Let's face it. The digital space is loaded with messages from a multitude of sources; it's chaotic at worst and untidy at best. Email inboxes are piled high with work to-dos, newsletters, notes from family, forwards from coworkers—and even the occasional letter from a foreign dignitary enticing the recipient to share bank account information in exchange for countless millions.

The result? Without a well-crafted, clear, and consistent design for your brand, your email is going nowhere in a hurry.

Many businesses use e-newsletters, blogs, and email marketing efforts to complement their Web presence, but these channels aren't created equal. The design principles and procedures of a successful HTML email campaign are different from those of a standard website.

Instead of employing a one-size-fits-all strategy, consider the following six tips for your next email campaign.

1. Do maintain a balanced ratio of text to images in your emails

Spam filters often look at the text-to-image ratio of an email. So if an email contains excessive images—or, conversely, too much text—it could be flagged as spam, never to be seen by your intended audience.

Properly integrating text with images ensures that your messages can be easily read by recipients; equally as important, doing so ensures that your email stays out of the spam folder.

2. Do assume that embedded images won't appear properly

If every image in your marketing email is replaced with a tiny red "X," will you still get your point across?

Email marketers must assume that their messages will be displayed without the images showing. Images might not always translate seamlessly from a Web page to an email campaign, and many email clients don't automatically display images without prompting the user to first take action (e.g., "click here to view images" or "right click, then download images").

It's imperative that your key messages—the information that you most want your readers to take away from the email—aren't embedded within an image. Instead, use HTML body copy to deliver the most important information you want to convey to customers.

Also, if the images don't appear, how will your email look? Make sure to use height, width, and alt attributes for every image tag. Doing so will ensure that images are replaced with an empty block the same size as the image, keeping formatting and layout intact.

3. Do provide a backup option for emails with image-rich backgrounds

Popular mail clients such as Gmail and Microsoft Outlook don't provide support for background images. Provide a secondary option, such as a colored background, if an image serves as the backdrop of your email.

HTML allows both an image and a color to be coded in the same tag, which means that if a mail client supports background images, the images will be displayed; if it doesn't, then the chosen color will appear as the email background instead.

4. Don't kick HTML to the curb

Not every email client interprets HTML code the same way, and the vast majority of mail programs will not load your style the way you had intended. Some programs, like Thunderbird, have nearly flawless support for that kind of design. Others, such as Lotus Notes, have almost none. Keep in mind that email clients will remove JavaScript for security reasons, and cascading style sheets (CSS) must be used in-line and not in style blocks.

Because you don't know which client your readers will use to open your message, rely more heavily on HTML coding.

5. Don't avoid using a table of contents for emails with multiple sections

The more content an email includes, the more important organization becomes. If an email contains several sections, create a simple yet eye-catching table of contents to appear just beneath the company logo or header.

To make navigating easier for readers, consider linking items in the table of contents to the corresponding areas within the email so readers can effortlessly jump to the areas that are most important to them.

6. Don't leave out a call to action

Every email should be constructed to present the most important and relevant information first.

Whether your objective is to entice your audience to click a link, tell them about a new service or product, or simply share news and updates, you don't want your readers to have to sift through an abundance of information to find what interests them. Instead, place your call to action at the top of the message, where readers are most likely to see and internalize it.

* * *

Email design often takes a backseat while marketers focus on list growth, deliverability issues, and content creation to maximize return on investment (ROI).

But great email design can help you in all three areas: A well-organized and visually pleasing email is more likely to be shared; proper design techniques can help avoid delivery hang-ups; and optimal integration of text and visuals with a clear-cut call to action leads to increased ROI.

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John Murphy is president of Chicago-based email marketing service provider ReachMail. He has been helping marketers improve their email marketing campaigns since 1999.