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Email Marketing

Email Marketing 101: Content and Design best practices

How to send emails that convince & convert

Practical email marketing tips to keep you on your customer’s mind, and out of their spam folder

By now, you understand that email marketing is cheap, fast, and effective when it comes to supporting a variety of goals. In the last installment of Email Marketing 101, you built on existing knowledge about the who, what, and why of email marketing to understand the most popular campaign types – and you probably have some good ideas on what to send.

Want to ensure those emails get delivered and – most of all – opened? Follow the simple best practices below…

Your subject line and preheader

One of the worst mistakes you can make is spending hours on an email and seconds on your subject line. Like a newspaper article’s headline gets the article read, your subject line gets your email opened and is one of the most important elements of your email.You also don’t want to forget a preheader. The preheader lets you provide a small summary following the subject line. As an email reader you might often use it to screen your emails. As a sender of email, you can use the preheader to help entice your customer to read on.

Understand the character limits

Every phone and email client is different. Remember – more people may be reading your message on a phone screen than in outlook or gmail. The general rule of thumb for subject lines is that they should be no longer than 78 characters. The best practice for your preheader text is to keep it around 85-100 characters.

Character length for the most common email apps & clients
Email Client

iPhone (portrait view) 


Outlook 2010 preview

Outlook 2010 compact

Character Length

41 characters

70 characters

54 characters

73 characters

60 characters

iPhone (portrait view): 41 characters

Gmail: 70 characters

Outlook 2010 preview: 54 characters

Outlook 2010 compact: 73 characters 60 characters

With the above in mind, it’s smart to keep your subject line as short and punchy as possible and it pays off to keep it as close to 50 characters as you can. This ensures it fits the widest range of email clients. But remember, email marketing is inexpensive and longer subject lines can and do work. That’s why this is a great opportunity to test and see what resonates with your customers best. 

Try a proven formula…

Are you struggling to come up with a good subject line? Trying a proven formula can help.

Questions are a great approach, because it’s the reader’s natural inclination to make the answer about them while piquing their curiosity.

Scarcity is a powerful thing. Whether it’s time or inventory – the fear of missing out (FOMO) can be an incredible motivator to open up an email and learn about your offer.

The ‘How to’ subject line works great because it distils the value you’re offering into its most concise form.

Humans are curious, and more often than not – if you can tickle that curiosity with a subject line you have a good chance of getting your email read.

Avoid spammy words and characteristics

Everyone hates email spam, that’s why it’s important to steer clear of the most common words and tactics used by spammers, to get an idea about what these words and phrases are – check your spam folder! But in general, you want to avoid words that make lofty promises, are needlessly urgent, seem suspicious, or are written to trick or deceive the reader. Some of those words, phrases, and characters include the following:

  • Guarantee

  • Affordable

  • FREE

  • No cost

  • Act now

  • Limited time offer

  • Apply now

  • 100%

  • Call immediately

  • Please read

  • Buy direct

  • Dear friend

  • $$$

  • #1

  • Promise

  • Win

You might be thinking: “but some of these phrases can be perfectly honest!” and that’s true. But spammers have been known to use many of them. If you must use something along these lines – find an alternative way to say it.

Important best-practices for your subject line

  • Do not add “Re:” to your subject line if you are not actually replying


  • Double check your spelling

  • Do not use single word subject lines

  • Avoid exclamation marks

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The body of your email

When it comes to creating your email, don’t forget to remember your goal. What is your call to action, and how will you guide your customer towards it? With this in mind, the “Inverted Pyramid” is a great technique. Simply put, by structuring the elements of your email in a way that guide your customer’s eyes toward your call to action – you increase your success rate!

Consider this simple example from the American Red Cross:

In this example, the offer of a free gift card is the lead incentive for the potential blood donor, and if you imagine a “V” or inverted pyramid pointing towards the call to action – it’s fairly easy to imagine a reader’s eyes first digesting the offer, understanding the action they need to take in order to claim it, and then filling in the details with the remaining text in-between – if they even need it.

In this example by the rug company, Ruggable – a much longer email is used.

Except in this case, the email employs a mixture of both the inverted pyramid technique and a zig-zag pattern. Not only can you imagine a series of inverted pyramids guiding the eye towards a variety of potential goals, but – for the readers – you can see how the content zig-zags in a predictable pattern all the way down the page. This works well for longer emails where you might be featuring multiple products, offers, or updates.

A common misconception is that long emails don’t get read or viewed. However, when you include multiple potential actions for your customer to take – a long email doesn’t matter. They will read as far as is relevant to them!


It’s a great idea to use images in your emails, but you need to be careful with how you use them.

This means that some images can become blurry on high-resolution displays. But don’t worry – most modern email marketing tools include features to optimize images for various screen sizes.

If an image doesn’t display or somehow “breaks”, you want to ensure your reader knows what’s supposed to be there. This is another element made easy by most available email marketing tools.

It’s important that your image is not your message. What happens if the image breaks or can’t be displayed? Your email should still make sense without your image.

Test, test, test

It’s incredibly important to test your email by sending it to a few different people at your business. Here’s what to keep in mind:

If your font appears small on desktop emails – increase its size. 14-16 point font usually works well.

Read and re-read your email body and try to enjoy the puzzle of trimming your message down to be as concise as possible. It will pay off!

Have you included links in your email? It’s important to ensure that they send your customers to the right page.

Try tactics like special offers, varying formats, and personalization to see what yields the best result.

Your legal obligation

Finally, it’s also important to stay in-line with the law when you’re using email marketing. Fortunately, it’s not very hard – and your email marketing service will have measures in place to make it even easier.

The key anti-spam law in the United States is called CAN-SPAM and its requirements are fairly simple. If you want to learn more about this law, the FTC has created a helpful guide, summarized below.

  • Do not use false or misleading header information

  • Do not use deceptive subject lines

  • You must identify the message as an ad somewhere in the email

  • You must tell recipients where you’re located

  • You must tell recipients how they can opt-out

  • You must honor opt-out requests promptly

  • You must monitor what other companies are doing on your behalf

Abiding by privacy laws

While the California Privacy Law is unique, if you have any customers there you’ll want to be sure your emails abide by it. This means disclosing the kind of information you gather, how you share that information with third parties, how the customer can review and change information you have about them, and when your policy was instituted and/or changed. Ultimately, this law ensures that you’re collecting customer data legally. Compliance requires a privacy policy – which you may already have

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