The anatomy of an email

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The anatomy of an emailWhat makes a great email campaign?  – like the human body, the perfect email campaign is an optimal combination of purpose, form and function. With email, elements of structure, design and content all play an important part in getting your audience to notice, understand and interact with your message. We’ve dissected an email campaign into 12 ‘anatomical’ elements. You’ll find out how each element works, why it’s important and practical tips for implementation.

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  • Planning your campaign
  • Sender recognition
  • Subject line
  • Layout
  • Style and branding
  • Headers and headings
  • Content
  • Personalisation
  • Call to action
  • Signature
  • Footer
  • Plain text version

1. Planning your campaign – before you start

Before you start planning your campaign in detail it’s worth taking time to consider your target audience, what is your objective and how you will measure your results.

Your audience

Put yourself in the shoes of your subscribers. Understanding your audience will help you generate a campaign which is more highly attuned to their needs and expectations.

– Your relationship – is your campaign for new subscribers or those who are already familiar with your brand? Ideally your communication style will depend on how well you are acquainted.

– Their anticipation – when your subscribers sign up you enter into a permission based relationship. A key component is an expectation of the type and frequency of messages that they’ll receive.

– Your campaign – is it a regular campaign like a newsletter or weekly promotion? Will your audience be familiar with previous campaigns and now anticipating their next instalment?

– Generic or specific – is your intended audience generic, that is, you are sending it to all of the subscribers in your database, or can it be refined to a specific segmentation of your audience?

Your objective

Next, consider what you wish your campaign to achieve. What are the key elements of your message, how do you want your concept to be perceived and how (if at all) do you want your subscribers to act? You might have a specific goal but it’s also common for a campaign to have multiple objectives.

– Brand awareness – even if they don’t engage further at this time, a regular schedule of email campaigns arriving in their inbox will serve to keep your brand in the consciousness of your audience.

– Drive web visits – email campaigns are often relatively light in terms of directly included content. Driving people to click through to additional online information is a great way to gain further exposure for your offering.

– Complete online goals – it may not be the case, but completion of an online goal such as a product or service purchase, an event registration or content download like a guide or white paper is a common objective.

– Other – it’s often included as a secondary consideration but encouraging the social sharing of your content can also be a specific campaign objective.

Measuring your performance

One of the advantages of email marketing is the wealth of analysis data that you have to help you understand and measure your campaign performance. The best choice of performance metric will depend on the objectives that you have set for your campaign. Here are some common objectives and their associated metrics.

– Brand awareness – open rate (therefore assuming reading of the content) is typically used to measure awareness. However, if you can include the essence of your brand and message into your subject line alone then just a successful delivery can also help build brand awareness.

– Drive web visits – click-through rate (also click-to-open) is commonly used to measure how many subscribers went on to engage with additional online content. You can track how many, what they clicked, when and by who.

– Complete online goals – completion activities such as online purchases or content downloads can be tracked directly using campaign related goals. In the case of online purchases this will give a real commercial value to the success of your campaign.

2. Sender recognition – identify yourself

Trust is the foundation of the permission marketing process. Identifying yourself as a genuine marketer and building your reputation as a sender of valuable content is critical to your long term success.

Why is it important?  – Identifying yourself as the sender of this message (and also other valuable content in the past) is a key part of the anatomy of your email campaign. Getting this right will have a positive impact both for getting your email delivered and opened. Things to consider:

– Your ‘from name’ (and your ‘from address)’ – who you are
– Your ‘reply to’ address – how people can respond
Email authentication – how people know you are genuine

From name

As consumers of email one of the first things we look at when a new message arrives is who it’s from. Email delivery clients also look at the sender in order to determine whether or not a campaign should be delivered. Either way, identifying yourself as the sender is a critical piece of your email anatomy.

Setting your from name

– Always include a real ‘from name’ when you send a campaign. It depends on your style but using a real name reinforces the feeling of a personalised message.

– Whatever you use, keep it consistent. Over time it will be increasingly recognised and trusted by email clients and your subscribers and will become a valuable asset.

– In addition to your ‘from name’ also have a valid ‘from address’. They don’t have to be the same, but again be consistent. Encouraging your subscribers to add your ‘from address’ to their contacts will whitelist you as a sender and help eliminate many potential future spam trap issues.

Reply to address

Inclusion of a ‘reply to’ address is a legal requirement for every email campaign. It doesn’t need to be the same as your ‘from address’ but is does need to be a valid email address which is active and actioned if and when called upon.

– A valid ‘reply to’ address is a legal requirement so be sure to include it in all of your campaigns. Including a ‘no-reply’ type of address is a sure way to show your subscribers that you’re not interested in them or their responses. It’s not in the spirit of the trust relationship you’re trying so hard to nurture.

– Make sure that your ‘reply to’ address is actively monitored. Even if you include a clear call to action in your campaign some of your subscribers will always choose to reply directly. You might miss out on valuable enquiries or complaints and manual unsubscribe requests.

Email authentication

There’s one final thing you can do to verify your reputation as a genuine email marketer – that’s email authentication.

DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) is an authentication technique designed to enhance security for the senders and receivers of email. It’s like an encrypted digital signature which can be used to verify the credentials of email traffic. Essentially it provides a method of validating to your campaign recipients that you and your email are who and what they say they are.

How it works – DKIM works by using a private domain key to encrypt your domain’s outgoing mail headers, and adding a public version of the key to the domain’s DNS records. Comparison of the decrypted original and received headers can then be used to check that all is well – that your email comes from your domain and that it hasn’t been changed along the way.

3. Subject line – it’s important!

Subject line is a critical element in getting your email noticed and opened. Even if they recognise the sender, the subject line is your subscriber’s first impression of what is likely to follow. It’s worth spending time to get your subject line right. As with other aspects of your email the nature of your subject line will depend on your message, intention and brand style. Here are some recommendations.

Keep it short. 5-7 words is good. The first 30-50 characters are displayed on most devices but beyond this your carefully crafted words may not be immediately visible.

Get to the point. Try to front-load your subject line with any important words that you want to be seen.

Avoid typical spam words and overuse of capitals and punctuation. It’s not the only aspect that will get you junked but it’s also likely to have your subscribers deleting you.

Remember your tone of voice. Be consistent with your brand style and the rest of the main copy of your message.

Be interesting – after all, it’s an invitation to open and read on. Asking a question can work well.

– Being cryptic – people are suspicious so be careful, but surprise can work and adding a little intrigue is worth a try.

Offer an incentive to open. Sell the value of what’s inside your message, and then don’t disappoint.

Urgency – consider also including a sense of urgency, scarcity or doubt. This can increase engagement. Why should your subscriber open your email, and why now?

Include a call to action. There’s evidence to suggest that including your desired response in the subject line increases the likelihood that this action will be taken.

Some tricky concepts?

Marketing emails generally suit an informal style but the success of humour depends on the nature of your message, the relationship you have with your audience and your brand style. Think twice if you have an international audience.

Generally speaking, personalisation adds relevance and that’s good for engagement. However, personalisation of subject lines can appear intrusive, especially to new subscribers or where it adds little value.

Here are a few nice examples that we’ve received recently.

– Awards, product launches and cows! Our March Newsletter
– Paid search: everything you’ve ever wanted to know
– The UK’s most exciting business event is back
– 24hrs left to register – the Tech Showcase opens tomorrow
– Pureism is here! Watch our remastered video
– All Things Bright and Beautiful. Your new catalogue is here
– Top 5 reasons to attend THE show this weekend!
– Be included. Nominate your Hospitality Hero… today

And some of ours:

– New features, improving performance, and more
– Create your own email templates. Here’s how to do it
– Include or not include? That is the question
– A gentle diary reminder – Discovery Morning 08-April
– When’s the best time to send your email campaigns?


If you’re still wondering if making a change to your subject line will improve your results or make them worse, try a split-test.

How it works – Split-testing allows you to test different variations of your campaigns on sample segments of your audience. There are several different options but open rate split-testing tests factors that are encouraging (or preventing) your campaigns from being opened. Subject line is the most common application.

Set up identical campaigns but with different subject lines. Go for it! Subtle changes can be hard to interpret. By sending each to sample sections of your overall audience you’ll be able to see which subject line performs best. Then automatically send the most successful variation to your remaining subscribers.

A split-test example

Here’s an example showing the results of a subject line split-test – 3 otherwise identical emails inviting party goers to a summer festival, but with different subject lines. In this the case click-to-open (CTO) rate was used to measure the success of each variation.

Split test example

The Exit Festival Newsletter     4.3% CTO
Get to Exit this July for the ultimate festival experience     4.8% CTO
Make this summer unforgettable – check out Exit Festival!     7.0% CTO

4. Layout – how to organise your content

A successful layout will not only look good, it will also present your content in a way which guides your readers through your message and encourages them onwards to your objective.

User-friendly email editors now make it really easy for even the design novice to create a wide variety of different email layouts. Your layout needs to be an effective mix of the aesthetic and the practical – creating the right brand impression while making your content easy to understand, navigate and interact with. Some considerations:

– The importance of mobile – and responsive design
– Display width – narrow, wide and ultra-wide
– Single and multi-column layouts – what works best?

The importance of mobile

The latest benchmarking research shows that the proportion of emails opened on a mobile device has now grown to around 55%.


And that’s the average. It means that when designing your email layout addressing the needs of a mobile audience is now an essential strategy. If your mobile readers need to pinch and zoom to read and interact with your email campaign it’s estimated that up to 80% of them will reach for the delete button. With this in mind we’re amazed at the estimate that only around 20% of all emails delivered are effectively optimised for mobile consumption.

Responsive design – responsive design is an HTML coding technique that automatically adapts your email layout to optimally suit a range of desktop and mobile devices. The beauty of responsive design is that you don’t need to create multiple versions of your campaign and you don’t need to know in advance the type of device that your reader will use. Your email will automatically adapt to desktop, tablet and smartphone sizes and even to portrait and landscape viewing orientation.

Desktop and mobile devices

Scalable vs responsive design – a word of caution. Don’t be confused between ‘responsive’ and ‘scalable’ design. Scalable design simply shrinks your desktop layout and content to fit a smaller screen. Responsive design is more intelligent, automatically adjusting things like layout, images and other content so that it is optimised for whatever screen size it is read on. That’s a big difference.

Responsive and scalable design

Designing emails for mobile – using a responsive email template or a responsive editor will take care of the layout optimisation for mobile devices. However, good mobile design is about more than just the mechanics. Some things to consider:

Small viewing area. Even with your layout adapted for mobile you still have limited space to work with, so condensing your message to be clear and concise is important.

Short attention span. Be extra careful with the length of your email and remove anything that isn’t relevant to your mobile audience – things like navigation and sharing options.

Single column content works best for mobile. People are generally happy to scroll up and down but the need to pinch and zoom should be avoided.

Two column layouts collapse nicely to a single column for mobile but single column content works well on desktop too. It can help develop a nice linear progression through your message and bring people logically to your call to action.

– Remember your fonts and line heights. Make sure to increase your font size by at least 2px. At least 16px for body copy and between 18px and 20px for header styles works well.

Clear call-to-action. Make your call to action buttons are prominent and easily accessible. Dedicated call to action buttons generally work better than text links for mobile.

Images vs. text. Mobile devices need to download images so bandwidth optimisation is something to keep in mind.

Maintain the mobile experience – finally, check your website too. A perfect mobile friendly email experience can easily be ruined by inviting people to click through to a non-responsive website. Make sure that your website landing page continues the theme of your email and maintains the responsive nature of their journey.

Layout width

Opinion varies as to the optimum width for an email – you’ll see anything from slim 320 to ultra-wide 2000 pixels. We use 720 pixels as the full width, with a single column text or image width of 680 pixels. Whatever width you choose, adopting a mobile responsive design will automatically take care of the reorganisation of your content as the screen size is reduced.

Templates and components

Most email editors or pre-set templates allow you to either select from (in the case of templates) or build (in the case of responsive editors) a variety of structural layouts. In the email editor we refer to these building blocks as ‘components’. Components come in a variety of configurations including single column, 2 column (equal or unequal) and multi-column. They can be mixed as desired and can be nested to create further variations. The components form the structure which is then filled with text, images or other content types.

Newsletter layout

Combining single width and double columns is a common layout for newsletter style email content.

Using columns to create structure

Before you start, take a moment to sketch out how you want to guide your readers through your campaign content. Many eye tracking studies show an ‘F’-shaped reading of email (and website) content. You can use this to place columns and headers which aid those who will inevitably skim read your message.

– A single column layout is perfect for simple messages or those with a primary message and call to action.

2 or 3 column layouts are often used for newsletter style content. Headline articles or hero graphics in single column.

Multiple columns are useful for product catalogue type of content. Images work well to show the catalogue items and the multiple columns separate the calls to action. Although multiple column layouts will collapse nicely to a single column it’s worthwhile considering your message as single column linear content suitable for scrolling through.

Catalogue layout

5. Style and branding – defining you and your brand

Your style is what makes your brand unique so conveying a consistent design theme in your outbound communications is an important part of your email anatomy.

Many of the concepts for styling emails are similar to those for websites. Continuity is important, so if you already have a website that successfully conveys your style then this is an ideal place to start to take design cues for your emails.

Things to consider:

– Your overall theme, look and feel
– Size, layout and optimum orientation of your message
– The size and placement of your branding and logo
– Colour for your background, surrounds and sections
– Use of font for paragraphs, headers and links
– Call to action buttons – what, where, how many?

Is branding important at all?

HTML gives us a lot of graphical styling options, but a well written plain or rich-text email can also be highly effective. Look for what is enhancing and detracting from the objective of your email. If it’s not needed, seriously consider removing it.

Creating a theme

Creating a reusable theme is a good way to ensure that your styling is always consistent. In the email editor ‘themes’ can be created at global (applied to the whole of a campaign) and local levels (applied to an individual component section of a campaign). Theming your email allows you to consistently control a range of styling options:

– Body background colour
– Section background colour
– Paragraph text – font, size, colour and line spacing
– Link text – font, size, colour and underline style
– Header styles – font, size, colour and margin widths
– Call to action button – font, text and background colour, justification, height and corner styling.

Style considerations

Font – consistency is always a positive, so where possible take design cues from your website. However to ensure complete consistency across all email clients you may need to rationalise and simplify a little for your emails. Here are some recommendations when considering fonts for email.

Number of fonts – as with your website, limiting your email design to just 1 or 2 fonts will give a nice, easily readable style.

Font size – if possible, don’t use more than 3 different font sizes. Multiple font sizes and styles can be distracting and confusing.

Formatting – if needed add bold and italic (sparingly) to add more emphasis or definition and to draw attention to keywords and other navigation points.

Consistency – use websafe fonts to ensure universal consistency.

Style – most people find that sans serif fonts are easier to read on a screen.

For mobile – don’t forget to increase your font size and line spacing for mobile. We recommend a minimum of 16pt and 1.5x line spacing for mobile devices.

Justification – left and centred are the most commonly used text alignments for email. Left justification works well for paragraphs as it helps the eye to find the starting point. Centred text can work well for short lines and headings.

Web safe fonts

  • Arial
  • Comic Sans MS
  • Courier New
  • Georgia
  • Lucida Sans Unicode
  • Tahoma
  • Times New Roman
  • Trebuchet MS
  • Verdana


Colour – in a text email, with many of the normal communication cues missing, colour can be an important method to help convey your message. It can help your subscribers to differentiate between sections and navigate to the most important areas of your campaign. It may also be an inherent part of your brand identity.


Traditional advice would be to stick to the 216 websafe colours. However, most computer screens and mobile devices now have 24 or 32-bit colour resolution allowing over 16 million colour definitions.

Which colours to use? Here are some widely reported findings regarding what colour says about you to your readers:

Yellow / Orange – optimism, openness
Red – immediacy, energy, passion
Green – simplicity, wellbeing, profitability
Blue – tradition, trust, reliability
Grey – calmness, control, serenity

Bright, fluorescent colours can draw attention but used extensively can be off putting. It depends on your style and intention, but dark text on a light background is often reported as easier to read than vice versa.

6. Headers and headings – help readers to navigate

They’re not just words. Headings are signposts which significantly increase your readers’ ability to navigate your content and quickly find what they are looking for.

Using headings

Unless we’re reading for pleasure or studying Shakespeare we all skim read. Most consumers of written material (that includes websites and email) visually scan the content looking for areas of interest. A skim read typically skips up to 60% of the content. Designing a layout which logically guides readers through your email is important. Skim readers look for headings, so punctuating your campaign with regular paragraph breaks and headings will help them find what they need. Typically, emails have 3 types of header or heading:

Subject line – important, but arguably not a header at all!
Pre-header – often missed but really useful
Section headings – in the body of your email

It’s not essential but referencing the subject line as a heading in the body of an email creates continuity and is a common practice. The pre-header and section headings are both found in the main email body, but only the pre-header (and the subject line) is visible before opening.

– Subject line – unless you repeat it as a heading your subject line is usually defined separately from the body of your email content. Nonetheless it’s probably your most important heading. It lets your subscribers know what is in store and is a hugely significant factor in whether or not your email is opened.

– Pre-header – this is the short summary text which appears immediately after the subject line when your email is viewed in the inbox. It’s not universal to all email clients, but many include the pre-header as a way of adding additional information to the viewer before an email is opened. The pre-header is generally taken from the first line of text in the body of your email.

Create a dedicated pre-header

You can just on your body text to populate the pre-header but we recommend creating a dedicated pre-header item as the first component at the top of your layout. It’s extra subject line opportunity so use your pre-header to add impact to your subject line, for example:

– Add further clarification or granularity
– Introduce a potential call to action
– Add a sense of urgency or immediacy to your subject
– Online version

Subject with pre-header

The pre-header is also a popular place to include a link to an online version of your message – it’s an important option in case your HTML isn’t accessible. Here’s an example of a common layout complete with pre-header and section headings.

Layout with headings

Section headings – headings in the main body of your email have both visual and content purpose. They create structure to help readers quickly navigate to points of interest and provide reference points to summarise what information is to follow. Like your subject line you can keep them fairly short.

It might seem obvious, but using elevated font sizes and contrasting colours for your headings will help readers find your content sections. Even for short emails, it’s common to have a set of styles for primary and secondary headings. However, as with other aspects of email styling, too much variety can be distracting and confusing, so stick to just a few colours, fonts and sizes.

Are your headings working? – Try the ‘squint test’. Try reading your email only using your subject line, pre-header, section headings and call to action. If it still conveys the key elements and the desired objective of your message then you’re on the right track.

7. Content – content is king

With email we lose many of the cues that we normally rely on in other forms of communication. Style and layout can help but ultimately the impact of your message relies on the strength of your content.

Writing copy

Writing effective email copy takes time and is a specific skill. There’s a wealth of information available as to what makes good email content. Here are our top recommendations:

Have something to say – it might seem obvious, but if you don’t have valuable information then consider skipping a regular newsletter. Expectation is high and trust can easily be eroded.

Keep it short – generally speaking, emails are short. People have a limited attention span, especially on mobile devices, so get to the point quickly. You can always use links for additional content.

Find your voice – it depends on your brand and the nature of your relationship with your audience but emails are generally informal. Try to write in a natural voice that suits your style.

Write to an individual – it’s easy to forget that email is essentially a personal one-to-one communication. Write your copy as you would to a single recipient rather than as if you are addressing a crowd.

Write in the second person – ultimately your readers don’t care about you. They care about themselves, so tell them why what you have to say is of value to them. Count your use of words like ‘we and our’ and replace them with ‘you and your’. It will add a sense of connection and intensity.

Be clear – try to condense the essence of your message into a few simple points and then present these in a coherent way. Remove any distractions from your key objective. Jargon and complicated language can be off-putting.

Tell a story – many marketers adopt the AIDA approach, that’s Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. However you do it your content should guide your reader through your message to your conclusion and point of action.

Include an action – it’s not always the case, but the objective of many emails is to drive further action. If so, make it clear and obvious what you want people to do, why it will be of benefit and why they should do it right now.

Add personality – even relatively formal communications can benefit from a dash of personality. You have a lot of competition so making your emails remarkable by adding enthusiasm and energy will help you stand out and be remembered.

Some useful content tools

Take a look at the Hemmingway App editor. It’ll analyse your copy and suggest how it might be improved. –

Word clouding is useful to get a visual representation of the emphasis of your copy. It’s especially useful for slightly longer messages. Try WorditOut. –

Useful content tools


The option to include images is one of the main reasons people use the HTML format for email. There’s little doubt that images make marketing emails more interesting. Original, compelling, well framed images that enhance your message will help your content stand out and will encourage interaction. But when and how should you use images to best effect?

Image blocking – firstly, it’s important to recognise that although images are widely used, and widely supported, they will not always be displayed. Image blocking may be in place either by the email client or via a subscriber’s personal preferences. Gmail now loads images by default but Google still estimates that around 40% of users do not have images enabled. This has important implications for when and how you might use images in your emails and how you can counter the effects of image blocking.

Chose the right format – the most popular image formats for inclusion in email are JPG, PNG and GIF.

JPG/JPEG – Joint Photographics Expert Group. Probably the most common format. It’s ideal for photographs and complex illustrations with multiple and graduated colour variations. JPG files are generally small in size but can lose quality when compressed.

– PNG – Portable Network Graphics. Similar to JPG with similar applications, but compressed files have no loss of quality so may be larger than the equivalent JPG format. PNG files also support transparency – very useful for blending images with coloured email backgrounds.

GIF – Graphics Interchange Format. Only supporting 256 colours means it’s not suitable for complex images, but it’s perfect for text and line based illustrations. It supports transparency and also animation. File sizes can be large so use sparingly.

Image only emails – it might look good but it’s generally not recommended to have an entire email campaign as an image. If the images are not displayed your message is lost. It’s also likely to be picked up by spam filtering systems as suspicious.

Balance images and text – images work well for industries like online retail and travel where catalogue style emails are common. In general, good practice is to balance the use of text and images. It’ll ensure all key elements of your content are accessible, even if your images are not displayed.

Placement – large images at the top of an email can push other key content below the immediately visible screen. If a hero image is your style, consider putting at least a header above it to keep your key message visible.

Optimise – email editors will generally scale and resample images, but you can help by optimising the size of your images before inclusion. It’s especially important for readers of your content on a mobile device.

Calls to action – it’s common to use images as a call to action, but if you do make sure you have an alternative strategy in case your call to action image is not displayed. Dedicated call to action buttons are a great alternative.

Image sizing

If you are a user of the responsive email editor, here’s our handy guide to image sizes to suit each of the component layouts.

Image sizes


What is it? – alt-text is the text attribute that can be included to tell viewers the nature or contents of an image should that image not be displayed – for example because of image blocking or a broken image link. The alt-text appears in the blank box where the image would normally appear.

Although it’s not recommended to put key messages or actions exclusively into an image, meaningful alt-text can ensure that if an image is not displayed the key meaning of your content can still be at least partially accessible. By the way, the inclusion of alt-text is also good practice to help avoid spam filtering.

Styled alt-text

If you have access to the HTML, a step further is to apply styled alt-text. It won’t replace the impact of a lost image but it will make your alt-text message more noticeable.

Image only campaigns

Images can certainly add interest, but even with alt-text in place image only campaigns are not recommended – here’s why!

Image only campaigns

Other uses of images

Links – it’s common to use images to link through to additional content. As email readers we’re generally attuned to click images (and to notice the change in cursor to invite a click) but it’s worth adding a specific instruction into your image if that’s your objective. And remember, images may not always be visible.

Call to action – text links can be fiddly, especially for a mobile audience, so using an image as your primary call to action is better. Better still, use a dedicated call to action button. This way you’ll get an easy to see and click call to action which will still be accessible even without images being displayed.

Social sharing – adding recognisable icons will invite readers to visit your social sites and share your content. However, if sharing is a key objective consider adding this as a specific call to action.

Signature – a signature image can be a nice touch and adds to the feeling of a personal communication. Remember to add your alt-text in case it’s not displayed.

8. Personalisation – one-to-one communication

Despite being easy to do, the majority of email campaigns contain little or no personalisation. Personalisation is polite (even if you don’t know your recipient well) and it enhances the trust relationship that you are building.

Why personalise?

There’s a strong correlation between relevance and engagement. Analysis shows that personalised email campaigns are more likely to be opened, read and engaged with than a more general broadcast type of message. Even simple personalisation is a great way to add relevance to your message.

How to do it – When it comes to adding personal relevance to your campaign you have a number of options – from a simple personalised greeting to full dynamic campaign customisation. There are 3 main email personalisation techniques:

– Profile personalisation – simple drop-in information
– Manual segmentation – audience specific content
– Dynamic content – automatic content variation

Profile personalisation – this involves merging information from your subscriber’s profile into the body (or the subject line) of your email campaign. The most common application of profile personalisation is to add a personalised greeting, for example:

Adding profile data

Hi Catherine or if your style is more formal…

Dear Miss Crowley

Add the profile variable name at the desired place and when the email is sent it will be replaced with the stored profile data. Don’t forget to add an alternative (non-personalised) greeting in case the relevant data is missing. For example:

Hi there

Profile personalisation can be used to add any stored profile field into the copy of your email. Another common application would be to echo personal booking details into an automated event confirmation email. For example:

Hi Catherine

Thank you for registering for our seminar. Details of your booking are included below.

Name: Catherine Crowley
Halcyon Hotels
Preferred date: 8th April
Location: London
Special requests: Vegetarian

Remember – information like birthday and gender can be especially sensitive. Whenever you are collecting profile data from your subscribers make it clear what you are collecting, how you will use (and protect) it and why sharing this information will be of benefit to them.

Manual segmentation – collecting ‘insight’ about your audience allows you to group your subscribers into segmented lists based on their key profile characteristics. For example, male or female, dog or cat lover. You can then use this insight to target different campaigns, or different campaign variations, to each segmented part of your audience. Simply clone your campaign and replace profile specific text and images so as to be relevant to your target audience. Although it’s manual it’s a commonly used form of content personalisation. Here’s an example for male and female running shoes.

Manual campaign personalisation

Dynamic content – this allows you to create campaigns with content that dynamically adapts to the profile characteristics of your audience. Which content appears to each subscriber depends on a few simple coding rules that you’ve set up based on your audience profiling data. The dynamically variable content can be layout, text or image based and the whole process can be as simple or complex as you wish. It takes a little effort to set up, but it’s worth it.

Behavioural targeting

Dynamic content works particularly well with behavioural targeting (if you are a user you’ll know this as Audience Insights). It goes well beyond standard profiling techniques allowing you track subscribers onwards through their post-campaign online activity. Information gained on interests and preferences can be used to extract tagged content from your website. Dynamic content can then be used to automatically include this content into future campaigns. It’s the ultimate in creating personalised content.

Personalisation – some considerations

Relevant content is one of the key reasons why we all open and engage with emails, but high degrees of personalisation can be unnerving and cause suspicion. Personalisation works best when it feels natural and is in context, and that relies on a few key principles.

Your style – emails are generally informal so they suit a degree of personalisation. The level to which personalisation is welcome will depend on your brand style and the nature of each message.

Your data – effective personalisation is data driven. You’ll need accurate and robust processes for data collection and maintenance in place. The quickest way to draw unwanted attention to your personalisation is to get it wrong.

Your relationship – highly personalised content can appear intrusive, especially to your newest subscribers. Understanding the nature of your relationship will allow you to develop a balance between being relevant and being obsessive.

Personalisation – what to avoid

Personal and new – building a relationship with new subscribers takes time. Even if you’ve collected information which could add a precise personalisation to your campaigns, you might want to think again, at least until your relationship has evolved a little. This is especially true of targeting information which has been collected indirectly, that is by means of observed behaviour.

Personal and irrelevant – it’s easy to drop profiling or other behavioural targeting information into a campaign, but it’s only valuable if it’s really relevant. If you’re going to personalise, keep it simple, don’t refer to profile information too frequently, and make sure it’s relevant to your campaign message and objective.

Personal and inaccurate – personalising with inaccurate information is a sure way of losing the faith of your subscribers. Inaccurate personalisation can range from wrong or unintelligent name personalisation (‘Dear Info’ or ‘Hi Smith’), to including detailed information which is just not applicable to that campaign or objective.

9. Call to action – generate interaction

Although not universal, a call to action is a key component of most email campaigns. In many cases, after opening, getting the reader to complete a next step action is the primary campaign objective and the measure of success. Call to action is the culmination of your effort, so you’ll want to maximise your chances of successful conversion. Here are some considerations when designing and including your call to action.

– Tracking – how will you track your subscribers’ actions?
– Mechanism – text, images or dedicated buttons?
– Style – how best to get your call to action noticed
– Message – how to get it clicked
– Placement – where it should go in your campaign
– Single or multiple – more calls to action = more action?

Tracking – it’s likely that your call to action will be completed directly from within your email campaign – for example a click to a link or a reply-to email. These are easy to track. However, a call, visit or other action may also be a valid objective. If so, consider how you might also trace these goals back to your email campaign.

Mechanism – text links are quick and simple to create but can get lost in longer emails, and may be fiddly on a mobile device. Images give the opportunity for a larger interaction area but they may not be obvious as a call to action, or always displayed. A dedicated HTML call to action button is the best option. It’s accessible even if images are not displayed, has a small download footprint (ideal for mobile) and is customisable.

Call to action mechanisms

Style – make your call to action easy to find and easy to interact with – it’s especially important for mobile device users. For either an image or button, choose a high contrast colour that makes it clear where to click. Green, blue and orange are popular background colours which invite interaction. Try the squint test again – can you still identify your primary call to action?

Message – be specific. Your call action should be clear and simple. It might seem obvious, but tell people what you want them to do. A good call to action is instructive and compelling. Actionable language with a sense of urgency or deadline works well. And make sure the benefit of taking the action, and taking it now, is clear.

Placement – opinion varies, but many feel that placing the primary call to action early in the body of the content works well. If so, and especially if your email is more lengthy, experiment with repeating it again at the point of your natural conclusion. If you’re not sure, use a split-test to determine which technique works best.

Single or multiple – multiple calls to action can be confusing and don’t necessarily increase the quantity or the likelihood of action being taken. In many cases just a single call to action that aligns well with your primary campaign objective is the best option.

Heat map analysis

Multiple call to action links are commonly used in newsletter or online catalogue type campaigns. If you do have multiple calls to action in your campaign, an interaction analysis (you may see this referred to as a ‘heat map’) can show the relative levels of engagement with each link. Understanding how subscribers are interacting with multiple links will help you to plan the optimum order and layout for future campaigns. It can also help with the optimum placement of sponsorship or other advertising.

10. Signature – it’s a nice touch

A signature is not essential but, as with a personalised greeting, signing your email is a simple step which can enhance the personal voice of your message.

Signing your email

The style of your signature should align with the overall tone of voice of your message. A signature is also consistent with having a real identifiable person as your from-name and reply-to address. A plain text signature is a handy place to add your contact details and a text link to your website. A signature image also adds to the friendly, informal feel of a campaign. As always remember to add alt-text in case your image is not displayed.

Email signature

P.S. Adding a postscript

We love to skip to the end. Studies indicate that a P.S. is one of the most read components in a letter or email. If you chose to include one try using it to reinforce your main message or call to action rather than introducing something new. Here are just some of the ways postscripts can be used:

– Re-emphasise your main campaign objective
– Incentivise completion with an additional benefit or offer
– Add urgency to your call to action – do it now!
– Include a persuasive customer reference or testimonial

It depends on the style of your brand and the nature of your message, but a signature and postscript can add personality to your campaign. This can be valuable in building rapport and encouraging engagement with your audience.

11. Footer – legal and reference information

There are a number of items that you’ll legally need to include in your email. You may also want to include other points of reference. Your email footer is the ideal place for all of these.

Just in case it’s needed – If they are looking for it, an email footer makes it easy for your subscribers to find reference type information. However, try to make it subtle. When it’s not needed it shouldn’t detract from the main message and objective of your campaign.

As with other aspects of your campaign, keep it functional, as short as possible and consistent across each of your campaigns. It’s also an opportunity to add further styling to support your brand identity, although as with other images beware of putting any legally required content purely in image form. Here are some common inclusions in an email footer:

– Your company’s registration details – legal requirement!
– Unsubscribe and preference options – legal requirement!
– Link to your privacy policy
– Social sharing icons
– The legal requirements

Registration details – depending on where you conduct your business you’ll need to comply with legislation regarding inclusion of your company’s registration details. In the UK that means your company name, country of registration, registered address and registration number. It’s not mandatory but you may also chose to include company directors and other public information. A logo is another common footer inclusion.

Unsubscribe – inclusion of the option to unsubscribe is another legal requirement of any marketing email. An unsubscribe option is normally included as a link to where the request is confirmed and processed. This may be a straight removal from all future communications, but can also direct to a preference centre where your subscriber can manage their permission status, selecting which types of communication they do and don’t wish to receive.

Failure to include an unsubscribe option is a sure sign of an unsolicited communication. It will quickly erode subscriber trust and if reported is likely to result in legal action.

Other uses of the footer

Privacy policy – people are rightly concerned with data security. You’ve already gained their permission but including a link to your privacy policy is a good way to acknowledge your responsibilities regarding data protection. It’s highly unlikely that the link will be clicked but just including it in your footer adds reassurance that you take privacy seriously.

Social sharing – inviting your subscribers to visit your social sites or to share your content with their own social networks is a great way to expand the reach of your email content. Social sharing icons are a common inclusion in an email footer. If needed they’re easily recognisable, but otherwise they don’t distract the reader from your main content. If social sharing is a key objective consider adding this as a dedicated call to action. This way it’s much more likely to attract attention and interaction.


12. Plain text version – don’t forget

A plain text alternative is an important component to include. It will help ensure successful delivery and will address the needs of those who can’t or don’t want to receive HTML messages.

Plain text versions

Whether or not design is important at all is a valid discussion. If you are well known to your audience and you have a simple message with a single clear call to action it’s arguable that anything more than minimal design can be a distraction. However, even for minimalist HTML emails a plain text alternative is an important part of your email anatomy. The plain text version is exactly that – just unformatted text with no images or clickable links.

Most interactive email systems automatically generate a plain text version for you. Inclusion of a plain text alternative as part of your HTML email delivery (often referred to as MIME, Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extensions) is a recommended best practice and will ensure that the most appropriate version is always displayed.

Some considerations:

– Choice – some of your subscribers may prefer and actively chose plain text over an HTML alternative, and many email clients give them the option to receive plain text only. Plain text is also more compatible with some brands of mobile device and wearable smart technology.

– Approach – plain text looks more like a personal email and this may better suit a specific objective. Personal welcome emails and automated confirmations are examples where styling may detract from the objective. HTML light campaigns can also increase click through and other measures of engagement performance.

– Spam filtering – HTML emails are not automatically less deliverable than plain text. However HTML is one of the indicators used by spam filters to determine rogue emails. Spam generally has poor quality HTML coding and no plain text version. Correctly formatted HTML with a plain text alternative will generally not have issues, but failure to address either is likely to negatively impact delivery.

– Readability – if HTML fails the key message in your plain text alternative will still be readable, so your objective may not be completely lost. Make sure your key headings and call to action are still clear. Including a ‘view this message online’ link in your pre-header section is also good practice for when HTML is not an option.

– Impact – many marketers use HTML specifically because of the graphics and styling options that it gives. eCommerce is a good example of a sector where image heavy campaigns are both expected and perform well. If styling is important to your brand or images are central to the objective of your campaign then consider your plain text alternative as a backup only.

Tracking and conversion – because email opens are identified by the rendering of a single pixel included image it’s not possible to track opens for plain text emails in the same way as for HTML. Opinions vary on performance but merely reducing the level of HTML can have a positive impact on delivery and may also improve open and engagement rates. Rich text, that is a plain text approach but with some useful formatting and clickable links, is a common technique to find the best of both worlds.

Summary – the anatomy of an email

Here’s a quick summary of the key points in each section.

Planning your campaign – understanding your intended audience and campaign objective will make creating the details of your campaign and analysing your results easier.

Sender recognition – identifying yourself as the sender will enhance your reputation as a genuine email marketer and will positively impact your open rate success.

Subject line – it’s critical a critical component in getting your campaign noticed and opened. Keep it short but interesting and consider split-testing the effect of different options.

Layout – create a structure which best presents your content and guides readers in a logical manner to your conclusion. Always consider your mobile audience in any design decisions.

Style and branding – create a reusable theme to ensure consistency of your brand style. Keep it simple and use standard elements so it’s uniformly applied across all email clients.

Headers and headings – use headings to help readers navigate your content and find what they need. Include a dedicated pre-header to enhance your subject line.

Content – take time to write and refine your email copy. Balance text and images to optimise the overall impact and accessibility of your content.

Personalisation – even simple personalisation can add relevance and improve engagement. Have a robust data collection process in place and always personalise with care.

Call to action – make your call to action easy to find and simple to complete. Use a dedicated call to action button and customise it with a compelling instruction to complete.

Signature – adding a signature can add personality and enhance the feeling of a personal one-to-one message. It’s a useful place to add contact details.

Footer – it’s the ideal place for your legal inclusions like company details and unsubscribe options, and for your social sharing options.

Plain text version – don’t forget to include it. It provides a non-HTML alternative for those who need it and will protect you against potential delivery issues.

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Anatomy of an email