7 Email Design Best Practices for Your Business Newsletter

Email design is both an art and a science, and doing it right will dramatically boost your business’s marketing. Here are seven ways to improve your business newsletter.

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When you’re a small business, email marketing can be daunting. You know how to make a great product, and selling in person is a breeze, but how do you create an email newsletter that will get customers in the door? Don’t people just automatically delete that stuff? How do you even begin to figure out how to stand out?

When you create an email newsletter for your business, there's a lot more to it than just creating some promotional copy and sending it out. You've got to follow email marketing best practices, or your emails will land with a thud (or, more specifically, in the trash folder).

Here are seven fundamental practices that will help you achieve your email marketing performance goals.

7 tips for designing responsive emails for your small business newsletter:

  • Lead with strong content
  • Be smart with colors
  • Be strategic with images
  • Design for both desktop and mobile
  • Keep text at a minimum
  • Don’t just use images
  • Be experimental

7 tips for designing great emails for your small business

Theories on how to achieve the best email campaign design could fill volumes, but if you’re just looking to get the basics right, we’ve narrowed it down to seven tips that are sure to give you success if you follow them:

1. Lead with strong content

Every email blast to your customers should offer them something of value — and we're not just talking about your product, which is the end goal. Your emails should include great content that answers a question your customers may have.

For example, if you provide IT security services to small businesses, you should be sending emails with content like "5 Simple Tips to Protect Your Business from Cyber Attacks."

A customer who has a positive interaction with your emails will open more of them in the future, increasing brand recognition, trust, and the likelihood that they'll become a customer.

How to put leading with strong content into action:

Good content is the backbone of every good business email newsletter campaign. Here’s how to make sure you’re producing the right content:

  • Make it relevant: Your content should not be devoted to describing your product, but building your brand's reputation as being an expert on the subject. Content should be immediately useful to those on your email list.
  • Stay focused: Don't bounce around to all sorts of different topics. Develop content centered around a theme that builds off of each email, and adds value each time.

2. Be smart with colors

The colors you choose can communicate a lot more to your customers than you realize. Your emails should be visual, and colors play a big part in that.

You should always emphasize your brand's colors, but colors should also communicate other things. "Noisy" colors like red may provide the impact you're looking for, or maybe something softer like lavender is better if your brand is about calmness.

How to put being smart with colors into action:

Like it or not, the decisions you make on colors will have a big impact on the success of your email. Here are a couple things you can do to ensure they work in your favor:

  • Use "loud" and "soft" colors judiciously: A customer might be put off by an email focused on relaxing bath products with bright red and yellow colors. Try to match the colors with the desired tone of your email.
  • Stick with two or three colors: Too many colors will actually detract from the visual nature of your email, making it look like a confusing mess. Go with no more than three colors to strike the right balance.

3. Be strategic with images

The other aspect of being visual is using images. Images are a great way to give your marketing copy some real pop, but you will need to be careful with what images you select.

Using pictures incorrectly may actually detract from your brand or distract customers from the message you’re trying to send. Always take a step back and ask yourself how you would react to this message if you were a customer seeing this email for the first time.

Does it communicate what you were trying to say in a professional manner?

How to put being strategic with images into action:

The right image is important for communicating the right message to your customers, so follow these three tips to ensure that your message is received:

  • Use basic visual imagery: Customers respond well to things like big buttons. Make sure your email has these obvious calls to action.
  • Stay on brand: The image should always, always, always communicate the message of your brand, so it should include your logo and colors when possible.
  • Try to avoid stock photos: You'll want to use original images, particularly those that show your product in action. Stock photos tend to look fake and dull, and it risks cheapening your brand.

4. Design for both desktop and mobile

A lot of times, marketers will design an email in the standard desktop format and call it a day, assuming that it will look fine on mobile.

Surveys have found that 40% of internet traffic is mobile, and that there's an 85% drop in potential customers on mobile if an email displays poorly, regardless of the content.

In fact, 15% of users will go the extra step of unsubscribing (yikes). Any good email marketing service should allow you to view both a desktop and mobile version of your emails.

How to put designing for both desktop and mobile into action:

This may seem like a strictly technical tip, but there are design elements to consider as well. Here’s how to do it right:

  • When in doubt, check: Send test emails to yourself and open them on desktop and mobile. It seems obvious, but many people don't even bother to check or assume that since the last email looked good and they didn't make big changes, it will still look fine. Always check before you blast.
  • It's not all about fit: Just because the newsletter technically "fits" the mobile layout doesn't mean it's communicating the right message. For example, the image may be pushed farther down than you wanted, and so it won't have the impact of the desktop version.

5. Keep text at a minimum

Nothing makes a person’s eyes glaze over faster than big blocks of text, so if the customer is opening up your email to see that, it’s sure to doom your marketing campaign to poor click-through rates.

Instead, boil your message down to the most impactful statements. Blow them up into interesting blockquotes, and make them as visual as possible. Minimize text, maximize impact.

How to put keeping text to a minimum into action:

Minimizing text is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but by following these tips you’ll find just how powerful it can be:

  • When you think you've cut enough, cut some more: We often underestimate just how much we can boil down text to its essentials. Keep cutting words even when you think it's as short as it can possibly be. The shorter you can get it without diluting the message, the more powerful it will be.
  • Link to more content: Sometimes, you've piqued the customer's interest, and they will want to read more text. Provide links to learn more about the product or your company so they have an avenue to do that.

6. Don’t just use images

Minimizing is key, but you need to use some actual text in your email, and not simply overlay the copy onto a large graphic. This tip applies specifically to email, and the reason is that some email programs will preemptively block images from some sources.

If that happens, a bunch of your recipients may be getting blank emails, which means a lot of wasted money and inaccurate data on who is engaging with your emails (i.e., a customer may have been interested in your pitch had they seen the marketing copy to begin with, but you’ll never know because they didn’t).

To remedy this, your emails should be compelling in just plain text, so you can’t neglect that side of it.

How to put using text as well as images into action:

Images are powerful, but many email services restrict them, which can limit the number of people who see your message. Here’s how to keep that from happening:

  • Make sure the text accomplishes what the images would: Your text should be in lockstep with your images in terms of communicating a message. Ask yourself if the customer would still understand the message and get value from it if the images were gone.
  • Don't use large images: Email services like Gmail will clip email messages that are too large, and images are a big driver of that. You can help prevent that by keeping your images relatively small.

7. Be experimental

This might be the most important tip of all. The temptation for a lot of marketers is to just go with something that’s worked in the past or imitate some other campaign, but you’re missing out on a big opportunity by doing this.

Email newsletters are great because you can play around with them, and advanced analytics offered by email marketing software allows you to see exactly how consumers are responding to changes you make with email campaigns.

So experiment with a few different good email designs and copy, and keep tweaking it until you find a real winner.

How to put being experimental into action:

Trying out a few different email layout options, or adjusting the copy, can yield dramatic changes in results (even for relatively small changes). Here’s how you can do it best:

  • Use email marketing software: Specifically, you want email marketing software with solid data and analytics tools. You want to know every possible detail about your campaigns, so no data point is too insignificant. These software programs can also help you with email list management, e-commerce, and anything else your marketing department needs.
  • Use A/B testing: It's a staple in email marketing for a reason, so you should be using it. Basically, A/B tests show a random selection of recipients two variants of an email message with different layouts or content. By doing this, you can compare them side-by-side to see which strategy performs better.

Email design examples

These email marketing examples should give you some ideas on how to approach your own newsletter.

1. Washington Wizards

This bold, colorful email offers lots of goodies, such as links to podcasts and insider information on the players. It does the job of keeping fans connected to the team, which increases the likelihood they’ll buy tickets or merchandise at some point.

Washington Wizards Email Newsletter

Bright, bold brand colors can really help get your message across.

2. GovEvents

This GovEvents shows what a professional email newsletter is all about. It features a simple layout and links to helpful content, and it makes it easy for readers to switch to a mobile version.

GovEvents Email Newsletter

This two-column layout is popular for e-newsletters.

3. Southwest

Sometimes, it’s best to just be straightforward. While not strictly a "newsletter," this email from Southwest Airlines shows how to provide a tempting offer to readers right off the bat, without a whole lot of text and images cluttering it up.

Southwest Airlines Email Newsletter

Southwest uses a highly visual email with large buttons.

Use software to implement these best practices

You want to send really good emails that customers will respond to, but maybe you aren't quite sure where to start. It's not something you need to do on your own — there are lots of great email marketing software options that excel in email graphic design, so experiment with a few of them.

The Blueprint has reviewed a number of platforms that often offer free trials, so there's no downside to seeing what's out there.

With the help of software and by following the seven tips outlined above, you can create a major new pipeline of new leads into your business.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares). The Motley Fool recommends Southwest Airlines. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.