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Seven Key Components of Email: a Checklist

By Sep 24, 2010

Email still rules when it comes to building valuable customer relationships: It’s direct, it lets you showcase brand and product messages, and it drives immediate calls to action. Yet many companies still get it wrong. Overemphasis on graphics and none on content; long, overwrought copy and feeble design; failure to understand how your customers receive, read, and respond to messages—these all quickly derail an email marketing campaign.

Each element of an email campaign can be analyzed and discussed in enough detail to fill a score of articles. Here, we’re going to offer quick tips concerning seven key components. Think of what follows as a checklist to help ensure that you don’t overlook any one facet.

1) Visual design counts
* Stay true to your brand. Your format can change, your content can (and should) change, but maintaining underlying visual consistency is crucial. Customers should clearly and immediately recognize who the email is coming from. Control your audience’s focus via design and use of white space, and include a clear call to action. Remember that brand consistency not only makes your email messages recognizable but also makes your brand memorable long after someone has received your message.

* Be easy to read. What you say is important—but so is how you say it. That’s why the right typography is crucial to making emails easy to digest. Use contrasting colors and different font sizes to differentiate headlines from content.

* Offer clear calls to action. Your objective is for the recipients to click through and act, so make sure the mechanism to get them to your desired destination is prominent and easy to find. If they hesitate, you lose them. You should also limit the number of calls to action in your email. Too many options will overwhelm readers.

* Use images wisely. Keep in mind that most email clients (such as Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, and Yahoo!) have images turned off by default. But your message should come across regardless of user’s settings; use alt text on images as a workaround.

2) Content is still king
* Make your offers clear. Get to the point quickly: Why did you send the email? What are you offering that is of value? Be sure to state your offer clearly, succinctly, and up front.

* Ensure that the content is valuable. If your newsletter is focused around editorial content rather than products, make sure each topic is sticky. Readers quickly spot fluff, and your email will be trashed accordingly. Rely on a short, punchy introductory statement or two, and then link to the full article content. The newsletter is just the opener.

* Keep it short! You betcha.

* Personalize it. You know their location, shopping patterns, and favorite products. Respect and show appreciation for the information they’ve shared with you by making your emails relevant to their location, tastes, and preferences.

* Work with what you know. If you don’t have a segmented database, don’t fret. You can give your emails individual relevance by applying insight of your general customer bases. (Are they are moms? Frequent shoppers? Seniors?) You can also lean on seasonal or event relevance, including back-to-school shopping, holiday gift ideas, or Valentine’s Day offers.

* Use snappy subject lines. Subject lines drive email opens and clicks, so always A/B test yours with a small segment prior to rolling out the campaign to the entire list. Be mindful of length here as well. According to MarketingProfs, shorter subject lines resulted in a 52% lift in open rates and a 69% lift in clickthrough rates.

3) Timing is everything
* Test time of day of delivery. A message scheduled for the beginning of the workday may not be as effective as one sent later in the afternoon or over the weekend. And what best suits one group of customers may not work well for another. For instance, maybe a weekend email works for Yahoo!/Gmail users, but not for subscribers using a business email

* Be aware of time zones. Smart email marketing tools allow you to schedule messages based on the recipient’s time zone. Remember that emails sent at 9 a.m. EST land in West Coast inboxes at 6 a.m. local time.

* Stick to a schedule. Don’t email customers on a whim; set a regular schedule for your campaigns, and try to adhere to it. Think about frequency as well: Customers are more likely to unsubscribe if the onslaught of messages feels like a burden. You may want to send an email a day, but ultimately your conversion might be highest when you cut back to twice a week.

4) Users need control
* Offer a choice of topics. If you are publishing distinct types of content, give consumers a choice to receive some types but not others. It’s better than losing them entirely, which can happen if they feel inundated with irrelevant content. Segment your content into distinct newsletters for topical sending.

* Empower users with delivery options. Let them tell you when they want to hear from you. For example, if you send a weekly email, let customers indicate which day they want to receive it. This can be an optional setting that doesn’t have to be specified during sign-up.

* Simply your unsubscribe process. “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they are yours forever.” It applies to your unsubscribes too. If they want to go, make it easy with an unsubscribe link within your email. Not only is this a requirement of Can-Spam, but it that shows you respect their time and preferences. What’s more, don’t ask customers to retype their email address or to sign up for an account just to unsubscribe. Such barriers will only frustrate them and could lead to complaints or angry reviews.

5) Be social
* Share social media. According to a study by GetResponse, newsletters that include a social media sharing option generate a 30% higher clickthrough rate than those without sharing options. Do yourself a favor and include icons that enable customers to post a great offer to Facebook or Twitter.

* Invite them. Make it easy for readers to follow you through all your social networks. Include links to your Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube pages. Some of your customers may actually prefer to be communicated to through their Twitter or Facebook accounts. This is the perfect context to let them know that this is an option.

6) Delivery matters
* Factor in mobile requirements. Smartphones are everywhere. According to Pew Research, 59% of American adults go online wirelessly—an increase from 51% last year. Checking email is among the most common activities on a phone. Does your email display correctly on iPhones, Blackberry, and Android devices?

* Include a link to the online version. Mobile users are more likely to click on a “view online” link due to formatting issues. This link allows people to see the email in its intended form inside a Web browser rather than an email client.

* Rely on whitelisting. Spam filters are better then ever, yet they are far from perfect. You can ensure that your emails will make it into subscribers’ inboxes by asking them to whitelist you. Be sure to include clear instructions on how and why they should do this; tests have shown that including clear instructions results in a dramatic lift in transactions in email campaigns.

* Factor in text messaging. Texts are an increasingly strong marketing tool. The brevity, immediacy, and ease with which text messages can be sent makes them a powerful messaging option.

7) Testing is critical
* Get the facts. Do you know how your Website is performing? How about your newsletter? If you don’t have email analytics in place, get them in place. Get educated about A/B and multivariate testing.

* Know your options. Sophisticated email providers have list segmentation, testing, and targeting options that will do much of the heavy lifting for you. You can test the following, among other things:

• subject lines
• time/frequency of delivery
• text format
• images/no images
• content and call-to-action triggers (for instance, “buy now” vs. “learn more”)
• designs/layouts
• layout elements (buttons, header styles, etc.)

* Choose a winning metric. It’s great if your open rate goes up—but if that happens while conversions from email are decreasing, you need to monitor the trends and test additional changes.

Follow the tactics above, and you are sure to establish long, mutually productive relationships with your customers. You’ll deliver beautifully designed, compelling content and offers, when they want it, and how they want it. Taken together, and combined with your own unique business proposition, you can bet your bottom dollar that your marketing message will hit your customers the right way, every time.

Josh Levine is cofounder/chief experience officer of Alexander Interactive.