regarding other issues, I have seen that people tend to read more when the content itself is presented in a unique – but still, a “Readable” manner).

        No mention. Thanks for the reply!

  • What a great post, carol. I know that nowadays every auto responder program have more templates than we care to use. I’m always trying to find the simplest one and still it’s too much for me.

    It used to be a time where all emails sent using email programs would be just plain, but now, everyone is coming up with their fancy little one, so you feel that you have to as well. Right?

    I didn’t know about using the ALT tag for pictures which I certainly something I will check after reading this post. Thank you for this, Carol.

    • Glad to help, Sylviane! Don’t worry about coming up with some “fancy” template. All you need is one good layout and it can be very simple. If you put a header at the top and your content under, that’s fine. Think of it like a web page. When you write a blog post, you have your website header, and a good title, then you break up the content with sub-headings, sometimes bold, lists, photos, etc. People want to be able to scan. And since they spend most of their attention at the top, make that top space count!

  • Adrienne says:

    Hey Carol,

    Great post and I use to not even worry about templates at all. Then I read a post on Ana Hoffman’s blog earlier this year and she had shot a video walking us through how to create your own template so that it matches your blog. That way if someone signs up for your email, if your photo is in your header you’ll instantly remember that person instead of thinking, oh hell, another email from other person.

    It wasn’t hard to set up really and I just kind of write my emails like I do my posts. I don’t really have a format but my open rate is high so I’m not going to worry about fixing something that’s not broken ya know!

    But as always, great info you always provide us and a very important topic when building a list.

    Enjoy your day young lady!


    • I’m a big fan of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” 🙂

      Of course you have a stack of people who know and love you dearly so I put you in a category all by yourself. Like I said, a header may be all you need! But for people sending out business newsletters, product stuff, things like that, it’s good to have some basics down and understand how people read email.

      There are always rule breakers…. I get emails from one company that are always sooooo long and no formatting at all and yet I read every word. That’s the beauty of marketing!

  • Chadrack says:

    Must say this is great info for me. I use Mailchimp but have never tried html format. Since I know most email services have problems with html emails, I thought just staying with plain text is the best way to go. Besides, I really did not know how to make the html design something appealing.

    Your post is going help me a great lot as I’m starting a new email list for my new site. Will definitely make this resource to check out. Thanks for sharing.

  • It’s true that there are some concerns with HTML email, but if you avoid using many/large graphics and don’t use a CSS stylesheet, you should be fine. It’s easy to make a plain text email look a bit nicer in HTML. I would suggest starting with something simple like a header graphic. Just make sure it’s 600 pixels wide (the height depends on what your image is) and then use one of Mailchimp’s templates. drag and drop your header in, and then use their built-in formatting options to add colors, bold, headings and other styles to the text. That’s it! When you’re comfortable you can experiment with adding more photos or perhaps a sidebar.