David Greiner on email design

Back in 2004, David Greiner and Ben Richardson, co-founders of Freshview, went looking for a web designer's dream email marketing tool. When they couldn't find it, they built it themselves.

David Greiner of Campaign Monitor
David Greiner

Says Greiner, "We scrapped plenty of features that designers just don't need and added a few unique ones that we knew would make their lives easier."

The result -- the Campaign Monitor email newsletter tool and list management software -- now has more than 17,000 customers in 65 countries.

Given Greiner's web design background and focus, he's an ideal candidate to talk about the design challenges involved in email. Here's what he told me about design mistakes and improvements, designs to admire, and the future...

What are the key issues people need to know about when moving from a website to email as a design environment?

There are certainly some similarities Mark, but also some important differences. Designing for today's email environments is much like designing for the web a few years ago. It's really all about the challenge of design consistency.

When designing a website, there are 2-3 popular browsers you need to consider, each of which will render your page differently. With email design however, this is amplified with up to a dozen different environments that range from almost perfect HTML and CSS support (Outlook, Yahoo! Mail) through to almost no CSS support (I'm looking at you, Gmail and Lotus Notes).

The challenge for web designers is identifying which email environments to target based on their audience and to optimize their design and code for the most consistent experience possible. Of course, just like different browsers, it's very easy to test your design in different email environments and iterate your design accordingly.

What are the typical design errors you see?

I'd say the biggest mistake I continue to see is those email designers taking the easy way out and sending their campaign as a single flattened image as opposed to properly coded HTML email containing both text and images.

At first glance, it's understandable why some designers choose this option - the design looks consistent in all email environments and their client is obliviously happy.

The problem here is two-fold. The combination of the growing popularity of image spam and the continued trend towards email clients blocking images by default means that a large percentage of their recipients may not even receive the email. Those that do will more than likely see a big broken image instead of the original concept the designer intended.

A second common mistake is designers not giving enough consideration to how their email will look in preview panes.

First impressions count, and many of your recipients might initially see your email in a small preview pane no more than an inch or two in width or height. Because of this, it's important to ensure some of the key content, such as a table of contents or your main offer is visible in this small space to encourage the recipient to take the next step and actually open the email.

Other than these two errors, it's often a case of not including important email content in the design itself. This might include a prominent unsubscribe mechanism, a message explaining how you obtained the recipient's permission or a request to be added to the recipient's address book to improve deliverability.

I'm pleased to say though, that while these types of email mistakes do surface occasionally, designers are certainly getting savvier about the challenges of modern email design and the way they should be structuring their emails.

Where's the low-hanging fruit in terms of easy design improvements?

When making suggestions to our customers on easy improvements they can make to their email design, we normally focus on two areas.

1. Structure

2. Content

All of these recommendations take only minutes to implement and can be used no matter what type of email you're sending, whether it's promotional, educational or transactional.

You often feature notable designs in your blog. Which ones have particularly caught your eye recently?

That's a tough one Mark, but out of the more than 100 designs we've featured to date, there have been a few that stand out. When selecting designs for the gallery, we tend to focus on those concepts that avoid the design mistakes I mentioned earlier, namely looking good with or without images and working well in preview panes.

River City Church Newsletter
Designed by Jon Livingston, this great looking email is completely CSS based (it avoids using HTML tables for layout). This means the design looks fantastic in modern email clients and degrades gracefully to more of a rich-text email in older email environments or those with poor CSS support.

Recycle Now Newsletter
Designed by Ben Enright, this concept also looks great with images disabled, is loaded with interesting and relevant content and the smart layout makes it very easy to scan.

Digital Web Magazine
Designed by Mark Wyner, one of the web's pioneers in modern CSS based email design, the Digital Web weekly update makes use of a great CSS design technique that displays nicely formatted text in place of images when they are blocked. Mark later refined this technique in an article on our blog.

What email design challenges can you see coming up in the near and long-term future?

For the short to mid-term, image suppression certainly isn't going away. In fact, it's fast becoming the de-facto standard. The next generation of both Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail (Windows Live Mail) are also including preview panes, so the 2 common design concerns I mentioned earlier look like they'll be sticking around for a while.

Unfortunately we're all getting busier, and as more and more emails fill our inbox demanding our attention, it's going to be even more crucial for designers to ensure their emails capture their recipient's attention from the preview pane, are relevant and easy to scan.

Longer term we're certainly hoping for some fundamental improvements to how many current email clients render HTML emails. In the same vein as the recent improvements Microsoft made with Internet Explorer 7, email design should hopefully become less of a chore as email vendors become more CSS standards compliant. We're already seeing this with both Yahoo! and Windows Live Mail, so hopefully this trend continues.

Email marketing as reported in the mainstream web media can get a little cliquey, with the same few large US-based services getting repeated coverage. How does a non-US based ESP establish a name for itself?

Our approach has been a little different to many traditional ESP's in that we've focused purely on the niche web design market. Because of this, we've been lucky enough to build a tool that many designers think is worth spreading the word about and we almost entirely rely on word of mouth (or word of blogs) to get the word out about our products.

Because of this, we're probably not very well known in ESP industry circles but very well known in the web design industry, which is just the way we like it. To be honest, we've been quite happy to fly under the ESP radar and continue to focus on the needs of our customers. If we can get that right, then I know the coverage that counts will take care of itself.

Give us a little insight into some of the practical issues faced by an ESP that users probably wouldn't be aware about

Sure Mark, for us landing the customer is just the start. As you can imagine, we invest a lot of our energy into ensuring our customers stick to best practice email marketing in terms of both email design and obtaining the correct permission from their subscribers.

Our sending reputation is our lifeblood, so our team spends a lot of time manually reviewing and approving the emails being sent through our software to ensure they comply with our strict permission policy.

On average we're getting a little over 50 new customers a day, and every one of them needs to be reviewed by our staff. This can often result in a delay for first time customers, but they almost always react positively when they realize it keeps the bad guys out.

And the personal stuff...

Best business book you ever read: Eric Sink on the Business of Software

From day one we've been focused on building a product and user experience worth talking about and this book (and the associated essays on his site) was a huge help in the way we positioned and developed Campaign Monitor to try and achieve this.

Best piece of business advice you ever got: A good friend by the name of Steve Taylor who used to share an office next door to us was a fantastic mentor in my early years.

He showed me the benefits of short-term planning that forced you into actually doing something. Since then, we put together a plan every month that includes actionable things we need to achieve that month, whether it's revenue growth, particular marketing initiatives, etc. that align with our longer term goals.

Being answerable to this plan every month has kept us focused and made sure we spend our time as efficiently as possible. In writing this I realize how simple it sounds, but it has genuinely made a difference for us.

Best way to celebrate a particularly successful bit of business: Myself and our other founder Ben are actually very keen surfers, so we normally celebrate meeting a target or achieving something significant with a day of surfing down the south coast of Sydney.

We've got a very casual work environment and like to celebrate our victories, so we're often taking the team out for a big lunch or an outing like a cruise, bowling or the movies.

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