Creativity welcome in inboxes

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With so much discussion about e-mail-design best practices revolving around technical function, it has become easy to lose sight of the creative form of an e-mail. While playing by these industry rules remains key to creating an effective e-mail, we must not forget the importance of design.

For those of us in the business of designing e-mail creative, the phrase "e-mail design best practices" has become synonymous with the idea that all e-mail should adhere to the technical limitations forced upon us by the industry. After all, one could make the argument that function should always come first in a medium that needs to make things easy for the user to understand.

Where the designer has, in the past, taken time to select the appropriate fonts along with a complementary color palette and graphics, recent technological limitations now force many to consider if they should even use images at all.

After all, e-mail designers are still wary about laying HTML text over background images, displaying Flash within the e-mail, using anything other than plain-vanilla HTML font formatting and including any code that will render improperly in Lotus Notes.

Does this doom e-mail designers to a futile life of discovering new ways to use background colors and font attributes to achieve some kind of visual interest while guaranteeing universal inbox acceptance?

Many of the creative directors and brand experts I've worked with over the past year suggest otherwise.

Despite these technological concerns, today's e-mail designs are exhibiting higher levels of custom-creative work than ever before. Rather than relying on a heavily templated approach, which can lead to design fatigue after a couple of mailings, more creative resources are being called on to keep the creative fresh and highly usable.

What's more, e-mail designers are taking better advantage of data that not only makes their creative more relevant to each user but also tells them if their designs are indeed working at an optimal level.

In an industry that continually develops fun ways to tie the creative hands of the designers within it, the amount of creative needed to support campaigns is on an upward trend.

Furthermore, the interactive industry as a whole is starting to recognize that e-mail design is an entirely different animal from both a visual and technical level and should be treated accordingly.

For instance, Wachovia's online marketing department has grown its e-mail marketing staff to keep up with the resource requirements of its ongoing campaigns.

From creating the company's general newsletters, to sending curriculum-style campaigns that educate consumers and support mini-sites and sending direct marketing e-mails that promote products and services, Wachovia's e-mail campaigns are becoming more complex and demanding on its creative and operational resources.

Against the odds, the inbox might yet become a prettier place. Here are some practical steps to ensure your campaigns are up to the challenge:

■ Design specifically for the area of the e-mail that appears above-the-fold or above the point where the user has to scroll to uncover more content.

■ Organize e-mail content into a visual hierarchy where graphic-design techniques highlight different areas of content more than others. This will allow the user to quickly understand the e-mail's information and enable us marketers to draw their attention to certain areas.

■ Make the overall e-mail design very graphical and visually engaging.

Design using imagery that will draw the users' attention and support the main communication objective of the e-mail.

Since users are conditioned to manually "load images" within their e-mail clients, the creative should present graphical calls to action and linkable product images to entice users to interact with the e-mail message.

■ Provide a visual flow to the e-mail where each content section is visually linked to another. For instance, use imagery that breaks the borders of the content sections so they overlap.

This will let the user know that more content lies below the fold and all they have to do is scroll down to uncover it. In the past, e-mails that had a rigid, grid-like structure where the content sections were stacked on top of each other misled the user to believe the bottom of the first content sections was the end of the e-mail.

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