So where do we start? The Email Design Conference is an event where geeks from everywhere meet up in a room to talk about our love for all things email. We were more than happy to attend this year’s conference at the gorgeous Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. We learned so many things in just a couple of days that our brains just couldn’t process the amount of awesomeness. Yet, we managed to survive and we wanted to share a couple of the things that got us fired up about working on email–especially, working on email for you, so get excited and read on!

Your Customers (And Readers) Are Human… Afterall

Email in the B2C industries tends to completely focus on data and ROI. Those are great things to have as email marketers and business owners; too often, however, we forget that behind every click there’s a human.

Vicky Ge, Marketing Manager at Amazon and rockstar speaker at TEDC, taught us that being mindful of who your customers are will lead to an enhanced level of customer trust. This is important to keep in mind when planning your email marketing campaigns. So what do we mean by trust? Well, think about it this way:


• An email open means that a customer trusts you:
It is easy to forget that your customers are actual humans, not just numbers. People usually won’t open emails that are not relevant to them, or worse, appear dishonest. Keeping your subject lines true to your message and keeping your content relevant builds a trust with your customer. It’s also important to remember that too many emails can quickly get them sent to the trash bin, or worse, cause a customer to unsubscribe from your lists. As we know, unsubscribes hurt our hearts and come with real monetary losses.

• A click is a sign of commitment:
A click is a deeper level of action and a legitimate commitment from your customer. A click means that your customer has accepted your message, thought about what it means and is now committed to proceed onto the next step: going back to your site.

• A conversion is a sign of love:
If a customer is already committed to your store and your product, we can easily say that they love you. They are right where you want them to be: part of that loyal customer club. Keeping customers in that club is one thing, but getting them there in the first place is a whole lot more work. Not to sound cheesy, but, like any healthy relationship, it all starts with trust.


 Know Thy Customer. Like, Really Know Them.

Don’t worry, we are thinking segmentation, not stalking. It’s time to get analytical about who your customers are. Knowing your customers–those that are looking into purchasing from you and the ones who have purchased–and everything that makes them unique will increase trust.

As Jen Rhee from Udemy pointed out, you already have all you need to truly know your customers. The data is right there. You know what actions your customers take and which actions indicate who are better prospects for conversion.

Start with your customer and work backwards. Who are they? How long did they stay on your site? Where did they come from? Did they buy? What did they buy? When was the last time they bought? Did they leave before a purchase? Were they just browsing?

Every single one of your customers is different. Rachel, the bargain hunting soccer mom, and Joseph, the millennial bachelor with expensive taste, most likely have different customer behaviors. Their levels of engagement are probably very different, plus their psychographics may never merge.



A way to deal with a great variety in customers is through personalization. Again, you should be thinking of your customer first and then building backwards. In order to personalize at scale we need to use segmentation. Start by identifying customer cohorts, customer personas and demand trends. Doing so will help to inform your personalization strategy. Then, group key success actions (bought, browsed, converted after trial, subscribed, etc.) and link those to a customer story. Similarly to how a UX designer will create personas and stories for a new application, you want to do the same with email. After all, email is experiential.

Now that you have a greater knowledge of your customers, categorize them by predictive modeling. You may also want to score how likely they are (or aren’t) to take a designated action. The relation between this kind of causality and tracing customer categories will allow you to distinguish between which customers have a higher propensity to convert–those that may just need a nudge–and those who have a low propensity and will be harder to convert.

If you’re thinking RFM, then you know what we’re talking about. By categorizing and segmenting the good and the bad habits and tendencies between your customers, you will be crafting campaigns that are highly personalized and unique to a customer, which in turn will lead to better, smarter campaigns. Again, keeping your customer at the forefront will truly allow you to think holistically about your email marketing efforts.


And now what? Well, now it’s time to execute in a way that doesn’t kill you. Focus on the right segments. Remember that 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customer base; thus, it makes sense to focus your energy on the customers that are engaged with your store.

But how do you keep the engaged really engaged? This is where the data will help you. If you can gather data about who are your best customers, you definitely have the information that tells you which products are the ones your customers love the most. For example: you can create a campaign that recommends the most loved/bought products to a segment of customers with a large number of purchases on your store. By targeting the customers who are in love with your product and showing them things that people have bought and loved, you’re enticing them to come back based on pure engagement level.


The Art and Science of a Great Email

Now you have the data. You have your marketing team all gathered in the conference room and everyone is excited about your new email marketing campaigns. The job is done, right? Nope, the real work hasn’t even started yet. The data gathering, number crunching, all-night copywriting sessions, countless design mockups, not to mention the endless cups of coffee you drank while coding your responsive emails and testing your bulletproof buttons is just the beginning.

When does a campaign effort really start? Like we said, it all starts with an open. All your hard work could be futile if that email is never opened. If a tree falls… you know the drill. Oh, the metaphysics of email! However, you don’t need a philosophy degree to answer questions that may arise from breaking down your email metrics. You just need some nuggets of intense knowledge on testing, like the ones we got from Matt Laudato, Senior Manager for Big Data Analytics at Constant Contact.

In Matt’s words, we live at an incredible moment in technology where we can create beautiful campaigns that are grounded in art and data. Let’s define art as the act of creation of an email campaign – yup, the pre-planning portion. Now let’s say that data is the collection of numbers of what happens post-planning and begins with an email open. Your emails are in limbo as they linger, unopened, in your customer’s inbox. Marketers know that open-rates tend not to be the best metric to rave about, but it’s vastly important for your emails to be opened–otherwise all the pre-planning efforts will never see the light of day.


Test, Rinse & Repeat

So what makes customers open an email? Subject lines. You’ll want to devote significant time to testing your subject lines since subject line effectiveness will increase open rates. More importantly, it will give you access to comprehensive data about your campaign. Think of subject lines as your most important call to action. Curious cats will open your emails, but you want to attract customers who are both curious and ready to commit to the message of your email.


While we’ve written some posts in the past about A/B testing and subject lines, I want to touch on a couple extra points from Matt’s talk:

• 50 characters (5-7 words) is the sweet spot for subject line’s length.
Keep it short and sweet. Remember that 51% of your email opens will happen on a mobile device. Meaning your subject lines and preheader text have a limited amount of space in the snippet area.

• Create buckets in your emails that will have a lot of open rates.
Be topical. Think, April Fools, Mother’s Day, holidays. However, be careful when using these, you want to make sure your emails stand out from the rest of the pack even on special occasions.

• Create subject lines that work for the customer’s you are sending to.
Rachel the Soccer Mom may be more likely to open an email about keeping her family healthy instead of an email that shouts JUST FOR YOU!! on the subject line. Give your customers some credit, chances are they know that your “very special offer” probably went to a thousand other people.


Open-rates and subject line testing aside, marketing at it’s core is about getting results, naturally there’s a lot of things out there that can stand in the way of you and those results.

• Don’t send too much.
The sheer amount of emails you are sending may be what is stopping you. There is a huge difference between sending three great emails a month, versus sending 30 mediocre emails a month. Your customer may get frustrated at being bombarded with so many emails, so respect your customer’s inbox . You don’t want to lose the trust that you worked so hard to gain from them.

• Too much to say with very little worth.
Emails with 20 lines of text result in the highest click-through rates. Be clear and concise. Don’t ramble. Keeping your customer’s attention by sticking to the point is paramount.

• Style matters.
We’re not talking about the hottest trends on the catwalk right now, but how the styling of elements in your email may be hurting you, too. You always want to visually design your campaigns for CTR. Using a couple of different fonts is okay, but know that simplicity will help you get your point across easier. Emphasize carefully. While everything may be important to you, not everything is important to your customer. Help them read through the lines and make sure to highlight what they must know.

• More links = Higher CTR
This makes sense, right? But while you want to create a target-rich environment, you don’t want to overload your users with targets to pick from.


We should also mention that ⅓ of your customers amounts to 5% of your email clickers. These are very engaged folks who are committed and love your product. Thus, as we mentioned above, by knowing who they are and what their behaviors are you will know precisely how to cater to them by treating them super special.

We must use design and decision making to create the best email campaigns possible, but don’t forget that testing is always part of planning a campaign. There is always room for improvement and every single one of your wins will lead you to the perfect email campaign.

A New Modern Email

But what does the perfect email look like? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it depends on who you are asking. In the eyes of email developers, it means bringing emails closer to how the web is coded. However, that may very well never happen so email developers can only hack their way through creating close versions of the web to be delivered via inbox.

Building/coding emails is difficult and exciting. Many people have the impression that coding emails is easy when, in reality, it’s anything but. Email is powered by archaic tables, while the web has the fluidity of the HTML5 elements that can make almost anything possible.

However, before we get all fancy and touch on some of the things that made us salivate about the future of email, we must talk about what truly matters in email for campaign effectiveness: email development.

Because coding emails is so complex, time is of the essence. Fabio Carneiro Lead Email Developer and UX Designer at Mailchimp gave us some insight about Spongy Email Development. MailGun’s Product Design lead, Lee Munroe, gave us a peek into how to supercharge our email workflow by using Grunt. While Mark Robbins from RebelMail became everyone’s email super god by showing us things in email we thought were a mere product of science fiction. In short, we had email coding overload so we’ll do our best at briefing you about what we learned in email development while giving you access to their code, too.

Modular Development: Everything is Cool When You’re Part of a Team.

Spongy (hybrid) development is a method where emails are “responsive” across all email clients, but relies on pixel-perfect dimensions. This means that most of your email will work on a fluid basis (percentage relative widths), except for its structural parts where pixel defined widths are needed. Tables are then “floated” by alignment and in code line-placement. Yes, this method does make use of media queries, but only for progressive enhancement. Meaning you use them where and when you really need them, while allowing you to have a responsive email even in the clients that do not fully support these queries.

But why is it called “spongy”? Because the code, just like a sponge in water, retains its shape.
But why is it called “spongy”? Because the code, just like a sponge in water, retains its shape.

Email is restrictive so one needs to be creative. Spongy development is part of that creativity. An enhancement allows you to craft your emails piece by piece – as they should. Each code base (banner, button, copy, logo area, etc) works like a stencil. You create a pattern and it becomes bulletproof. You can then style and pretty-fy to match your design knowing that every pattern works.

Fabio’s demo code is available on Github and reminds me of silkscreening quite a bit. Every module is a different screen that creates a master stencil. You can then change colors and styles on the screen to create something different every time out of the same code.

Spongy development is modular. Think of it like building with legos. Piece by piece. For marketers and developers alike this is important since you want to have a diversity of emails that you can send without – perhaps – having to get designers and developers involved every time.

Ryan Merril, Product Designer at Food 52, showed us how creating a modular email system has saved their marketing team. By giving them independence–knowing that all code has been tested–it allows designers and developers to stay focused on other business related tasks.

Inspired by a branding consistency issue that the National Park Service had decades ago, he looked at one of the masters of design–the father of the grid–Massimo Vignelli’s solution. Vignelli created a unified system for development of new materials, which in turn delivered structure and efficiency.

Ryan created a source code for everyone at Food52 to use; however, we were gifted with an email guide that will allow your development team to create a similar solution for your business.

Web Development Comes to Email

Now we did say that email is nowhere near imitating the web; however, this doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t have a development workflow for your emails, or so say Dan Denney of Code School, and Lee Munroe (MailGun). Having a set workflow can help in efficiency:

• Replacing and updating email assets.
• Setting up modules (or partials) will allow you to share re-usable code.
• Automating your code is easy when a style guide is provided and/or there are code snippets that can be shared.
• Creating variables that will take care of keeping your branding as consistent as possible.

Through this you will be repeating yourself as little as possible, saving time and, yes, cost. However, one must always be meticulous in order to achieve perfection in the creation process.


On a note geared more towards developers, Lee Munroe gave an introduction to Grunt.js. He showed us how it can be used to automate the email building process by compiling HTML, inline CSS, compress and uploading images to a server, adding tracking, testing your emails on Litmus, all by just typing “grunt” on the command line. While Grunt.js does come with a learning curve, it may be worth spending some time on it if you develop emails day in and day out 24/7. Here is Lee’s guide on how to set this up.

The Future Starts Now

I think everyone who has written a post about TEDC15 has talked about the awesome presentation given by Mark Robbins from RebelMail. We saw things that have been happening in email little by little such as the addition of dynamic elements sans javascript, but Mark’s examples were shocking. His dedication to our medium surely shows the way in which a few pioneers will carve out the future of what we can do with email.

We’ve seen many examples online with mobile-like menus for navigational links in email, as well as image sliders, etc. But this was the first time that we saw a Wack-A-Mole game–fully functional– in an email.

Play it live here
Play it live here

But it is surely the first time we’ve seen a fully functional shopping cart inside a cart abandonment email. We were shocked. We couldn’t compute for the next 24 hours. Everything that we knew about email had been smashed.


After the shock, came real questions. Would a customer use a technique like this? What are the chances that this can be implemented and executed to perfection? Well, it will take time for people to adjust to completing their purchase via inbox. Not so much because of user experience, we can easily say that mobile opens will increase the chance of an in-email checkout experience. But for all other opens the medium may be weird and may ask too much for them to establish a connection behind or their Gmail inbox to your store.

Adapting code to dynamically insert all that is needed to create an experience such as the one Mark demonstrated is not an easy task. eCommerce companies have the option to pick and choose a cart solution. Development teams may have to test in different cart systems such as Magento, OpenCart, X-Cart, etc. and that will take time, in addition to the testing required to make sure your basic template doesn’t break using all this magic.

Again, we were in shock with Mark’s code because it takes us to amazing and beautiful places with email. However, one should always question functionality in email and ask whether a customer would open/interact with any dynamic element in their email. Adding these takes a lot of development and testing time and therefore should be used when needed and when it makes complete sense. Regardless, Mark has given us hope that the way we code emails and think about email is about to change in pretty exciting ways.

In short:

Post-conference depression is real, but only because it was invigorating to see what everyone in the world of email is thinking and creating. Being able to share the room with people who also work around email marketing creates a pretty unique energy. I like to compare it to being back in school sitting in classes you actually liked where all you wanted to do was absorb everyone’s thoughts and knowledge at maximum capacity.

What we enjoyed the most is learning much more than what we used to know in order to help our customers reach their maximum potential and to teach our readers about the importance and relevance of the email industry.

So remember:
• Every click is a person.
• Knowing your customers and reading your data is vital.
• Testing will perfect email campaigns over time.
• Efficiency in email development makes everyone happy.
• The future of email is now.

Last but not least, thank you Litmus! Thanks for all the gifs we saw and lessons from TEDC15.


Karina Tovar
Karina is Product Manager at Rejoiner. Loves tacos and typography. Pinterests email designs on her spare time and is for sure looking at your source code.