Assuming Success: Best Practices for Email Marketing

May 12, 2017
Vinca Swanson
Vinca Swanson

May 12, 2017

Often, “best practices” is a term that helps determine the path in designing and building an email campaign. What is the “best practice” to make copy more readable? What are standard “best practices” for overall email width? While best practices are useful, they can also lead to predictable designs. When every element is predicted, projected and produced, email creative comes to feel mundane. And “mundane” is far from what a client is seeking when asking an agency for innovative solutions.

It’s very important to recognize “best practices” as guidelines, not rules. Rather than dictating the end goal, “best practices” should be determined by user needs. How, then, should we answer questions about the best email width, font size, color contrast, 40:60 copy/image ratio? The answers to these questions should be determined by the purpose of the campaign. In regard to digital marketing, following “best practices” means paying attention to technology changes, challenges, and trends, sharing information, and asking questions with the user in mind to fulfill a client need. A “best practice” is any good habit that generates healthy production and positive ROI.

How do we, as an agency, answer more specific questions, like how much of an email should be composed of images, or what the standard width of an email should be? We add to our understanding of best practices to help us make the best decisions for each email campaign. Each campaign has its own goals; what worked for one campaign may not be applicable to the next. By applying my three guidelines below to your understanding of best practices, you will be able to generate relevant user experiences for every email campaign.

3 Ways Email Developers & Designers Can Develop Best Practices in Email Marketing

One. Get Creative with It.

By augmenting “best practices” with creative interpretation, we allow teams to dive deeper into solutions. This approach broadens possibilities, embraces team communication, and provides a critical testing ground for users to provide valuable feedback. By enabling creative team members to be themselves, and by permitting them to test design theories, we open the door to a better understanding of the client and their end users. 

Two. The Truth Is in the Testing.

A line in the sand is drawn out when conducting A/B testing. It could very well be that an email built on “best practices” performs better than an email built on the latest creative trends, but how will you know? By using A/B testing and user feedback, a client can determine next steps for a campaign. Testing is “best practice.”

“…the most traditional approach to multi-variate testing is to test the performance of two distinct creatives, one against the other.”


If an image-based email worked well for a particular campaign, then would it work just as well for a different list of clients? Would it work for a highly dynamic email, where personalization and demographics are applied using code programming? Does a call-out banner work best when placed above the content or below the main CTA? These questions can’t be answered by “best practices” alone. Only through testing two creatives can you determine a decisive outcome.

Garin’s words iterate the importance of using a tried and true approach to optimize the best creative solution. However, when a known solution is applied to subsequent campaigns, an important element is lost: the user. Another excerpt from Garin’s blog highlights the problem of over utilizing one approach:

 “A common mistake that many marketers make with testing, is to develop learnings which are then applied and used in ad nauseam to subsequent mailings.”

Three. Old Tricks Die Hard in Email Marketing.

In email marketing, strategies morph as analytics are re-evaluated, and rendering engines literally change overnight. Yesterday’s “best practice” becomes today’s rendering headache, so developers must learn new tricks and hacks on the fly.  Relying on older code can be a severe detriment in any new campaign – and “old” is a very relative term here; code can be outdated at any point in time. Be aware of the limitations of email, and constantly seek the newest ways to solve problems.

Agencies can stay on top of code challenges by keeping builds varied. An all image-based email will not have the same issues pop up as an email that incorporates more copy. Keep your development team up to date with trends that address email build challenges. Agency teams can always collaborate on discoveries and share challenges and solutions to grow the agency knowledge base. Include these discoveries in publications, client presentations, analytic reports, and hindsight discussions.

 “What’s more important than the tool, technique or best practice is what the user experience practitioner brings to the table: empathy for the users of the system, and the knowledge that best practices, patterns, and templates are valuable guidelines—not rules.”*

As soon as we start making “best practices” the rule, all empathy for our users goes out the door, and we’re left with a template that is neither here nor there in a successful email campaign. By redirecting the client from generic standards of email build, we address best practices in terms of user needs. Instead of following a checklist, we can map out a user journey that starts with asking the right questions of the client and data analytic reports and allows the agency to initiate a strategic course that is thoughtful and creative. This will distinguish an agency from a templated products business, empowering the agency to become a customized solutions-based












Tags: Digital Marketing, Digital Strategy, Email Marketing, Email Strategy

Developer, Shaw/Scott (Portland) A creative developer with a passion for ideation, Vinca brings top-notch strategy and flawless execution to every campaign. Vinca specializes in email marketing, UX design, and front-end development. She also has a solid background in SEO. Vinca digs deep into each campaign she works on to ensure that every box is checked and no stone is left unturned. Vinca has worked with such brands as Holland America, Home Depot, Lululemon, Oracle, Harry & David, and Coca-Cola. Prior to joining the Shaw/Scott team, Vinca worked with Un-Cruise Adventures as a Graphic Designer and Email Marketing Specialist.

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