Email marketing is one of the oldest and most effective forms of digital marketing. Naturally, that means that every business wants to do it. With an average return of $38 for every $1 spent, email is an inexpensive way to get your brand right into your target customers’ inboxes. Unfortunately, you’re competing with dozens of other companies, and consumers are unforgiving toward emails that may or may not deliver value to them. So, how can you stand out from the crowd? It takes a combination of compelling email marketing design and a bit of psychology. Here are the key elements of emails that people will actually read and click on.
First things first. Your email is one among many. Most people are never able to achieve the elusive “inbox zero,” but in their attempts, they’ll quickly delete any email that doesn’t strike their interest. How do they make these snap judgments? You guessed it: the subject line.
A great subject line is intriguing, not obvious. It teases rather than describes the content of your email. In just a few words, it signals your audience that opening your email is worth the little time they have. That’s why generic or pushy email marketing subject lines don’t work. If someone knows what’s in the email and isn’t interested, they’re not going to open it. And if they know it’s going to be a hard sell, they’re definitely not going to open it. Here are some examples of subject lines that probably won’t drive good open rates:
- Our weekly newsletter is out!
- We’ve just launched our new app.
- Check out our latest sales.
These subject lines aren’t terrible. They’re the appropriate length (3–5 words). They tease what’s inside with friendly, accessible language. But consider this: if your subscribers don’t feel they have time to read your newsletter, they’ll skip to the next item in their inbox. If they’re not interested in your app, they won't open that message. And if they’re not in the mood to buy, they’ll just delete that email.
Instead, show your subscribers why they need to open the email. Focus on the benefit they’ll get if they do, and warn them of the FOMO (fear of missing out) they’ll develop if they don’t. Here are better subject lines for those same emails:
- Your #1 energy-boosting tip is inside.
- Skip your errands. Our delivery app is here.
- Get $20 off fall apparel now.
These subject lines are specific. They focus on the value of the email’s content to the subscriber. Who doesn’t want to have more energy? Wouldn’t it be nice to skip your errands and get your items delivered to your door? To save $20? People who see these subject lines are more likely to open the emails because they’re looking for ways to make decisions easier, whether it’s a how-to tip or an impulse buy. No one wants to read a newsletter, download yet another app, or check out sales unless they can see an immediate benefit. That’s why the second set will get more opens: the subject lines tease just enough of the rewards to entice people to click.
Good email marketing subject lines also shift the focus to the reader. Note that the first set was all in first person: “we” and “our.” The second set, though, is in second-person, making the emails seem more personal. It’s Marketing Psychology 101: customers don’t care what your company is doing. They want to know how you’re going to solve their problems and make them happy.
There are some other tricks to optimizing your subject lines, such as including a number or emoji in it, but above all else, consider how you’re introducing the email to your recipient. Remember, generic, company-focused subject lines tell recipients everything they need to know. They’re easy to ignore. Intriguing, customer-focused subject lines tantalize recipients and encourage them to open the email.
While the subject line is the primary motivator to open an email, it also helps to leverage the From field and preheader text to your advantage. Consumers are suspicious of messages that come from “Brand XYZ” at [email protected] To establish immediate trust, use a real name and email address when sending your email campaigns.
The preheader text is also a great way to tease your email’s content and drive more opens. Most email clients pull a bit of random text into this field, but you should customize it in your email marketing provider. Build off the language in your subject line, or clarify what the recipient will find inside.
Once your email gets opened, you have mere seconds to retain your reader’s interest. It should go without saying that your email’s content needs to follow from the subject line. Too many email marketers pack their emails full of stuff as though it’s the only email they’ll ever be able to send. Less is more. Your recipient opened your email for a reason, so don’t leave them hanging. With that in mind, let’s study the anatomy of a compelling email.
Big, flashy headers have become fashionable in email marketing, but they’re not ideal for capturing readers’ attention. Plus, many email clients will auto-hide them by default. That’s not to say that you can’t use a beautiful header image or include your company logo at the top. It’s simply more effective to use this prime real estate to immediately draw in your reader. Try leading with a compelling headline that expresses value. If your email’s goal is to drive traffic to a landing page, don’t delay: explain what you’re offering and offer a call-to-action. In other words, get to the point. You can always include a splash image (but please, not another shiny stock image) below the headline.
Depending on the type of email you’re sending, your email body may contain lots of content. Email newsletters usually contain links to several blogs or videos, although it’s become more fashionable to use letter-style copy as the body. Sales emails typically focus on compelling copy with a strong Call-to-Action (CTA). As a rule of thumb, if you want a higher clickthrough rate, aim to keep your email body copy between 50 and 125 words. Sometimes, you can go longer if you’re using the letter-style approach or know that your target audience enjoys reading your content. In general, though, the best way to boost your read and clickthrough rates is to give your subscribers something that’s easy and quick to digest. (Tip: bullet points are your friend.)
Resist the temptation to pad your email with lots of images: as the number of images goes up, your clickthrough rate goes down, perhaps as the result of choice overload. Remember, you don’t want to overwhelm your reader. You want them to get excited about the benefit you teased in the subject line, then feel compelled to click on your CTA. That’s why even email “newsletters” should minimize their content. Highlight your primary offering (your top story, special sale, etc.) and make it simple for readers to take advantage of it.
Above all else, ensure that readers are getting something for their time. They opened your email. Make sure they understand what’s in store for them. If you’re teasing some benefit with an intriguing subject line, don’t stuff your email full of ambiguous copy and a dubious CTA. Your email should offer value to your customers even if they don’t click. Perhaps you’re introducing a solution to them or showing them the next step in their buyer journey. Remember, if they don’t click a given email, you can always send a follow-up. But if they perceive that you’re wasting their time, they’ll unsubscribe faster than you can say “marketing fail.”
Assuming that your CTA didn’t appear above-the-fold or within your email body, it will appear at the end of your email. Obviously, readers are just about to click away at this point, so make sure that your CTA button is very noticeable. HubSpot found that the most effective buttons are 45–57 pixels in size, which is about the size of a human index finger on a mobile device. (Go figure.) Include lots of white space around the button so it doesn’t get crowded by other elements.
In addition to those email marketing design best practices, you need to take extreme care with your button’s text. Once again, generic copy usually won’t do the trick. If your email’s body content is truly compelling, then perhaps a simple “Click Here” button will suffice. To boost your clickthrough rate, though, your CTA should follow from the value you’re offering to your customer. Imagine a thematic line extending from the subject line through the preheader through the body text to your CTA. By using action-oriented, value-driven language, you’re much more likely to get those elusive clicks.
Just because it’s a marketing email doesn’t mean you should skip the signature line. If you’re using the letter-style approach, a personal sign-off, e.g. “Best wishes from the CEO, Jessica Smith” is perfect. Otherwise, take this opportunity to affirm your branding. Wrap up your message with your tagline or a brand-friendly send-off. Many marketers also include a row of social media icons; it’s a simple yet effective way to drive your email audience to your other channels. Overall, keep it short. Your goal with your signature is to conclude your message and promote trust in your brand, not clutter your email with promotional content.
Wait, you’re not done! There’s one tiny yet majorly powerful part of any good marketing email: the postscript. We all know that most people skim their emails, even if they’re masterfully written. In fact, many of your recipients will skip right to the end to suss out what your email is about. (These might also be the people who eat dessert before dinner — no shame!) A postscript, then, is the perfect way to take advantage of this behavior and get your message across. Because it interrupts the expected flow of the email and is short and digestible, your audience is more likely to pay attention to it. Use this space to give a concise, compelling summary of your message’s content and reiterate your CTA. You can tease your offer a bit more or express a personal sentiment, if that fits your brand. The postscript encourages skimmers to read the rest of your email — and sometimes, it’s enough to seal the deal with an engaged subscriber.
Most email marketing providers generate the footer for you, but it’s worth taking a look at what goes here. To ensure that you meet spam regulations and instill trust among your readers, you should include the following elements in your footer:
- Your business’s full name and contact information. This establishes your legitimacy and helps consumers feel more confident that you can meet their needs.
- An indication of why the reader is receiving your email. This affirms your readers’ interests in your content and reminds them who you are.
- An unsubscribe link. It’s sad when someone has to use this, but without it, you risk your email being flagged as spam, which could get you banned from your email marketing provider.
A great marketing email does more than sell. It connects with your readers and takes them on their journey from problem to solution. If you’re taking up their precious time, you need to offer something of value. Start with the subject line and guide your reader through a clutter-free, targeted email that meets their needs. Your content and design should work together to drive more reads and clickthroughs. By putting email marketing best practices into action, you can achieve more conversions from your campaigns — and boost that famous $38 return even higher.