Email Design: Breaking the Rules

Travis Buck

Recently, I received an interesting email from J.Crew. It’s in some ways unconventional and goes against one common best practice. Best practice would tell you the call-to-action should be “above the fold”. “The fold”, however, is an antiquated term and hard to define in today’s email universe. You can basically translate this to saying that the call-to-action should be visible without scrolling. This is a bit tricky considering the various monitor resolutions, tablets, and smart phones people view their email on. As a designer, this can be frustrating because if you truly stick to this best practice it can cause some limitations in your design. What I like about this email is the fact that it doesn’t follow best practice. There’s no clear call-to-action initially — you have to scroll down to see it. What this email did was make me curious. Not only did curiosity make me scroll down, it made me click to “find out why”. Now, I’m not saying throw caution to the wind and ignore best practices. They’ve been established for a reason. What I am saying is its ok to shake things up and break the rules now and then.

Remember the preheader message.

Travis Buck

Best practices for the preheader area in email tell you should include two things – a message to support the content of the email and a link to view the email in a browser. While the browser link is important, a supporting message is arguably more important. In Outlook, Gmail and the iPhone, the preheader text is displayed following the Subject Line. Since the iPhone holds 23% of the market share for email clients this is certainly something that should be taken advantage of.

Let’s take a look at two examples.

American Apparel

Subject Line:
KESH x American Apparel: The New Limited Collection

Please click here if you are unable to view the images.

This email from American Apparel doesn’t include a supporting preheader message. Instead, they’re using the space for a browser link only. Kudos for including a browser link, but as you can see on the iPhone preview, they’re missing out on an opportunity to better communicate the message.


Subject Line:
Casual Summer Clothes + The 4th of July Sale Is On

Kick Back With Summertime Clothes From Icebreaker, The North Face, prAna, & More ›

This email from is a good example of best practices. There is a nice supporting message in the preheader as well as a browser link. Notice the preheader message is on the left and the browser link is on the right. Positioning is important. In order for the preheader text to appear after the subject line it needs to be the first instance of html text in the email. Positioning the preheader message on the left side ensures that it’s the first instance.


Spamhaus Best Practices

James Koons

Online marketing expert Ken Magill recently asked Steve Linford of The Spamhaus Project to answer some questions posed by readers of his newsletter.  The response was amazing.  Ken received over 50 questions from readers which he then passed along to Steve.

One question caught my eye as it was the topic of a recent discussion that I had.  The question was:

“How is Spamhaus working with legitimate marketers to improve list hygiene? Do they have a list of ‘best practices’ that they’d ideally like brands to follow that are business friendly (getting that customer email address) as well as good for business (legitimate email address)?”

I really enjoyed reading Steve’s answer - pointing to Spamhaus’ marketing FAQ, but adding in some additional tips:

“Our Marketing FAQs cover the fundamentals of bulk emailing. While it is a rather old FAQ, we’ve updated it several times and it still provides a solid basis for proper address acquisition and list hygiene.

Some additional ideas we like:

1) Include a “this is not me” link in receipts and other transactional email so that victims of spam sent to a ‘typoed’ email address can tell the company that the email address was ‘typoed’ and to stop sending email to it.

2) Send transactional emails and marketing emails from different IPs.

3) Confirm any email address before sending marketing emails to it, or before continuing to send ongoing transactional mail. The receipt can carry the request for a unique opt-in confirmation of, “Would you like to subscribe to our newsletter?”

4) Mail a list frequently enough to retain good customer engagement. Measure that engagement and remove non-engaged customers as appropriate.

5) Be sure to remove and/or suppress addresses which hard-bounce, and correctly manage unsubscribes as well.

6) Once addresses are retired from a list, whether due to unsubscribe, bounce or non-engagement, don’t try to squeeze some unknown value from those addresses by mailing them again.”

To read all the responses from Spamhaus, see the original Magill Report post.  It is well worth the read!

Email headers - use the space wisely

Megan Ouellet

It seems like many of the emails I receive from retailers include offers in the headers of their messages. Which makes sense - it’s the first thing people see and a good offer can quickly prompt customers into action. I received this email this morning from Williams-Sonoma:


It’s a long message - this is the part that showed up on my screen. I’m not interested in buying any bakeware right now so I didn’t scroll to the bottom of the message. There could have been something else in the message that I would have been interested in, but I didn’t see it.

A tactic that Image Beauty has used for a while now is interesting. Instead of putting their offers in the header of their messages, they include a small banner that says “coupons below”. Here is how the email showed up in my inbox this morning:


And here is the entire message:


By telling customers that coupons are at the bottom of the email message, it makes people want to open the message and scroll the whole way through, ensuring they see all of the products and messaging in the message, too.

It’s different and interesting and tactical and it works.