How Email Design Limitations Can Actually Be Liberating


Long before email newsletters became a central part of my life, I harbored dreams of being a famous jazz guitarist.

While I know now that fame and jazz is a mythical combination, akin to a unicorn triple-crown winner, that was my goal in my early twenties.

One of my jazz improv teachers would force his students, including me, to practice for hours using only two fingers (on the piano or guitar). It was frustrating, annoying … and then, eventually, freeing.

One day, it clicked.

Freed from the pressure of virtuosity, I could focus on just keeping it simple.

Similarly, limited by inbox space, mobile devices, noise, attention span, and reader habits, email offers an opportunity to distill your content, align it to your goals, and share something that works.

Skip the email newsletter intro

Jakob Nielsen’s research shows that email recipients spend less than a minute reading your newsletter and simply scan the content.

Eye tracking showed that readers didn’t waste any of that time on introductory content and instead scanned the headings (mostly the first couple of words) looking for content that offered value and interest to them.

Your readers have asked to receive your emails, and there is an implied agreement that the content you send will be the content they want. So skip the intro, throw away the fluff, and get right to the point.

Make it happen now

As writers, we have the instinct to embellish, expound, and explain. We say the same thing in three different ways. We tell a story and draw the reader in. We take them by the hand and metaphorically walk them down the path to …

Stop! (Or at least wait.)

Here’s the thing about email presentation on any screen, desktop or mobile: there’s a fold. That’s the bit that is visible without needing to scroll.

Your email newsletter should have a goal, and you should be able to achieve that goal above the fold. Craft your content so that whatever you truly need to say is said, right there, up at the top.

Be aware of that severely limited space and take advantage of it.

You can allow yourself to write gorgeous copy below, but if you have five seconds of attention span to make something happen, then it needs to happen above the fold.

Shape your content visually

Guil Hernandez of Treehouse says, “Most readers are usually looking for reasons to stop reading. Whether it’s subconsciously or not, readers will base it on how the text is laid out.”

He’s referring to the following things:

  • Headings
  • Paragraphs
  • Images
  • Lists
  • Line length
  • Line height

When reading, a natural rhythm occurs. We scan the content for the things that interest us, and when the writer ignores the way we read, it becomes difficult to find that content.

By keeping a visual hierarchy with shorter paragraphs, elements to hang the eye on (like lists and images), and a comfortable line length and height, you do your content justice. If your reader isn’t able to find her rhythm when looking over your email, her eye will drift to the noise surrounding it.

Good copy is good design

I used to consider this stuff “design” instead of copy. That was a mistake. Now, I go over everything I write and make sure I slim it down and shape it and mold it into something that works visually.

Often, I need to choose a different word, longer or shorter, to get the block of text looking like, well, a block. Sometimes, this means a title that doesn’t convey all the details. Occasionally it even means leaving out thoughts I felt were important.

This is the hardest part of all. Very few people write because it looks good … but in an email, with the clock ticking and the unsubscribe link enticingly present, visually appealing copy can mean the difference between success and failure.

Free yourself and achieve your goals

These limitations of space, attention span, and design elements are simply encouragements to get to the heart of your message. By accepting these constraints inherent in email, you’ll free yourself to achieve your goals in a way that’s true to the medium.

Take a look at these high-performing email newsletters and see if you think they succeed within email’s limitations.

Network with Dean and other influencers

Dean Levitt will be joining Seth Godin, Darren Rowse, Brian Clark, and an esteemed list of others at Authority Intensive this May in Denver. As of this morning, there are only a 10 spots left, so reserve yours now.

About the Author: Dean Levitt is the Chief Of Culture at Mad Mimi — a service for people who want email marketing to be simple.

The post How Email Design Limitations Can Actually Be Liberating appeared first on Copyblogger.

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