Today's inboxes are more crowded than ever. But the silver lining for marketers is that whether you're a marketing team of one or a thousand, it's possible to compete with the emails of the biggest brands out there.

How so? With smart design and strategy, marketers from companies big or small can become the heroes of their firms by building email campaigns worth celebrating.

We've compiled an overview of some of the best emails from the past year, along with some tips to ensure yours stand out in the inbox and you're able to maximize engagement and conversion rates to achieve the highest possible email ROI in 2018.

1. A Design Strategy That Scores Major Points: Vanderbilt Athletics

Fully 80% of people are only scanning your email, according to the Nielsen Norman Group. People are busy, which means they're checking their email quickly while waiting in line at the coffee shop, say, or if they get to a meeting a couple of minutes early. You have only a few seconds to make a big enough impression for them to engage right then or remember to revisit your email later.

The email from Vanderbilt Athletics follows the playbook on how to share a lot of content in a scannable, digestible way. By breaking up the design into clearly defined buckets with compelling headlines, the company has given fans easy access to all the information they need to know; plus, the email is easy to scan on a mobile phone.

This is a tactic that B2B marketers would be wise to emulate: Instead of stuffing every newsletter with a wall of copy and text links, organize your email content into an attractive, scannable format like this one.

2. Tease Subscribers With a Compelling GIF: Southern Proper

Including a GIF in your email design occasionally is a great way to lift click rates and freshen up content. They add some movement to what's traditionally been a static medium, and that helps to grab readers' attention. Plus, they flat-out work: GIFs have been shown to increase email conversion rates by up to 130%.

In this campaign, Southern Proper create interest with an animated hero image but also keeps things focused with plenty of white space and a clear CTA. (According to WordStream, emails with a single call to action can increase clicks by up to 371%, and sales 167%.)

Marketers who have multiple products, services, or pieces of content to show off may want to consider using an animated GIF to display them all, as Southern Proper has done, without cluttering the email design.

3. The Power of a Little Gratitude: GoldieBlox

Goldieblox makes toys and games designed to help girls develop an early interest in engineering and problem-solving. The company has a wonderful relationship with its customer base, which is very loyal; to show its appreciation for five successful years in business, the company sent this simple, heartfelt thank-you email that includes a video message from its founder and CEO.

This is a good example of how to turn everyday customers into fans who will sing your praises from the nearest mountaintop... or Twitter account. It's brilliant marketing, especially since video has proven time and time again to be one of the most reliable ways to lift click rates and drive people to your website.

According to eMarketer, video in emails can increase clicks, shares, and forwards as much as 50%. Furthermore, 70% of marketers say video produces more conversions than any other type of content.

4. Design for the Small Screen First: Aaptiv

According to Qualcomm, 29% of people say their mobile phone is the first and last thing they look at each day. As more and more people turn to mobile, it's important that brands have a mobile strategy for all elements of their digital marketing.

A solid mobile strategy is particularly important for brands to succeed in the inbox, especially because 75% of consumers are highly likely to delete an email that doesn't render well on mobile, according to Chadwick Martin Bailey.

For Aaptiv, this grid of icons stacks beautifully into a single column on mobile to ensure every recipient has a great user experience regardless of the device used to open the email.

5. Don't Forget Your Most Important Audience: Philadelphia Zoo

Far too many marketers ignore their base of customers, members, donors, or fans while chasing down new prospects. It's important, however, to not fall victim to that mindset; current customers are one of the biggest untapped resources in marketing, especially when the probability of selling to a customer is 60-70% (compared with 5-20% for prospects).

Marketers should make customers feel as though they are truly a part of a community, and a valued member at that. When that's the case, they will likely show more loyalty to your brand for the long haul.

Takeaways for 2018

So what can B2B (and other) marketers learn from these emails, and how can they implement these strategies to be successful in 2018 and beyond? Here are a few ideas.

Simplify When Possible

peaking from a budget and time standpoint, most marketers are being asked to do more with less. Therefore, the key to success in the inbox is simplifying your design, template, and messaging to help your team to not only move faster but also create a more scannable email that looks great on all devices.

Clarity, simplicity, and substance over style will be the ultimate differentiators when competing with top brands in the inbox.

Fewer Discounts, More Value

There's nothing wrong with a "Buy Now" message every now and again, especially if you're sending to a segment that's expressed interest in your product or service. But to truly stand out in the inbox, marketers should focus less on how much they can slash prices and more on the value they can provide.

Everyone's offering discounts, so establishing other ways to provide value is how successful brands like the ones highlighted in this article are setting themselves apart.

Speak to Humans, Not Email Addresses

The biggest thing to remember, whether you're in B2B or B2C, is that on the other side of that email is a human being. So you have to provide value, you have to be helpful, and you have to establish trust and credibility.

Subscribers want to relate to your brand; just because you're a B2B marketer doesn't mean you have to sound like a robot spewing jargon. Adopt a human, conversational tone; speak in their language; and communicate that you're all in this together.

If you do, yours will be one of those emails that subscribers are excited to open when it lands in their inbox.

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What B2B Marketers Can Learn From Some of 2017's Best Emails

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image of Colby Cavanaugh

Colby Cavanaugh is VP of product marketing at Integrate, with 10+ years' experience in digital marketing. He's also skilled in international business development, CRM, and pricing strategy.