Back to the Formatting Board

If you are like me, you probably subscribe to a host of newsletters, special announcements and commercial offerings — all served through e-mail.

And in your e-mail wanderings, you also may have noticed how poorly produced some of these truly are. It is obvious that some marketers just need a little refresher course on the nuts and bolts of e-mail creative development. If you want to make sure your e-mail gets read, you need to make sure it is easy to read. Lesson numero uno.

Even veteran e-mail marketers, including myself, lose sight of this core principle from time to time. This is why it is a good idea to step back occasionally for a little E-mail Basics 101 from ye olden days. Today's history lesson? Formatting an e-mail for readability and response. It all boils down to comfort and ease of use. Make it easy on the eyes, and the rest should fall into place naturally.

Principle No. 1: Keep the most important elements in a small space. And that space should be above the fold — a print term, but one that applies to the online world. This is the area of space that someone with even the tiniest of monitors would be able to see. Or, to put it in more relevant terms, just think of this area as the same size as your e-mail — if you had your e-mail program set in preview mode. For some recipients, this may amount to no more than 400 pixels wide by 200 pixels long, though you are still being prudent if you maintain the width to between 500 and 600 pixels. Granted, that is still not a heck of a lot of space.

Nonetheless, the best e-mail promotions take full advantage of that limited space. What should you strive to include? Since you are dealing with the introduction, or first part of your e-mail, you should have the headline and/or clearly spelled-out offer, for one thing. And if you can fit one or more of the most compelling benefits of said offer, that is a plus. Last, but certainly not least, there should be at least one call to action and/or an obvious hyperlink to drive recipients to click.

Principle No. 2: Speaking of clicks, allow people to click early and often if they want to. That means include plenty of links in every message. If your message is in plain text, you should aim for no fewer than three calls to action along with attached, clearly defined links. And your HTML message should have hyperlinks inserted into every graphic. People are used to hovering over logos, photos and even graphic-based headlines nowadays and, more times than not, it does increase response.

Principle No. 3: Hold onto that white space. There is nothing more difficult to read than a crowded e-mail with rows and rows or blocks upon blocks of text or images stacked on top of each other with barely a sliver of space to spare. This is what happens when a marketer adheres to Principle No. 1 without keeping Principle No. 3 in mind. The heart is in the right place, but too little white space can make an e-mail — or any type of communication — appear cluttered. And who wants to bother reading an e-mail promotion or newsletter with those characteristics?

White space is a good thing, yet there is also a fine line between too much and not quite enough. A good designer will know the difference if you are developing an HTML-based e-mail. And if you are dealing with a plain-text message, no more than an extra hard return should be needed between paragraphs. Just be judicious. No matter how small a space you are planning for, you can still probably fit your headline and the meat of your offer into the prime property section of your e-mail.

Principle No. 4: Create the piece so it reads more vertically than horizontally. An e-mail message that stretches wide across the screen is much more difficult to read than one that the recipient can scan vertically. That is why most of the text-based e-mails you see always seem to contain a hard return after every 60 characters or so.

However, this same principle applies to designed HTML messages as well. No matter how well-designed the message, chances are good that you will be better off if recipients do more scanning with their fingers and their mouse than they do with their eyeballs. That means let 'em scroll.

Principle No. 5: Emphasize key words and phrases with e-mail-friendly punctuation. Offline, the use of italics, underlining and bold often can strengthen otherwise drab-looking copy.

But not all of these tactics translate well online. Italicized words are very difficult to read online for many people. Instead of emphasizing your most important words and phrases, the use of italics in an e-mail may have the opposite effect. Often that boils down to a monitor issue. However, the point is that you want to make your messages more user friendly, not less so.

Another item that can interfere with readability and response is the use of underlining. Underlined words and phrases have a tendency to look like hyperlinks in an e-mail, especially to those who have been the recipient of way too many promotionally minded ones. So skip the underlined words unless you want people to click on them.

Instead, use bold when you want to emphasize key points in an HTML e-mail. You also can do this with text, of course, though the problem is that not all e-mail clients will showcase bold. One of the most effective ways to make items stand out in a text message is to use capitalization. However, too many words and sentences in all caps can have an unseemly effect. Typically, capitalization is best for solo words or small subheads. Full headlines can appear weighty when fully capitalized.

So there you have it — a quick-and-dirty primer on some of the basic components of promotional e-mail development. I will build on this foundation with more practical applications as well as lessons learned from the trenches. See you in October.

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