Are You Over-Designing Your Emails?

If your inbox looks anything like ours, you’ve probably noticed some patterns. Emails you receive from brands include colors, flashy fonts, pictures, and GIFs, while emails from people you actually know. . . don’t. 

Why? Why do marketing emails look so different from every other email in our inbox? And could this be hurting your business? 

Let’s take a closer look at how and why we design marketing emails—and if you could earn more by designing less.

Why Are Marketing Emails So Design-Heavy?

Most marketing emails are based in HTML (HyperText Markup Language). Your web browser can “read” the HTML and translate it into colors, hyperlinks, images, and other forms of media. 

Thanks to most modern email service providers, you don’t need a full understanding of HTML to create complex, colorful emails. Just think of HTML as the language your computer uses to read and render images and stylized fonts. Without HTML, your emails would be what is known as “plain text.”

There are lots of reasons why marketing emails are so reliant on HTML and design elements.

1. They grab your attention.

Your audience’s phone, laptop, or wherever they access their inbox is a busy place, and you have to fight to keep their attention. 

Bright colors, large fonts, GIFs, and striking graphics all work to keep your reader visually engaged. 

Plus, images can convey far more information in a short amount of time than text can. Every second you keep your audience’s attention is precious, and heavy design can help you communicate more without wasting time.

2. They keep your branding consistent. 

Consistent branding is key to establishing and maintaining your audience’s trust. When your emails look similar to each other and your other marketing materials, you build a sense of continuity for your brand.

With consistent branding, your audience should be able to tell who an email is from without even reading it.

If your past emails are design-heavy, it makes sense to keep most of your future emails similarly designed. There are exceptions—and we’ll cover those later—but suddenly switching to plain text emails could be jarring for your audience.

3. They fit your expectations.

People who sign up for your emails know you’re a brand. They know your emails are going to encourage them to make purchases. Email marketing has been around for long enough that we simply expect marketing emails to look a certain way.

You don’t open a catalog or coupon book that you received in the mail expecting it to look like a handwritten note from your pen pal. 

Your audience expects your emails to be heavily designed, and fitting those expectations saves you and your reader from possible miscommunication. 

And when your emails look like what your audience expects from marketing emails, you foster a sense of transparency. Your marketing emails aren’t pretending to be anything they’re not.

Why Would You Use Plain Text Emails?

Even though HTML emails have their advantages, that doesn’t stop some marketers from using plain text emails instead. So why would you forgo the advantages of HTML?

For one, plain text emails can avoid spam filters. According to Campaign Monitor, HTML-only emails are more likely to end up marked as spam. 

However, that doesn’t mean plain text emails are safe from spam filters. Sending plain text emails too often or with “spammy” language can still tip off the filters. 

Plain text emails are also more accessible. Recipients who use a screen reader have a much easier time understanding plain text than HTML, and plain text translates better to non-traditional email devices like smart watches or gaming consoles.

And finally, plain text emails look and feel more personal than traditional marketing emails. They resemble the rest of the emails in your inbox, the ones that come from your colleagues and friends. A plain text email can be very powerful when you want to give your audience the impression that you’re writing to them as a singular person, not a brand. 

Are Plain Text Emails Better?

It is difficult to measure whether plain text emails perform better than HTML because both have practical applications, and true plain text emails can interfere with your analytics (because they lack the HTML hyperlinks you need to track certain engagements). A healthy email marketing strategy will incorporate elements from both kinds of emails.

HTML emails will probably remain the bulk of your marketing emails. Bright colors and eye-catching pieces of multimedia are staples of email marketing because they work. They grab your reader’s attention and communicate more information in a shorter amount of time than plain text can. 

But that doesn’t mean plain text emails don’t have anything to offer.

To increase accessibility and reduce your chances of being marked as spam, try creating a plain text version of your HTML emails in your ESP. Users with a screen reader (or those who prefer plain text) can opt to view the plain text version instead. 

You can also experiment with HTML emails designed to look like plain text, says marketing tool Vision6. These “hybrid” emails with very little design may include hyperlinks, CTAs, and your brand’s logo, but are otherwise plain and text-based.

Hybrid emails are excellent for cold email marketing (reaching out to a new audience who has never heard of your brand), surveys, transactional emails, and last-minute or emergency announcements where HTML-heavy branding might feel insensitive or misplaced. These emails feel like they’re coming from a real person and can help your audience feel personally connected to your brand.

Not sure which kinds of emails your audience prefers? Try A/B testing design-heavy emails vs. text-heavy ones! If you find your heavily designed emails don’t generate more clicks and sales, you could save yourself some time by switching to more text-based emails. 

You can also try sending out an HTML-heavy email first and creating a segment in your ESP based on the recipients who did not open the email. Then, send those users a text-based version of the same email. Maybe the first version was marked as spam, or maybe it was unreadable on their device. This technique allows you to engage more audience members without creating any new content. 

Do some experimenting with design and A/B tests—you might find you’ve been spending more time than you need to on email design. 

Overwhelmed with all this talk about ESPs, HTML, and other alphabet soup? We get it. Planning an email marketing strategy, creating and designing emails, executing A/B tests, and analyzing the results is a huge undertaking. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. Schedule a call, and let us put our email marketing expertise to work for your business.

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