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Email Creative: Standing Out From the Crowd

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Three ways your email messages can grab attention
  • Why less is more in email design

With email inboxes more crowded than ever, your message's successful arrival in the recipient's inbox is half the battle. Assuming you routinely have good deliverability, the second half of that battle is standing out from the crowd.

The majority of email users (more than 70% by some estimates) view the lineup of email messages in their inboxes via preview panes, so only a snapshot of each message is visible either on the right side or on the lower half of their screens. Checking email via a mobile device can be even more limiting, eliminating previews altogether.

Like it or not, that is the reality for email marketers today, which is why it's essential that your email messages not only pop and get straight to the point but also make a memorable entrance!

What follows are three tried and true creative tactics that'll always boost your message appeal. Although you may have seen these tactics applied to marketing and advertising in offline channels, they can have a greater impact online than offline—especially because of short attention spans and email's deliverability and rendering issues.

1. Compelling, Colorful Headlines

Compelling and colorful headlines stand out and are easily readable in preview panes. They immediately draw the reader to the main point of your message.

Don't rely solely on a graphic header, such as the one that may be topping your blog or site, to do the job of a headline; they're two different things. Though a graphic banner or "masthead" may be fine for e-newsletters, other marketing messages require more punch and relevancy. Each deserves a unique headline.

Take a look at the following example from restaurant group Bonefish Grill (which has a history of great email headlines, by the way). Notice the great headline copywriting and how each section of the message has a sub-headline to draw the reader in.

Tip: Headline fonts, sizes, and colors are routinely tested, but you don't need to go to such lengths if you simply follow the graphic standards of your brand and marketing communications. So, don't forget that headline, and try tying it into your message subject line, too.

2. Pictures, Please!

Eye-tracking lab studies measuring how people visually interact with email have proven that messages with images have higher readability than those without.

Although including a picture of a product is an obvious tactic to increase advertising effectiveness, much email marketing is not product or retail oriented; it's service or content oriented. Finding relevant photos and images for those types of messages is just as important as it is for messages sent by clothing and furniture retailers, whose catalog-spread-style emails and sites consist largely of images.

See how much more interesting this B2B email for phone conference services looks with images vs. how it would have looked with text alone:


Tip: Include at least one image in every promotional email. Photos are ideal, but even illustrations, cartoons, caricatures, logos, and icons are effective. Experiment with different percentages of copy vs. graphic. Editorial-style emails are usually heavier on copy than graphics, but you might find that a highly compelling photo with a strong headline and short intro paragraph works as well as (or better) than your meatier messages.

3. Less Is So Much More

For effective email creative, simplicity rules. Too many marketing emails err using up all the "white space" in their designs.

Don't feel compelled to fill every pixel with color or content. Give your readers' eyes a rest, and remember that a few bold elements can draw more curiosity (and more eyes) than many detailed ones.

Just try this J. Crew email on for size to see what I mean:


* * *

We approach email with an incredibly short attention span, sizing up whether to open and act on messages in near sub-second timeframes. So for your email marketing, let clean, clear, simple, and to-the-point rule your design. Show as well as tell, and don't tell just in one way: Use subject lines, headlines, subheads, and message copy to tell, and tell again.

Clear, uncluttered email will gain the gratitude of not only your designer but also your customers.

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Karen Talavera heads Synchronicity Marketing and writes about how to successfully use email, social, and content marketing on the Enlightened Emarketing blog. You can also follow Karen on Twitter (@SyncMarketing) and Facebook for daily tips and links to emerging email and social media marketing trends, facts, and research.

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  • by Jon Dickens Thu Sep 15, 2011 via web

    One thing not mentioned at all in this article is the balance between graphics and text in order to get through spam filters. I've heard that emails heavy on graphics are often snagged before reaching their audience.

  • by Todd Baker Thu Sep 15, 2011 via web

    The Bonefish Grill would have a hard time, as it looks to be almost exclusively graphics, while it looks good in a screen shot, when put to the test in a wide variety of email inboxes, how does it come across. With over 60% of email inboxes opting for "images off", the view will only see the alt tags. I thins the FreeConference would look to have the best balance as @ Jon Dickens says, many SPAM filters would capture both of the other emails before the intended recipient ever noticed.

  • by Andrew McNees Thu Sep 15, 2011 via web

    These e-mails are going to existing clients, from what I would assume. Thus the graphic heavy design. The receiver has already accepted / requested to get these communications and the style and format would make it past spam filters.

  • by Kate Lee Thu Sep 15, 2011 via web

    How do you add graphics when you're marketing a professional services firm? The istock photos of people pouring over paperwork and pointing and smiling at graphs is a little tired. Any ideas on how to do something different so that readers don't skim over the whole thing?

  • by Pooja Thu Sep 15, 2011 via web

    I agree with Todd to an extent. I personally have my inbox images off and turn it on if I and interested in a newsletter to get the full scoop. I do it for MarketingProfs by the way. Yet there is no guarantee a recipient will accept mine with full images on.


  • by Ed Alexander Fri Sep 16, 2011 via web

    Yikes. The examples above are great for PC users, but these days, when (a) mobile devices outnumber PCs, (b) most of us have our mobile device within reach 24/7, and (c) we read email on that small screen, the email examples shown above could likely fail to deliver, render, make sense visually, or stimulate anything above a 50% conversion rate.

    Designing and pre-testing for small screen results should keep you out of the weeds.

    Paraphrasing the article: less is more. Extrapolated: small screens force you to strip out all the clutter, redundancy, confusion, indirectness, fluff, etc. and just focus on the basics:

    WHAT is the main goal?
    WHY should the reader care?
    HOW do you want the reader to respond?

    Make these three elements the stars of your email. Better: make them the ONLY elements of your email. Then, and only then, should you even think about graphics. Your email should s focus on the audience's needs, wants, communication style and short attention span. Graphics are secondary, and should be A/B tested.


  • by Tyler Fri Jan 6, 2012 via web

    Kate: Working for a consulting firm, I can relate to your graphic dilemma. One thing I found that works well is simply photographing the personnel here and during client interaction (when appropriate), then, using the photography in promotional material. Rather than purchasing stock photos, spend a little money on a photographer or a camera. This helps leads understand what they can expect as well as showcases our current clients' successes. Current clients love seeing their achievements used as promotional material... plays to their egos.

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