B2B Marketing Zone

10 Crucial Design Elements That Get Your Emails Opened — and Read

10 Crucial Design Elements That Get Your Emails Opened — and Read

10 Crucial Design Elements That Get Your Emails Opened — and Read

The average person receives an overwhelming amount of email in their inbox every day. The challenge you face is making your email stand out from the all the others, and ensuring that your message can cut though the noise.


You have around 3-5 seconds to persuade a recipient that your email is worth reading. Needless to say, it is absolutely critical that your email conveys a relevant, engaging message to an appropriate target audience.  The design of your email plays a big role in helping make that happen –or preventing that from happening. Here are ten essential best practices to guide you when you  design your emails.

1. Put key information at the top

Your emails should be designed to present the most relevant and important information first. All  your key messages and calls to action should be within the top 250 pixels of your email campaign. This area is the most important because it determines whether your reader will read further. Avoid heavy use of graphics at the beginning as they may not load correctly and could turn viewers away.

If your email contains several sections with a lot of content, you should create a simple table of contents to appear at the top, with anchor links that allow users to easily jump to the portions of the email that they are most interested in.

2. Limit email width to 600px wide

This is very important for the success of your email campaign. If your recipients have to scroll from side to side, then it is likely your response rate will be very low. Most readers are only going to skim your email to see what they want to read. If half of your content is not even visible, then it may as well not even exist.

3. Stick to basic HTML

Each email client renders HTML differently, so it is important to stick to more basic code when crafting your HTML emails. Avoid the use of JavaScript, as most email clients will remove JavaScript for security reasons. Also, cascading style sheets (CSS) must be used in-line and not in style blocks in the HTML header. Using old school <p> and <font> tags within your email is actually more preferable as it will produce a much more consistent display across different email clients.

4. Design with mobile in mind

Email marketing is becoming the new mobile marketing! As mobile open rates continue to climb, it underscores the importance of having a mobile-first mindset when designing emails. Why? Because according to BlueHornet, 70% of consumers delete emails that don’t render well on a mobile device immediately.   If the email can’t be read easily, it is likely that the customer will delete the email before reading it on their laptop or desktop. You need to be able to catch their attention regardless of what device they are viewing it from.

5. Match fonts and colors to your brand standards

Your email communications should look and feel like your brand. Be sure to use the same fonts, colors and styles that are on your other marketing materials and website.  Because there are a limited number of web-safe fonts you can safely use in an email, it is important to update your brand standards with a section on email guidelines that deal specifically with fonts and colors. Consistency is key.  Creating templates you can reuse will save time.

6. Make your call to action stand out

In order to have the best click-through rate possible, you want to be sure that your email design incorporates a call to action (CTA) that stands out. When you create the CTA button or banner, be sure it has weight and presence above all other elements in the message. Design the CTA so that people are compelled to click it. Make it look good, but also use persuasive, action-oriented words on the button itself. Don’t include more than one main offer or CTA in an email, and make certain it maps to your primary objective for the email.

7. Use attention-grabbing text

We’ve previously discussed the importance of spending time to write a compelling subject line. Similarly, the headline and copy in your email should be equally compelling and attention grabbing. Short paragraphs, bullets and headlines are great ways to break up text and make your newsletter easy to skim. Catch the attention of your readers with the headlines, but don’t make them read a dissertation.  Text paragraphs should be short and sweet. Using bullets is a great way to break up a lot of information.

8. Keep your design clean and simple

Less is more! Don’t be afraid to leave white space, and be careful not to overdo images and graphics. In fact, plan as if your images won’t show up. Why? Because many email platforms block images in messages unless the user chooses to allow the images to display. This means that many recipients may not see your beautifully designed images unless your content around it persuades the recipient to allow the images to be displayed. Most background images are stripped out anyway, so keep it simple and use only a solid color background.

9. Test your email in all types of browsers and devices

If you spend the time to make your email look good, then you want to make sure every recipient sees the email the same way. It is important to send out test emails and check the look of your email in different browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.  If anything looks differently than you expected, be sure to fix the problem before sending out your email newsletter. There are tools out there such as Litmus that allow you to test preview your email on 30+ email clients and mobile devices.

10. Have a backup plan – include “View in Browser” link and plain-text version

While your email may be well prepared for any glitches, you always want to make sure that your readers have the option to view the email in their web browser. It’s simple and a great Plan B. Also, make sure you have a plain-text version of your email as well. Spam filters want to see a plain-text alternative along with HTML, because only a “lazy spammer” would skip the plain-text step. Most email platforms can easily create a plain-text version of your email.

Professional, clean and easy-to-read email design is very important for the success of your email campaigns.  A well-designed email will increase engagement and click-throughs and ultimately make your campaign more successful.

Find more resources about email.

Tim Asimos is Director of Digital Innovation at circle S studio, an APEX Agency Partner and award-winning strategic marketing and design firm, specializing in results-driven strategy, branding, design and digital marketing services. Founded in 1999, the firm focuses on doing what matters to help middle market companies grow in today’s increasingly chaotic digital landscape. Follow Tim on Twitter.



Tim Asimos is Director of Digital Innovation at circle S studio, an APEX Agency Partner and award-winning strategic marketing and design firm, specializing in results-driven strategy, branding, design and digital marketing services. Founded in 1999, the firm focuses on doing what matters to help middle market companies grow in today’s increasingly chaotic digital landscape. Follow Tim on Twitter.

  • I, for one, can say we do not design with mobile in mind. But they more I realize they are likely reading emails on phones/pads half the time, the more I understand that is something we need to change. Otherwise we hit most of the others pretty well, though developing interesting and effective calls-to-action could always be improved.

  • Spot on, we have recently started to take into consideration mobile, so we are really trying to make our message and call to action short and sweet and the design is more conducive to a mobile platform. I think testing is also a crucial often overlooked step, that has saved us many times from ourselves lol.

  • Bobby Holt

    This is exactly what we’ve be doing for the past year. Most of our emails are inviting customers to free events with food and drink. Even then we have a hard time getting people to open the emails. But, if you make sure that your message is clear and concise it really does make a difference.

  • Marshall Welch

    Mobile design is so important. We’ve had more mobile visits to our website in the last 3 months than all of 2012 put together. The rapid expansion of mobile and tablet use is changing the game for content generation. We’ve implemented a responsive design for the website…still waiting for responsive designed email templates (hint hint).

  • Sarah

    These are great basics for those who are new to e-mail marketing! I find that utilizing all of these items together has significantly raised our open rates. To raise them even further we are getting ready to implement more targeted messaging and a newsletter to be sure we do not overwhelm our readers.

  • Zachary Winnie

    Along with designing with mobile in mind, I think it’s now important to include a preheader in your emails. This line of text will show up in the preview text on mobile email clients like Mail for iOS, and it will be the next text the user will read after the subject line. It is important as it will entice the reader to get more information about what your email is offering and encourage them to open it.

  • Great article – keep it simple, keep it branded, and test rendering! As a marketer, you may take the time to click “display images” or read a broken email, but the average person is wondering why this bad email is in their inbox.Take a look at emails with images turned off and see if the main message is compelling or coming through at all.

  • All good points. I would add that the content should be relevant to the target audience. If the recipient of your message has no interest in the content you’re providing, it won’t matter how well designed the email is.

  • Great post. I am going to review our firm newsletter because I think I can make some changes to get our articles read. Mainly adding a table of contents at the top and making some adjustments to our header area.

  • Very good points here, thanks. I am wondering if there is information/insight/stats on plain text vs. HTML newsletters in B2B setting.

  • I hear the email marketing discussion come up from time to time from my clients. I’ll be sure to send them this article for an awesome overview of how to get their email campaigns on the right track!

  • I’ve recently learned the importance of a backup plan, since we’ve come to find out many of our customers can only get text-only emails at their organization (secure sites). Inline CSS is a must – I love that Act-On integrates with Litmus, because it’s SOOO very important for our cross-platform testing. Great article, very useful!

  • Our company seems to struggle with email marketing effectiveness and this post helps shed some light on some fairly common issues. I think we are fine on a lot of the design points, but we certainly don’t care about mobile and we often don’t have super compelling opening text. Great pointers, thanks!

  • I think one more point to keep in mind is to keep to a short and sweet message that sticks to the most important points instead of going into great detail. People get too many messages, and a lengthy message can go unread or be dismissed as spam. The title is also crucial – just based on your title, an email may not seem interesting enough to read or could be viewed as spam.

  • Its been our experience that TEXT based bessages rather than HTML generate the highest open and response rates.

  • Most email campaigns should include A/B testing. It’s rare that we marketers get it exactly right the first time, every time. A/B testing will help you to quickly identify what prompts opens and encourages reads. With A/B testing, we’ve learned that adding an arrow to our button graphics gets more clicks, that personalization in the email is beneficial (but the subject line is not), and that no matter how responsive we build our emails, Gmail still displays the desktop version in most cases. We’ve also learned that these statements are often true, but not always true. Even the best advice is only right part of the time. Your optimum results will come on a per email, per campaign, and per client basis. Other people’s results make for great guidelines and starting points, but they’re not meant to be carved in stone. Be flexible, roll with the flow, and test, test, test.

  • Angie Anderson

    Understanding your audience and their preference is hard, but once you know it, respect it. A/B testing is always good, but beyond A/B of subject line, content or layout, consider the time of day and the day of the week.

  • We’re increasingly seeing people open our emails on mobile devices and had to rethink our email strategy based on this. Great information here!

  • disqus_Mc5S8QIxv8

    I like the tip about designing with mobile in mind. I wonder how much percentage of people check email on their mobile phones compared to a computer nowadays?

  • Ryan Pratt

    Some very obvious tips but also a great collection of all those obvious tips. I always prefer a list of best practiecs over a post on one single best practice.

  • Instead of view in a browser, we add view on mobile, tablet or browser.

  • bri44any

    Font is powerful. Sometimes I pause to admire how clean font is and if it’s really good enough, it can leave a positive impression about a company that I previously had no concern about.

  • Chris Kiersch

    I’m using the mobile templates for 90% of my emails, I have consistently seen over 50% opens on mobile phones and tablets.

  • Sam Sims

    As my stats grow in the direction of mobile, No. 4 makes sense. Funny thing is we’ve been developing communication for multi-platform for a while and are now seeing the positive results from it. I really liked seeing the basics of communicating through email wrapped with some great new pointers. Thanks for the article, Tim.

    PS: Niclas Nasslander’s comment below is spot on. He’s really got something there, and I’d venture to say his mobile views have spiked because of it.

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