Anatomy of a Great Email Template

Brent Sleeper
May. 11, 2016 by Brent Sleeper

Skeleton anatomy as metaphor for email template

If you search the Internet for “free email templates,” you’ll find a lot of ideas. I mean A LOT of ideas. And, I’ve got to say that a number of these templates are perfectly serviceable–they look nice, they’re more-or-less responsive to mobile layouts, they give you some bits to customize and tailor to your brand. All good, right? Well, before you grab one of the many free examples of email templates, take a moment to consider whether it’s more than a pretty face.

What really makes a successful email? There’s not just one formula for success—there’s a reason email marketing professionals are in high demand. It’s a complex topic that really depends upon the nature of your business, your brand, and the needs of your customers. But those intangibles aside, most successful emails hang on the skeleton of workhorse email templates that meet a few key criteria.

Our skeletons are what keep us from being a formless masses of ooze (at least that’s what I hope for myself, anyway)! It can help to think of an email template as playing a similar role. It’s what gives a message it’s structure, and like a skeleton, it features a head, body, and feet. Let me walk you through several of the features that your email template should include.

The Email Template Header

It makes sense to start with the header. Not simply because it comes first, but also because it contains the cues your recipient will see in the inbox. Though literally a small part of the template, it should be crystal clear about what value the reader will get from reading your message. Getting the header right will ensure whether she or he takes the time to open the message. Getting its details wrong will be a deal-breaker, no matter how good the rest of your email message.

  1. Use a recognizable and friendly “from” name and address. It’s hard to overstate how much this matters, and it frankly shocks me how many major brand companies get it wrong. A bare “do-not-reply@companyname.com” address in your email template makes it impossible for a user to reply. Just as importantly, it sends the message that this is a bulk email unworthy of the recipient’s attention. Instead, use the brand name that your customers would expect.
  2. Use the right “reply-to” address. When you or I send a personal email, a recipient’s reply generally comes right back to us. But, handling replies to high volume marketing and transactional emails is not nearly so simple. Your email template should not only avoid the “do-not-reply” trap described above, but also make sure that replies go to an address that’s able to process it. Depending upon your business, your email template could be populated with a reply address for customer service, sales, or even your CEO—or it could be a unique endpoint that’s tied programmatically into that individual recipient’s help desk or CRM record.
  3. A good template encourages you to create a killer subject line. Entire books have been devoted to the art of creating a compelling subject line. What works for one business could be very different than another, but your email template should make it easy to follow a few consistent rules: keep it short and to the point. Not only does that make it easy for the reader to get the point, but it also works for a variety of devices like mobile devices. The sweet spot is about a half-dozen words, or less than 50 characters.
  4. Don’t waste the “preheader” text. Sometimes called a “snippet,” the preheader text is usually the first line of copy that appears as a preview in the inbox or in your message. Think of it as a subtitle to your subject line. There’s room for less than ten words, or about 75–100 characters. Too many stock email templates waste that space with boilerplate like “View this message in web browser.” Yours shouldn’t do that. Replace the stock preview text with a line that clearly and compellingly previews the message content.

The Email Template Body

Now comes the body of the email. If your recipient has responded to your subject line and other header information, the body of your email template is where you have a chance to really tell your story.

  1. A good template is visually simple. A responsive design, single-column layout works consistently in both desktop and mobile email. Moreover, using white space and generously-spaced elements lend both visual clarity and focus, but also make your links more usable for someone tapping with a finger.
  2. Your email template should contain placeholders for personalization. At a minimum, that means personalizing the salutation and perhaps a few bits of placeholder text like store locations. A more sophisticated template could contain highly complex rules that personalize offers and content based upon multiple criteria your customer database and business systems might contain.
  3. Your email template should use images strategically. It’s true that a picture’s worth a thousand words (and supports our next template tip below), but multiple images quickly overwhelm your message. The best templates use a structured approach that emphasizes a “hero image” or another simple way to scale gracefully on a variety of devices. And as much as you love your logo? Use it just once.
  4. A good email template helps you enforce a concise approach to copy. If you’re a writer like me, it’s tempting to craft a perfect letter with a detailed narrative structure. Don’t do it. It’s not about dumbing it down—it’s about being pragmatic. Concise copy not only scales well to mobile devices, but it makes it a lot easier for your customer to take the action you want him or her to take. After all, your email is just one of perhaps hundreds in her or his inbox, so demonstrate you respect your recipient’s time.
  5. Your template really needs to focus on one easy call to action. Most emails aren’t self-contained islands; they’re meant to drive some other action, like visiting a web site or engaging with an app. The most successful email templates make that call to action extremely clear, easy to activate, and a natural part of the message.

The Email Template Footer

It’s easy to overlook the message footer as containing a lot of boilerplate and other items nobody reads. But the truth is, the footer of an email template is where a number of message must-haves reside. Without them, your email might suffer customer spam complaints, deliverability hits, and even legal penalties.

  1. Contact information for your company is a must-have in an email template. Letting the recipient know how to contact you not only is common courtesy that reinforces trust in your brand. It’s also a legal requirement in most jurisdictions.
  2. Your email template needs to contain a clear statement of responsibility that tells the recipient who sent this message and why he or she received it. Believe it or not, a user might not remember when or how he or she interacted with your brand and chose to receive emails. This sort of statement solves that problem, and when done right, also is a great way to reinforce the relationship you have with your customer.
  3. Every email template needs to show clear, easy-to-find unsubscribe and messaging preference links. Laws in the United States (and most other markets) require that all commercial email messages include a simple mechanism for subscribers to unsubscribe or opt-out. Even for transactional email messages, making it easy for your customer to tell you whether she or he wants your email is the best path to success. Don’t obfuscate or make unsubscribing difficult; that approach will hurt you in the end.

A Good Template Helps You Deliver Great Emails

A good email template is the foundation of a repeatable workflow and success with your emails. Including these key elements will help give you the structure you need to focus on what really matters: communicating a message that connects to your customers and drives the sort of engagement or response your business needs.

What would you like to know about email templates and crafting successful email messages? Let me know! I’d love to hear your point of view and the sorts of questions you run into.

By the way, if you’d like to take a deeper dive into the best practices for emails that really work, be sure to check out some of these great resources:

P.S. If you’ve already invested time and effort into creating great templates in Mandrill, I bet you’ll be glad to know our developer team created a really useful Mandrill-to-SparkPost template converter tool.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

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