Most marketing emails don’t need to be art projects.

MHDG Staff Email Marketing, Operations

At MH Digital, we’ve worked with a ton of brands that brought us on to take over email marketing operations after having done it internally. Typically, that was handled by the head of marketing or a handful of marketing generalists before handing it over to us.

Once the decision gets made to improve a brand’s email program, it’s entirely reasonable to expect a lift in the look and feel of each email that gets delivered. In most cases, email design and branding lags behind the website and social media channels. One of the first things we do when we get hired is to start creating new templates and updating the look and feel of the most critical emails in the subscriber lifecycle (in addition to improving content, segmentation, etc.).

Our clients love seeing their emails become a better representation of their brand and get excited about the possibilities of making their email content match the design quality of the rest of their marketing efforts. As we make those improvements with feedback and input from them, we often stress to them how critical it is to prevent turning our marketing emails into art projects.

But don’t we want to make every email look as good as possible?

We absolutely want our emails to look great. The value of branding and design shouldn’t be understated, especially in the digital world where it’s critical to stand out against competition. However, it’s important to understand what goes into making great looking emails, and what the difference is between a great looking email and what we mean by an “art project”.

What do you mean by art project?

The easiest way to explain what we mean by an art project would be visually. Have a look at these examples.

A couple of things stand out to us here.

  1. Heavily layered designs – See how many content can cross above or behind other elements on the layout? This tends to eliminate the ability to have modularity in design, meaning it’s more difficult to swap sections, styles, or other content from other sources without significant rework of the overall layout.
  2. Illustration heavy – Lots of illustrations typically require graphic design resources.
  3. Little to no live text – This makes editing and revisions a longer process. All the copy must be finalized before implementation can begin.
  4. Creative without much ability to reuse or repurpose.

These emails are one-off designs and unlikely to be used again or repurposed in other ways. While they look beautiful and are highly creative, they can be expensive to create and their lifespan is very short.

To be clear, there are nothing explicitly wrong or bad about doing emails like these. They look great and those brands should be proud of them. They are well branded and visually striking. However, aspiring to do yours just like them may be something to really consider before making them the design standard for which all emails should meet.

When you evaluate the cost of these art projects, combined with trying to do it with a brand that is still evolving and does not have a large library of creative assets, styles, and a slim brand book, it becomes easy to spend lots and lots of time (and money) on a single email design.

A quick look behind the MH Digital curtain:

When we are asked to create “art projects”, typically they’ll take at least 3-4x the amount of time as a standard, but good looking (and still highly effective) email would. They typically have more risk in the client not liking the style, because we’re most likely needing to extend outside the client’s defined brand standards and involving more stakeholders which can turn a single email into one built and reviewed by a a larger committee. This gets to be expensive, and means that we have to charge more money for our services.

In many cases, this cost is not worth the potential ROI.

How do we find the sweet spot between poorly-designed and over-designed for marketing emails?

It can be tricky. And therein lies the value of working with an agency like us, we’ve got the experience to determine where that sweet spot is. What may be basic for one brand could be highly stylized for another. But, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to evaluate it what makes sense for you.

  1. How important is design to my brand and my customers?
    The expectations of the look and feel of the emails from high fashion brand or design visualization app are going to likely be higher than those of a company selling machine tooling or a CPA service. That being said, it’s still important for those latter emails to meet some level of sophistication to build trust in their brands.
  2. What realistic increase in ROI can I see from turning a good email into a perfect email?
    Is this email a launch of a slick new app feature, a company rebrand announcement, or a new e-commerce product? These are likely to warrant more unique designs. Or is this a follow up reminding people of a sale, a winback campaign for users about to churn? This audience may already be aware of your content or may be more likely to be disinterested to begin with. Consider what a 5-10% increase compared to how a good email would perform and ask yourself if it’s worth the cost.
  3. Can I repurpose or recycle any of the elements/content for future use?
    Making an investment in an individual email can be easier to justify if you can use those elements, styles, or ideas in future emails.

What we recommend to our clients:

  • Create various templates for different content types, with different modules and transitional elements. Just because an email is built from a template doesn’t mean it has to look exactly the same. With our experience, we’re able to efficiently build emails that look great and have a process to recycle layout elements that never look the same.
  • Build a strong library of photography, malleable illustrations, and engaging content. The stronger your photography and actual content, the less you have to do to make it stand out in an email. Some of the biggest brands in the world use dead-simple layouts that show off their incredible product photography or valuable content without extra fluff. It’s much wiser to spend your time as a brand on the content/branding that can be applied across all marketing channels that include email, not just for email.
  • Develop an organized email creative process and platform. Our team has built an efficient method of organizing templates and content to be able to quickly build and iterate on email designs that look great.

Improving an email program can be challenging, but turning a good email program into a great one does not mean you have to make every email an art project. Our best clients find the right balance of design, operational efficiency, and potential subscriber ROI to make email a sustainable channel with strong ROI. That balance keeps costs manageable, workflows predictable, and everyone happy.

Need help taking your emails to the next level without turning them into art projects?

Let’s chat.