20 tips for great email newsletter design

We've all done it. You love a company, product or service so when you see on their site a "Subscribe to our newsletter" button you think: "Hey, why not? I'd like to keep up with what these guys are up to..."

Fast-forward a few months and you've got an email inbox clogged up with email newsletters you've not read, and you're considering unsubscribing. You weren't grabbed by the ones you did look at, and you just don't have the time or inclination to make the effort any more.

How do you avoid this happening with your newsletter? Read on, and find out how to make your missive something people look forward to and relish opening instead...

01. Where to start

MailChimp offers a simple way to get started with newsletter design

Before you get started you’ll need a means to distribute your newsletters easily. Although there is a vast amount of software out there for doing this, I’ve found the best and easiest to use are MailChimp and Campaign Monitor.

Both offer really simple campaign and list management, make templating a breeze, and handle all the technicalities of sending lots of emails without getting blacklisted for spamming.

Both have pretty great analytics too so you can measure just how your campaign faired - but Campaign Monitor’s World View provides an addictive live view of your mail getting opened all over the world which is particularly satisfying.

02. Figure out who it's aimed at

There are many ways to use a newsletter depending what business you are in. It could be that you wish to notify people of a new service you're offering, or an update to an existing one. It could be that you want to shout about offers/exclusives/previews/discounts. So before you launch into newsletter design, it's important to nail down exactly what it's trying to achieve.

Your recipients have chosen to receive your updates so keep them as your priority - learn who they are and always have them in mind when creating your newsletters. What do you think they're interested in? What do you want to share with them?

Think about how you'd talk to the recipients if you were with them. Newsletters are generally a friendly, casual variety of digital communications, so write how you would speak, this will make it easier and quicker for readers to digest.

03. Decide your format

We Love built this campaign email template using a serif font and simple sketches

Figuring outnumber 2 and 3 will stand you in good stead to decide on what your newsletter is going to look like and how you'll build it.

There are many ways to construct your email newsletter template, and how you go about it will depend on such things as

  • what email clients you want to support
  • whether you want to provide a "view in web browser" option (and which browsers you want to support)
  • which mobile devices you want to support, and whether you want your newsletter to appear differently on mobile and desktop

Researching other newsletters is a good way to help you decide what’s right for your brand/product and your audience. Think about what makes the ones you like work better than others.

To see how others go about it, read this detailed article about how strategic creative agency We Love built the CSS3 template on our sister site netmagazine.com, while this tutorial by James Parker explains how to make a scalable newsletter using Fireworks.

04. Keep it focused

Whether you're going for a corporate style to fit strict branding or something more creative, make sure your newsletter doesn’t come across as merely a vehicle for as much unrelated content as possible. So many brands try to shoehorn every link from their site into the newsletter. Noise is irritating. Keep your focus tight.

05. Give it some personality

The Threadless newsletter is anything but dull

Traditional advice is to keep your newsletter simple. However, what's more important is that at a glance your newsletter design reflects you, your company and your message. Originality - what’s wrong with that?

06. Section headings and story titles

Headings and titles are critical - and pretty tricky to master. Be mindful of what captures your attention when you're browsing a newsletter or web page. What draws you in? You can have a brilliant article but if your heading isn’t interesting enough it could be bypassed. Content and headings are equally important.

07. The header

The header for FontShop's newsletter gets a suitably extravagant typographic treatment

The header will appear on every newsletter you send out, so you need to spend time on getting this right. It should instantly convey the brand's values visually and ideally create an emotional response in the subscriber that makes it feel like they're getting a beautifully designed present - not a piece of unwanted spam.

The footer doesn't have to be over-designed: this one for the Authentic Jobs provides contact details, a way to share social and a way to unsubscribe - all in an uncluttered, fuss-free way

As on a website, the footer is in many ways as important as the header, giving the design a rounded feel and a sense of completeness. It's where the reader will expect to find contact details. It can also include an easy way for subscribers to share the newsletter or part of its contents with friends, via email or social media. And it should definitely include a link allowing them to unsubscribe.

Making it hard for people to unsubscribe is bad form and is not going to make your newsletter any more popular. It’s far more helpful to know that that those that have subscribed actually want to receive your newsletter - it’s also much more likely that your readers will be actively engaged. Better to have 50 newsletters that are actually read and enjoyed than 500 that are consigned to the Trash.

09. Use of images

The Five Simple Steps newsletter uses images to draw the reader in

A newsletter full of text can be very boring to look at, and images can be a really great way of communicating what you're about to your readers. If you have some really good photos of events, staff, or your products ‘out in the wild’, think about including them. If you don’t have any, think about that next time there is a launch or event.

Pictures can be really evocative - choose those that you love and that you feel reflects you and your company. Take the time to make the images look as great as possible with a bit of help from Photoshop, or if you have have someone on the team who can draw, then ask them to get involved!

Nowadays some companies embed video into their newsletters, but this can be a technical mindfield, so think carefully about what kind of audience you're aiming at and what kind of technology they're likely to be using before heading too far down this path.

10. Build subscribers' expectations

Newsletters are great for building a sense of expectation. News doesn’t have to be something that you have already done - maybe share some of your dreams and hopes for your company. If you have a product launch in six months, take your readers on that journey with you - the ups and the downs - get people as excited as you are about what you are working towards.

11. Tell a story

An engaging narrative style will always trump a dull list

Sharing your story as your company/project grows is a very powerful way to find people who want to be part of that story too - and your newsletter can let them know how they can be. Be imaginative in how that narrative is conveyed visually - there's no "rule" to say that a newsletter has to be a dry list of links.

12. Keep an eye on the analytics

Services like MailChimp can provide you with oodles of information about what your subscribers are doing with your newsletters - but don’t get too obsessed with it. Analytics can give you a clue as to what is working and what isn’t in general terms, but get too distracted and you’ll overthink it. There are many elements to keep in mind when you are creating your newsletter, try and use your instinct and trust that with practice you’ll begin to feel what’s right and whats not.

13. How to get signups

Use all means open to you to get people subscribing

There are lots of ways to get the word out there about your newsletter: make use of as many of them as you can. You can use any Twitter, Facebook, GooglePlus accounts you may have and always have a link to the newsletter signup page displayed prominently on your site. Events and exhibitions are another way to spread the word. However you let people know it’s important to make sure that the signup process is as quick and easy and possible.

14. Believe in yourself

If you don’t believe it neither will your readers. Blagging can be picked up a mile off - if you believe in your news, your company or your product then that will shine through in your copy.

15. Encourage feedback

Don't be shy: people have subscribed willingly so be bold about encouraging feedback

Physical newsletters were traditionally one-way pieces of communication, but the web should be all about two-way conversations. Digital newsletters, in other words, are a great way to get people involved - so consider introducing a competition, for example, or asking for feedback.

16. Speed up your process

Once you have your template tweaked and your objectives in place you’ll be surprised how quick and easy each newsletter will be to create. In time, your newsletters will help build a community of sorts and your updates will feel more like a message to a group of likeminded people than an anonymous broadcast.

17. Be a magpie

Always be on the look out for interesting stuff to include in your newsletter. Bookmark inspiring web pages, write down captivating quotes, take pictures. Write about your experiences. It’s much nicer when you sit down to put your newsletter together to feel like you aren’t starting with nothing.

18. Stay regular

Not to get all Pavlov’s Dog, but if your newsletter is regular then people will start to expect and even look forward to it at certain times. Keep in mind how often your newsletter needs to be sent though - this will vary wildly depending on its purpose - there’s a fine line between keeping people updated and spamming.

19. Give something back

Go outside the strict confines of your company news and people will love you for it

Don’t expect your readers to only take on board messages about your company, business or sponsors. Give them more, people know when they are being sold to, and that’s okay if they want to hear about it, but why not include other stuff? Stuff that supports other causes and businesses, it doesn’t mean people will be less interested in you. Support businesses that you respect and you never know maybe one day they will return the favour.

20. Test before sending!

Before you send out your newsletter, test it out by mailing it to yourself first. View it in different email clients, on different browsers and on different mobile devices. There are always things that can go wrong - whether that's to do with the wording, the images or the technical delivery - that you just won't notice until you put yourself in the mind of the subscriber.

Words: Sarah Morris

Sarah Morris is online editor for The Do Lectures and previously worked on the 5 Simple Steps newsletter. You can follow her on Twitter at @iamburley.