This year I decided to take the plunge. I traveled across the country escaping 108° weather here in Phoenix to attend The Email Design Conference in lovely Boston. The conference did not disappoint. I was able to meet some great people, pick up some new tricks, and learn from some of the brightest minds in the email marketing industry.
While I could likely provide you with dozens of tidbits and valuable revelations unearthed in Boston during #TEDC15, here is a quick recap of nine lessons learned:
1. A Fantastic Definition of Email Marketing
I’ve always struggled a bit to put into words why I find email design and development so appealing. Whenever I try and communicate why email is truly fascinating, the response I receive usually manifests in blank stares, puzzled expressions, or polite nodding. Thanks to Fabio Carneiro (@flcarneiro) of MailChimp, I will no longer trip over my ardent proclamation of email’s allure. He put it like this:
Simple yet elegant solutions to a problem with a limited toolset.
Fabio also noted that constraints drive creativity. So true. Because of limitations imposed by email clients (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) and the multitude of devices on which recipients view our campaigns, email design has limits. We don’t use all the “cool” methods employed by web designers simply because we can’t.
It’s like trying to create masterful works of art as a finger painter. Imagine trying to become a world renowned chef while being limited to ingredients found in 7-Eleven. Making something great out of very little is pretty rewarding.
2. The Importance of Workflows
Dan Denney (@dandenney) of Code School provided a very helpful talk about the organized chaos of email marketing production. Hey touched on various techniques to make the process of creating several email campaigns as efficient as possible.
- Updatable Global Assets – campaign elements (such as images) that can be updated easily because they reference a controlled URL.
- Partials – code shared in each email campaign or pieces of a template.
- Automated Code – items that can be re-used again and again like code snippets or style guides.
- Variables – elements like colors, fonts, sizes and URL tracking that can be updated in one place to impact code throughout an email.
Beyond the particulars, Dan emphasized the efficient practice of RYALAP (repeat yourself as little as possible) when it comes to iterating vs. building new code. He also stressed the need to be meticulous and detailed in our email creation process. This is especially pertinent for those of us that work in teams. Dan also gave us this beautiful nugget:
3. International Email Ain’t Easy
In a well-choreographed tandem presentation, Ros Hodgekiss (@yarcatt) from Campaign Monitor and Jacques Corby-Tuesch (@iamcyborg) discussed the complexities of sending email to international audiences. Here are a few pointers and takeaways from the talk:
- 70% of the 2.3B Internet users are not native English speakers.
- Email benchmarks differ by region. For instance, China has very low delivery thresholds that may require sending in batches.
- Canada and Australia operate the strictest anti-SPAM policies, but delivery only to opt-in recipients should always be the standard practice.
- Some countries like the Netherlands and Belgium speak multiple languages so links to language versions in preheader text can be helpful.
- In the case of dynamic language inclusion, use fluid design to avoid spacing and wrapping mishaps (e.g. “click here” vs “klicken Sie heir bitte”).
- Pay attention to the little things like times, dates, currencies, HTML symbol encoding for Russian and Greek, right to left languages like Arabic and Hebrew, key cultural differences and so on.
- When in doubt rely on someone who lives in the target region to provide feedback and edits.
4. Practices to Avoid, Use, and Test
On each day of the conference, attendees had the opportunity to submit their email designs for feedback and critique by the audience. The sessions were emceed by Justine Jordan (@meladorri) of Litmus. Based on the feedback there were a few key practices and elements to avoid, use, and test.
- Heavy text
- Call to Action (CTA) elements that don’t look like CTAs
- Big images
- High Commitment CTAs (e.g. “Order Now” as opposed to “Learn More”)
- Responsive design
- Content that educates and informs
- Bulletproof buttons (see buttons.cm)
- Social Proof (quotes, stories and ratings from previous customers)
- The primary value proposition
- CTA text, style, and/or level of commitment
- Images with or without personality/humanity
- Complimentary content (content types, placement, and/or present vs. not present)
5. All About Advanced CSS
In a session titled “Using Tomorrow’s CSS Today,” Brian Graves (@briangraves) of DEG provided some instruction and tips for designers looking to enhance their code with some modern CSS techniques. This one definitely catered to those who don’t mind looking over some code examples. Brian provided some samples for how to define, set, and call variables:
Also, some advanced techniques for altering colors:
Brian also offered some tips on nesting:
A full list of resources and copy of Brian’s presentation can be found here.
6. Next-Level Interactive Email
To close out Day 1 of The Email Design Conference, Mark Robbins (@m_j_robbins) of RebelMail, gave a talk that widened eyes and caused jaws to simultaneously drop. He provided examples and explanations of interactive games, 3D imagery, and a live shopping cart within email. I repeat — within email. Primarily relying upon “punched card coding,” a process that involves a combination of divs and radio buttons, Mark deftly demonstrated the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind interactive email. The techniques, code, and discussion were all very advanced, but Mark did a great job of explaining the magic in plain English.
While the samples provided by Mark may not necessarily be feasible for your run-of-the-mill email designer, they certainly are helping us to think about what is possible. For any fan of the movie, Interstellar, the email industry is like a group of slightly stubborn farmers imploring the industry to till the soil, plant seeds, and harvest a crop here on Earth. Meanwhile, Mark stands among a much smaller group of astronauts saying, “F#%$ it — I’m jumping in my spaceship to explore new worlds anyway.” Always practical? Maybe not. Imperative to our growth and survival? Absolutely.
7. Spongy Development & Responsive Email sans Media Queries
I realize that the words above are a mouthful. However, this important concept was discussed by Fabio Carneiro, who was back to help the audience solve problems presented by email clients (namely the Gmail app) that do not support media queries, a technique that makes most responsive email possible. Fabio’s definition of “Spongy Development” went a little something like this:
“Code that allows content to react to display rules while still retaining structure.”
In other words, content within an email can move, transform and contort to fit various screen sizes. No matter the width of a screen (from desktop to mobile), the content presented will maintain a structure that makes sense to the reader. The sample code covered in the talk can be found here.
8. Modular Systems Empower Content Creators
A consistent theme layered in many of the talks at The Email Design Conference focused on how to do better work more efficiently. This topic was skillfully explored by Ryan Merrill (@procload) of Food52.
Ryan compared our collective efficiency problem to a situation faced by the National Park Service decades ago. At one time, each National Park, from Yosemite to the Everglades, created their own marketing materials and maps. The process was extremely expensive and wildly inefficient. In the 1970s, the National Park Service hired Massimo Vignelli to create a unified system for materials design and development that is still used today.
Similarly, email marketers can create modular systems for brand consistency and efficiency. These systems help content creators focus on content as opposed to email structure and design. Here are just a few examples of the elements that can be standardized across all email marketing messages for your brand.
9. Web & Email Design May Converge, But Probably Shouldn’t
The final session for the conference included a panel discussion about whether capabilities native to web design and development should be welcomed into email’s historically mundane sphere. The panel included:
- Justine Jordan (moderator)
- Ted Goas (@tedgoas)
- Brian Graves
- Mark Robbins
- Fabio Carneiro
There were definitely two sides to this “Web Comes to Email” argument, and it was interesting to see both sides make a compelling case.
On one hand:
“The conventions of the web can and do play over email … if a button is a button in email or on the web, then why can’t a shopping cart be a shopping cart in either medium?” Pushing the envelope of what standard email design allows is not really too forceful or overzealous if what web users have come to expect can be mimicked in email design.
On the other:
“The gap between interactive emails and what most of us receive is very great…and, if we are designing for ourselves, we may be failing our intended audiences.” By recognizing the rules and limitations of email design, we can deliver meaningful messages and effective experiences to targeted recipients. By leaning too far outside the boundaries, we run the risk of creating campaigns that simply don’t work.
The key takeaway I had from this closing panel session was to know thy audience and thy objectives. If a next-level approach is warranted and has a great chance for success, it’s likely worth a shot. We can and should remain innovative, but not at the cost of alienating certain customer segments or producing a poor ROI for our email campaigns.
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Sincere thanks to the team at Litmus for putting on such a tremendous show. I was already a happy subscriber of their product, but have become a bigger fan of the brand and the people behind it. Every session provided something of value for me and my business, and from the conversations I had, others in attendance felt the same way. I’ll definitely make it a point to attend next year.