Design elements

The saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words". That’s not entirely true, but it does have a kernel of truth to it. Anyway, the use of images in newsletters is almost essential. But other design elements such as GIFs, videos, icons and special characters can also have a positive impact on the success of a mailing. We took a closer look at the most common formats and explain how marketers can get around image suppression and when plain text mailings are a viable alternative.

To avoid misunderstandings: When we talk about pictures, we also include graphics and photos of any kind.

General tips

Appealing images, videos, and buttons help sell products, illustrate topics, and evoke emotions. Used well, they can lead to the desired effect, namely a conversion – especially when you consider that newsletters are usually only scanned in the first place and rarely read in their entirety. Nevertheless, a few things should be kept in mind when dealing with design elements in mailings:

  • Consider image design: The visual language used should be consistent with your own corporate design. This includes colors and fonts. The message must be recognizable to the recipient at a glance.
  • Ensure relevance: On the one hand, the entire mailing must be relevant to the target group being addressed; on the other hand, the design elements used must be directly related to the text and represent an additional benefit for the reader.
  • Correct formats and image quality: The compressed file types JPG and GIF are best suited as image formats. In some cases PNG come into question, although some clients are not able to display them. BMP and TIF formats, on the other hand, should be avoided completely.
  • Check file size and resolution: On the one hand, the image must be of such high resolution that it is not displayed pixelated, but also small enough that it does not represent unnecessary ballast during mailing. If images are scaled, ensure that the proportions are correct and that the image is not distorted.
  • Embed vs. link: Before inserting, weigh whether the image should be embedded or linked, as this affects displayability and mail size. You can read more about this later in this chapter.
  • Image suppression for all formats: This point is closely related to the previous one. Not only images, but also videos and GIFs can be affected by email client image suppression. Further down we go into more detail on this topic.
  • Comply with copyrights: Copyright applies when using third-party image material. A third-party image may not be used without the consent or license of the copyright holder. This also applies to drawings, graphics as well as individual parts of these. In the case of images of people, the consent of the person depicted must also be obtained.
  • Use hyperlinks: Many readers are more likely to click on an image than on the continuative link in the text. Therefore, images should also be linked with a hyperlink.
  • Consider text-to-image ratio: Striking design elements can create a surprise effect if used sparingly. Too many, especially moving, images can quickly appear confusing and cheap, but also alert the spam filter. Therefore: Use sparingly and to support the core message.
  • Use personalization: Personalized design elements can be even more effective. You can read everything about this topic in the chapter "Distribution list design and maintenance".
  • Don’t forget to test: Always test the displayability of the various design elements before sending them out. A/B split tests can be used to determine how different newsletter content is received by readers.

Images

Marketers most frequently use images to visually enhance their mailings. Of course, images can be used anywhere in newsletters – for example, as a so-called skyscraper in the margin. However, we’ll briefly go over the most popular types of images in newsletters here: the header image and article images, including buttons.

Header image and company logo

The header image is usually located directly below the pre-header. This is an image that goes across the entire width of the newsletter – we recommend 600 pixels so that the newsletter can be displayed in web mailers and desktop clients without horizontal scroll bars.

The header image is used to capture the viewer’s attention and encourage them to read the newsletter. Successful header images relate directly to the content of the newsletter and make people want to know more. A combination of images and text enables readers to grasp the central message of the newsletter at a glance. Ideally, the central call-to-action is also placed here, which can already ensure the first clicks.

Together with the company logo, the header image creates a recognition value. They either overlap or are arranged directly on top of each other. Thus, recipients recognize who the newsletter is from as soon as they open it and can thus build on their previous experiences.

Article images

Not only in the header, but also in the further course of a newsletter, relevant images can usefully supplement the texts, present complex content more clearly and thus encourage the reader to read on. Especially with many articles a balanced ratio of images and texts is important.

Buttons

Call-to-actions are often packaged as striking buttons, because ultimately the reader should click on them. Everything that needs to be taken into account when designing buttons is explained in the "Call-to-Action" chapter.

Dynamic images

In the case of images, there is the option of including them as dynamic content in mailings. Shortly to clarify the name: This does not mean animated images. Rather, they are placeholders. Here, the images are not uploaded from the web server when the e-mail is sent, but only when it is opened. This means that depending on when a reader opens his or her e-mail, a different image may appear.

Such dynamic images can be used wisely during an ongoing campaign: In the first few hours, for example, the reader sees different content than a few days after delivery. As I said: So here is no longer the shipping, but the reading time decisive. If, for example, the sale is running a bit slow, you can update the images with prices or discounts on the web server and show even more favorable offers. Or the other way around: If products are no longer available during the campaign, the newsletter images on the web server are replaced accordingly with a "sold out" image. Of course, the replacement only works with linked placeholders and not with embedded images. In addition, real-time images can also be integrated: for example, countdowns, live tweets, RSS feeds, or weather forecasts. We go into more detail on the automated transfer of such content in the "External Content" chapter.

The examples just mentioned can not only be integrated dynamically, but can also be animated. The GIF format is ideally suited for this purpose, and we’ll take a closer look at it in the following section.

With the graphics format "Graphics Interchange Format", or GIF for short, several individual images can be saved in one file and then played back as an animation. The sequence of images can run once or in an endless loop. Since animated GIFs are supported by almost all e-mail programs, they are ideally suited for use in newsletters. In otherwise static mailings, these animated images are particularly eye-catching. Therefore, they can positively influence the click-through rate and ultimately also the turnover. So how can they be used effectively in e-mail marketing??

Animations are eye-catchers and draw attention specifically to advertised products or a call-to-action (CTA). In addition, their use can save space in the mailing and prevent unnecessary scrolling.

Here are some ideas for your campaigns:

  • A large animated GIF of a balloon that picks up the reader when he opens the e-mail and floats through the image so that his gaze ends at the CTA
  • A CTA button that changes color and is animated in a continuous loop
  • A large-scale animated GIF in continuous loop promotes the sale, with font and background alternating in strong contrasting colors, for example red and white
  • Alternate the texts "20% extra discount" and "Only a few hours left" to alert the reader to a limited time offer
  • Play several products alternately in single frames as an animated GIF in a continuous loop
  • 360° views animated with GIFs give the potential buyer a better impression of the product
  • Multi-step image series in the form of animated GIFs to show the advantages of products that require a lot of explanation
  • To refer to a video in the newsletter, instead of a still image, use an animated GIF that consists of either a few still images from the video or a short scene that repeats as an endless loop – but without sound

How to create a GIF yourself? Animated GIFs can be created either with image editing programs or – even easier – with various online services. On mobile devices, too, you can not only draw from the wealth of existing GIFs, but also create your own animated GIFs with just a few clicks.

What to consider specifically when using GIFs:

  • Size of animated images: GIF files that are too large can be displayed with a delay – especially with slow data connections. If the loading process takes too long, the newsletter will be deleted without being read.
  • Link animated images: Animated images should not be embedded in the newsletter, but linked to avoid unnecessarily large data when sending the newsletter and in the recipients’ inboxes.
  • Pay attention to the first single image: The first frame of a GIF animation must convey all important information. This ensures that the GIF also works as a still image when in doubt.

Videos

With today’s flood of newsletters, content that can be quickly reviewed is needed to reach recipients and entice them to interact. Regardless of whether it’s a B2B or B2C mailing: Compact, quick-to-understand content is a must. Videos are a very good answer here. You can manage to explain complex products clearly and positively influence purchase decisions or the attitude towards the brand.

Videos offer these advantages over written text:

  • Videos arouse curiosity: The question of what is behind the play button provides the decisive click for many recipients. Therefore, keep the content of the mailing reduced and focus on a highly visible player graphic. The word "video" in the subject line should be self-evident.
  • Videos are compact: In as little as 30-60 seconds, a video conveys information and advertising messages in a targeted and visually concise manner. It is well known that videos have a strong advertising effect and that visual information is processed more quickly than text. Therefore, video content must be short and to the point. It doesn’t matter whether it’s news, sales or a pure entertainment video.
  • Videos increase traffic: Videos do not run in the newsletter, but on a landing page. What initially sounds like a disadvantage is actually an advantage. Every video-curious user is at the same time a visitor to the website, who wants to be picked up and converted accordingly with further content. The video on the landing page should start automatically, because by clicking in the mailing, the user has already decided to watch the video.

Here are two more tips for the specific use of videos in email marketing:

  • Personalization: Videos can also be personalized to increase the success of the mailing. Combined with a personal product recommendation and the word "video" in the subject line, personalized videos can not only increase the open and click-through rate of the newsletter, but also the view-through rate of the video itself.
  • Automation: Video content can also be created and sent automatically, for example in the form of explanatory videos in welcome emails after a registration, videos with the user’s preregistered products or the latest website news.

It should be noted at all times, however, that videos should not be embedded directly in the mailing due to their size. The solution with a so-called fake player is therefore common: A static screenshot of the video with superimposed play button and, if necessary, volume control and progress bar is integrated into the newsletter and links to a landing page on which the video is played. This way, the reader can tell right away that it is a video. In addition, the screenshot should be provided with a call-to-action such as "Play video" so that the content is recognized as a video even if image suppression is activated. If the newsletter is to contain real moving images, an animated GIF is the method of choice.

Symbols and special characters

Eye catchers attract more attention and can positively influence the opening rate. Used skillfully, they can even replace words and shorten text.

The Unicode character table provides a wide range of symbols which can be used for the most diverse occasions and topics in e-mail marketing. Theoretically, you can simply copy the characters and paste them into the respective e-mail marketing software. Many e-mail marketing programs also offer the mini-images directly to the mailing editor and have tested the displayability in advance. Here, it is important to use UTF-8 as the character set encoding for the mailing. How to display umlauts and special characters correctly. In practice – and this is the biggest drawback – an optimal display is unfortunately not guaranteed, because not all e-mail clients display symbols and special characters correctly. Therefore, the display should be tested on different devices and clients before sending.

Further implementation tips

  • Less is more: Symbols and special characters should support the message and are wonderful to use for special occasions. These do not have to be exclusively the well-known, recurring seasonal events, such as Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day. A company anniversary or the upcoming summer vacation also provide an opportunity for an eye catcher. But be careful: they can quickly give the impression of spam if they are used too frequently.
  • Matching content: Symbols and special characters should be used to match the theme of the subject line and mailing content. Or you can do just the opposite if you want to make a special impact.
  • It depends on the target group: Depending on the industry, topic or age, not every target group wants to be addressed with symbols and special characters.
  • Test variants: With an A/B split test, different versions can be tested quite easily. The following questions may be of interest:
  • Where in the text is the icon best placed?
  • What effect do different symbols have?
  • The effect is greater if several symbols are used?
  • Are mailings better received by readers with or without symbols??

Technical background info

Here is some background knowledge for those who want to know more:

The most modern and generic way to display symbols and special characters is the Unicode method. Each character in this world is given a place in the Unicode tables and is mapped on the computer as a memory location comprising one or more bytes. Each Unicode character is assigned an individual number, which is recorded in a character table.

In order for the special character to be displayed correctly, the displaying end device is informed of a number and a font by the mailing source text. From the fonts installed on the recipient’s computer, the end device picks out the character that has the specified number. It becomes problematic when the font is not available on the computer or smartphone or cannot be found under the predefined number entry. Instead of the icon, then only a black box, a question mark or a space is displayed. Therefore it cannot be said often enough: Please test, test, test.

Image suppression

What good are the most beautiful images and best call-to-action buttons in the newsletter if the reader can’t see them in the first place? Right, nothing. Image suppression is to blame.

Images linked in newsletters are suppressed by default by almost all email clients and webmailers, regardless of the image format, for security reasons. This prevents spammers from being able to verify the recipient’s email address through the open tracking pixel. Another reason for image suppression are graphics that contain spam content. The text is integrated into a graphic. Since spam filters can only scan text, the spam content in the graphic is not detected. Malicious software can also install itself on the recipient’s computer through transmitted images. In order for linked images to still be displayed in newsletters, recipients must actively confirm this by clicking on a button.

We took a closer look at what options marketers have to get around image suppression:

Option 1: Embedding instead of linking

First thought: If it is useless to link the images, what about embedded images?? This is supported by the following:

  • Normally, embedded images are not affected by image suppression because they are an integral part of the mailing, similar to a file attachment.
  • They do not need to be reloaded when opened.
  • They are also displayed offline.

However, there are also some arguments for linked images in newsletters:

  • Linked images have no impact on mailing size because they are stored on a web or FTP server and are merely referenced. This in turn ensures faster delivery, shorter loading times and less storage space required in the recipients’ inboxes.
  • The risk of spam is lower.
  • They are needed to determine the opening rate: The opening rate can only be determined if the image call-up of a linked image is tracked.

The agony of choice – what is better now?

At first glance it is tempting to use embedded images. We still recommend linking images in the newsletter as a matter of priority.

However, embedded images are worth considering in the following cases: Images at the top of the mailing that are important for recognition, such as the company logo, and call-to-actions that grab attention and draw the eye to what’s important. If you decide to use embedded images, it is especially important to scale them to the right size and compress them so that you don’t send unnecessary ballast.

Alternative texts should be included with every image – regardless of whether it is linked or embedded. It also helps to ask recipients to add the sender’s address to their personal address book. Most email programs automatically reload linked images if the sender is known. And of course, before sending, it should be tested extensively in which e-mail clients the newsletter is output with and without image suppression. Professional e-mail marketing systems offer automated display tests for this purpose. You can read more about this in the "Quality assurance" chapter.

Option 2: Alternative texts

Basically, it always makes sense to combine text and image. But the message of the mailing must be clear even without graphics. If image suppression is activated, alternative texts help: If a linked graphic cannot be loaded in the newsletter and you have previously assigned an alternative text to the image, this will appear in the mailing preview. So the reader knows approximately what would be seen on the image.

This procedure is nowadays standard in email marketing and we generally recommend to add alternative texts for all pictures. However, it should be noted that the display of the alternative text varies with the common email clients and webmailers.

Option 3: HTML tables

Another possibility to circumvent the image suppression is the "rebuilding" of graphics via HTML tables. The HTML code is integrated directly into the mailing, eliminating the need for linked graphics. Important: The original graphic is replaced by the rasterized graphic in the form of an HTML table. Online there are numerous, easy-to-use tools for this purpose.

For example, a button would be a table with one cell. If you know how to use HTML and CSS, the button can be designed even more beautifully. Each table cell represents a pixel or a mosaic, respectively. Therefore, in addition to single-color buttons, simple patterns or dividing lines can also be mapped. The advantage is obvious: HTML tables are displayed to the recipient in most cases, despite active image suppression. Theoretically, this is how a complete logo or graphic can be rasterized as a table.

However, the image cannot be displayed in as high a resolution as an original photo. Quality losses are the result. Integrating the HTML code into the mailing also increases the file size. Therefore, as with embedded images, this procedure should only be used for important images. And – surprise – not all email clients support the workaround with HTML tables.

Text mailings as an alternative

Most newsletters today are sent and read in HTML format. The graphic design scope for marketers is enormous – especially in the B2C sector. If you can’t or don’t want to use HTML mailing, the pure text newsletter – depending on the use case – is a sensible alternative.

multi-part-mail

With a multipart mail, an HTML and a text version are sent together in one e-mail. This way, you don’t have to give up the design options and at the same time make sure that the message is well received.

Advantages of text mailings

  • No creative elements like images or buttons, therefore very small file size
  • Quicker and less expensive to send
  • Less susceptible to virus scanners and spam filters
  • Less distraction for the reader from the essential message (especially important in B2B marketing and technical fields)
  • Faster loading time and less data volume consumption for mobile devices due to small file size
  • Less display problems

Disadvantages of text mailings

  • It is difficult to appeal to the reader emotionally without images and design elements
  • Restricted navigation and clarity: long URL instead of short call-to-actions buttons
  • Fewer reporting options: only clicks (link tracking), no measurement of opens from recipients who opened but did not click
  • Poorer response than marketing mails in HTML format

If the advantages have convinced you, here are a few design tips for creating text mailings:

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