The Email Design Conference Recap – #LitmusLive SFO 2016

Last week I was lucky enough to attend The Email Design Conference in San Francisco. As usual, the folks at Litmus put on a great show and filled the agenda with reputable, knowledgable email practitioners who all had something valuable to share.

The show was attended by a variety of email marketing professionals including designers, developers, strategists, marketers, and technologists. I’m always impressed by the people who come to the #LitmusLive events and how open, friendly and welcoming they truly are. Email people are different; they are equal parts smart and kind.

Here is a quick recap of some of my favorite sessions during the event.

Design Leadership from Andrea Mignolo of Movable Ink
Deservedly so, Andrea was given the opportunity to kick off the conference by speaking about the role of design in email. She defined design as “the rendering of intent” (a definition borrowed from Jared Spool). Andrea provided a much-needed reminder that email should be viewed by the marketer as a privilege, not a transaction. Design leadership coaxes trust with personal experience and delivers a conversation about intent. Elements that the email marketer can rely upon to create trust include voice, cadence, coordination and experience – all “little things” that make a significant difference within your audience’s inbox.

Making the Mundane Delightful from Sarah Esterman of Simple
Simple is a tech company that provides online banking services. And like any bank, they are legally required to send notifications to their customers that wouldn’t typically be categorized as provocative or stimulating. These are the kinds of messages email marketers loathe. Simple, however, took a different approach. When tasked with delivering required disclosure regulations for electronic transfers, they made boring playful and injected personality into legalese. Simply took the “bankyness” out of banking. Sarah did a tremendous job of talking through the hurdles and stresses involved with the month-long process to get this email out, provided advice on how to deliver personality by being brave, and left us with this excellent tip: “be the best at being good to your customer.” Here is more info on the rest of the story.

Simply Email Story

Automating Customer Success with Ros Hodgekiss of Campaign Monitor
Ros is in charge of customer success programs at Campaign Monitor, my personal ESP of choice. She deftly noted that while email automation has obvious merits (50% conversion rate for B2C companies and 60% revenue growth in B2B organizations), the adoption rate of email automation is still low. Less than half of business with less than $1B in revenue use automation today. Ros also provided some great insight on the importance of Customer Journey Mapping and Feedback Loops.

Customer Journey Maps allow us to define the perfect path taken by a customer through an automation series, help to define new milestones along the path, and provide a framework for success metrics. Feedback Loops involve collecting, triaging, and following up on recipient input so that we can be sure to deliver the most appropriate and relevant messaging to each individual over time and make course/system corrections internally. Because the Customer Journey often relies upon several tools and services (CRM, eCommerce, Analytics, Email Service Provider, Website, etc.) the challenge is integrating data from each tool (check out this piece on the importance of customer data hubs). As usual, Ros did an excellent job of educating the audience with examples, stories, and artfully concepted graphics.


Email Authentication with John Wilson of Agari
DKIM, DMARC, D..huh? What does it all mean? John Wilson of Agari did the near impossible by putting email authentication terms into plain English. While explaining the importance of the following systems, he gave us a snail mail analogy:

  • DKIM (Domain Keys Identified Mail) – This is like a wax stamp on a letter that ensures the integrity of the message. It authenticates the sender.
  • SPF (Sender Policy Framework) – This is like the return address on an envelope. it authenticates the envelope.
  • DMARC (Domain Based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance) – This is like the ‘from’ name from inside the envelope. It is built on top of SPF and DKIM. It basically ensures that the mail coming from a sender is actually coming from that sender and not someone else.


John’s company Agari, works with large enterprises to prevent and fix deliverability issues. If you do not work for a large enterprise and are concerned about spam or phishing, John graciously recommended Dmarcian for derivability check-ups.

Big Data Emails of the Future with Laura Sullivan of Brightwave
picktwoLaura Sullivan brought to light what every email strategist has been thinking: one-to-one communication is ideal, but it’s extremely difficult and time consuming. Bringing meaningful messages into an email message requires gathering meaningful data from recipients beforehand. Laura talked about the benefits and challenges of progressive profiling and how email marketers must strive to gather interest and motivation data from interactions as opposed to preference centers, which very few subscribers utilize.

Shifting her talk to execution-related themes, Laura also provided some great advice about using modular design (or card design) to introduce personalized elements to individual recipients. Finally, she warned against trying to do too much with templates with this graphic (above right). You can only pick two.

Defying Conventional Email Design with Jared Stivers from ModCloth
For a fashion brand like ModCloth, image is important. Jared Stivers talked about how his and other brands are using images to evoke emotion. In fact, he noted that when ModCloth uses image-heavy emails with an emotional context, they see more clicks and interactions. Despite the fact that emails that rely on large images or headlines that overlay images aren’t really considered a best practice, Jared asked why others tend to design for their worst customers or for the worst possible experience.

Why use more imagery in your emails? Jared noted that A) images stand out in the inbox, B) they set the tone for your brand promise, and C) images can be used to speak to the audience’s passion. Also, as most emails are opened on phones (for his audience especially), he suggested leading with an image with the same aspect ratio as a phone. The immediate delivery of a complete idea helps convey the rest of the message.
Modcloth Email

Some other excellent tips and moments from #LitmusLive:

  • Logan Baird of Emma gave us a primer on the Checkbox hack and encouraged the audience to check out Animate.css for CSS animations.
    checkbox hack
  • Megan Merrifield of and Katie Montgomery of Seaworld discussed cart abandonment emails and why message content should absolutely vary by customer type/history. Some great notes on FOMO (fear of missing out) messaging tactics were also provided.
  • Eric Leptit of Nest provided some sage advice with the following:

    Emails don’t have to look the same everywhere, but every user matters.

    Don’t let the pixel perfect distract you. You care. Users don’t.

  • For those email marketers that get stuck with design or content inspiration, Alex Williams of Trendline Interactive suggested we go back to the original reason the audience subscribed. He also compared email marketing to Tetris, “an unwinnable game that is endlessly fun to play.”

Thanks again to Litmus and the community for making The Email Design Conference so enjoyable. If you love email (or it intrigues you), I highly recommend attending this event.