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Get in there: Show up in your customers’ inboxes with emails that convert AND look great

As with everything online, email best practices are constantly evolving. If you’re not seeing the conversions and ROI you’d like or you know it’s time to upgrade your email strategy but aren’t sure where to start, this article covers it all. Let’s (successfully) deliver some emails!

Actual conversation:

Copywriter: “But all the cool brands are sending all-image emails and they look awesome!”

Designer: “That is a BAD IDEA.” 

Copywriter: “But all the cool kids are doing it! Wouldn’t they know better?” (…Copywriter clearly has a cool kid complex.)


Inboxes: “I’ll deliver whatever emails I wanna – GOSH.” 

(Newsflash: Your inbox sounds like Napoleon Dynamite.)

We take our responsibility to our partners and The Work seriously around here, and it’s high time we (well, some of us, ahem) leveled-up in the email arena. So after consulting with design, dev, and of course the all-knowing www, I present to you an overview of some best practices to take your email game to the next level….

Live text vs. text in images

Ah, the question that started it all. TL;DR: Live text is best. Which, if you’ve been using Mailchimp and going heavy on the images to get your brand across, might be really bummer news. But never fear, VOLTAGE is here!

Trying to picture how it all comes together? Check out https://reallygoodemails.com/ for some inspiration (and code you can swipe). 

APB to all the copywriters out there: Long-form copy is back in! Use formatting (headlines, line breaks, typography, and whitespace) to make long messages easily scannable and digestible. While you don’t want to wax eloquent on every email, if the occasion warrants, let the ink flow.

Best practices:

  • Use live text wherever possible.
  • Proofread everything. Mistakes (typos) can have a negative impact on deliverability.
  • When writing alt text for images (you should write alt text for all images), you can use CSS to add some styling, although support across email clients may not be 100%.

Imagery & visual content

Going back to those all-image emails that look like the status quo but aren’t best practice… it doesn’t take much to derail an image-heavy transmission. If the user’s images are turned off, their internet connection is poor, they have accessibility needs, or they’d like to go back and search for something they’ve read, an image-only email fails in every case.

To be clear, we’re not saying “trash all your images,” just change it up! Some fun levers to pull when you’re ready to mix up your visuals might be cards, animation, and branded iconography.

Best practices:

  • Choose images that support the story – don’t waste time with fillers.
  • 600px max width still holds up. 
  • Provide alt text for every image.
  • Set a background color to display when the image doesn’t load (be sure to choose a color that will help your text on top show up).

A note on using background images: Some clients (notably Windows 10 email + Outlook Suite and Office 365 on Windows) do not support background images and you’ll need to set a solid color background to fall back on. This means using background images is not a best practice, though you don’t always need to avoid entirely. 

Acknowledged: It can easily feel like you spend thousands of dollars on emails that end up in the black void of the “Promotions” folder. So how do you justify the expense of creating beautiful graphics and video for email campaigns? When strategizing your photoshoots, prioritize content you can use across email, social, and your website and put.it.to.work. 


Why send an email if you’re not asking your customers to buy from you (or take another desired action)? 

Always ask for the sale. Link the header and/or logo to your website. Include a clear CTA (call to action). Don’t be shy – assume they can unsubscribe if they don’t want to hear from you, but because they opened your email and are reading, they care about what you have to offer and maybe just needed a little reminder to come back and shop. 

(Anecdote: I recently received a survey asking for feedback on a donation-based model, which reminded me that I hadn’t donated yet, yet nowhere in the email or survey or thank-you was a link where I could give! A missed opportunity.)

Best practices:

  • Create “bulletproof buttons” – buttons built with code, not image files. These will perform better if an email client doesn’t load images and will scale better across devices.
  • Link text should be descriptive and give the reader a clue about where you’re taking them.
  • Scatter multiple CTAs throughout an email to give people plenty of chances to click through. 

Dark mode

Users in the know can toggle their inbox, device, or desktop to dark mode, inverting the color scheme. As if a designer’s job wasn’t tough enough… 

While some people go dark to reduce eye strain or save battery life, most do it simply because their personal aesthetic prefers the brooding backdrop. In fact, one survey suggests that 82.7% of iOS users opt for a darkened outlook. Other surveys ring in around 55%. Either way, it looks like dark mode is here to stay. (However, it’s not supported by all email clients. Here’s a chart and another from Litmus to keep you stay on your toes.)

Live text easily shifts color, but elements such as logos or, say, a tagline you’ve set in your brand font and uploaded as an image with a transparent background, will make your design look real unthoughtful if dark-colored elements are trying to compete with the black.



Best practices:

  • Consider whether your audience is likely to use dark mode (male/female, older/younger…).
  • Use images with transparent backgrounds (example: product images shot on white).
  • Give images that feature dark text/icons/elements on transparent backgrounds a white outline or highlight so they’ll show up on a dark field.
  • If you have developers on your team, ask them how you can include both light and dark versions of your logo, to be shown with a prefers-color-scheme media query.
  • Test your emails!


According to Litmus, personalized emails get 122% more return. Personalization is nearly expected nowadays, and we don’t mean simply including <firstname> in the subject line.

One way to start doing this is to first look at your email strategy and create buckets for the types of emails you plan to send. Then, ask your customers what they want to receive from you by linking to a preference center (this will also give great insight into what they want – or expect – to hear from your brand).

Include a link to customer accounts, fill in their personal data (think of Spotify’s end-of-year personal listening recap, or Fitbit’s activity tracker), send birthday offers, and show products based on their viewing history.

Best practices:

  • Segment your lists.
  • Ask for opt-ins to certain types of content.
  • Use the customer’s name.
  • Include products they’ve viewed recently.
  • Suggest products based on their viewing history.
  • Provide offers tailored to their purchase history.
  • Show products on models that match their gender.
  • Show images relevant to their geographical location.

Mostly: Listen! Test different things, see what works, and do more of what your customers want. (Which, by the way, may be different than what your brand stakeholders want. We’ll let you have those conversations. 😉 )

Bonus tip: Send “abandoned cart” and other retargeting messages for most likely conversions at a specific time – 12 hours after the last engagement is a good place to start, but can vary depending on the communication.


Part of personalization is simply adapting to insights, such as whether your audience opens emails on their desktop or mobile. Interestingly, last year, more people opened their email on desktop than mobile – likely due to WFH during COVID (source: Litmus 2020 State of Email).

Best practices:

  • Use an email builder or code your emails to look good no matter what device they’re opened on.


Email clients (Google, Outlook, whatever you Apple people use…) do their best to protect users from spam. At the inbox, each email is scanned to determine what it’s about, and if, say, Gmail can’t figure it out (for example, if your email only has text in images), they’ll spit your beautiful missive straight into the spam bin. Begone, spam!

Best practices:

  • Make sure your IP has a good reputation.
  • Don’t start by blasting a boatload of emails right out of the gate. That looks spammy.
  • Encourage engagement (opens and clicks) with strong (but accurate – not clickbaity) subject lines and offers.
  • Remove long-time unengaged subscribers.
  • Avoid excessive punctuation, such as multiple ellipses and exclamation marks. Typos can affect deliverability too.
  • Include your physical mailing address and a clear unsubscribe link in the footer.
  • Use a spam checker if you’re not sure.

Accessibility best practices

Accessibility isn’t just about inclusive design, it’s about more usable design. Accessible content is better for everyone, including the ~15% of the world’s population who lives with a disability. (Here’s why if you’re not designing for web accessibility, you’re missing out on customers.)

In addition to all the best practices we’ve covered so far, consider the following:

Best practices:

  • Subject lines should be brief and descriptive, telling the user what to expect inside.
  • Content should be arranged logically – which means you need to verify that things stack in the right order on mobile.
  • Use headlines and <h1> and <h2> tags to help people with screen readers navigate through content.
  • Get color contrast right – at least 4.5:1 contrast is recommended. There are plenty of online tools to check your color contrast, like this one. Adobe and Sketch programs also have a feature.
  • Larger paragraphs of text (more than 5 lines, IMHO) should be left-justified to improve readability.
  • Emails should have a “meta content-type” and defined character set.
  • Define a [lang] attribute in case your customer’s screen reader needs to translate or transcribe.
  • Depending on your audience, you might consider offering voice recordings or transcripts for the hearing impaired.

Testing your emails

Emails aren’t exactly the most foolproof asset you can design and build (alas). With near-100 email clients, browsers, and devices to run through, you’ll want a service like Litmus or Email on Acid to know that what you’re sending out is good to go.

When to press the send button

Legend has it that Tuesday @ 10am is a magical time when all the people in the world simultaneously despair that it’s only Tuesday @ 10am and try to escape the not-even-midweek doldrums with a browse through the black hole of their inbox.

Best practices:

  • Test a regular cadence and see what works
  • Look at your analytics (Litmus has a great plugin)

SOURCE: Litmus 2020 State of Email | Email open rates by time of day, United States

Okay, so talk ROI to me…

Let’s assume you want to make back 100% of the cost of building your glorious email, and then some (right?). Campaign Monitor reports that email ROI (return on investment) averages $38 per $1 spent – the highest of all marketing channels. While it can take a while to reach that ROI, knowing your target ROI can help you make decisions around the creative budget for each email – putting more time toward developing premium content for sales-focused emails, while a simple text-based email for company announcements might be more budget-friendly. 

The good/bad news is that you’ll likely have a solid idea of ROI for an email within 24 hours of sending it. GetResponse found that after 24 hours, the chances of opening are less than 1%. 

Keep in mind that the $$$ your email made isn’t the only metric that matters. Our clients often want to send emails, but don’t have a clear “success looks like…” directive from their marketing department. When we step in to assist with metrics, we like to look at: 

  • Open rates (anything over 15-20% is great).
  • Time spent reading (which can tell you the length of email that works for your audience).
  • Engagement (where and when people clicked – another case for multiple CTAs throughout the body of your email).
  • Forwarding rate (if people are forwarding your email, huge congrats! You’ve won at providing talk-worthy content and/or value that makes people want to share it and look good.)

Best practices:

  • Set metrics and learn how to interpret analytics.
  • Test, test, and test again.
  • Identify which emails you want conversions from and take some pressure off the others.
  • Consider fun ways to enhance engagement with gamification – surveys, quizzes, and interactive elements – or surprise & delights like “Thanks for reading this far! Here’s 20% off.” (True story, I’m pretty sure an early, formative experience with this hidden-reward concept is what turned me down the editor path long ago…)

Ready to get great emails out into the world? 

Awesome. Us too. I hope this article helped make some sense of the email madness and get you excited to sort through a strategy to take your email game to the next level. You can always reach out to our team – we’d love to help bring it all together for you with content and conversions. To borrow from the Really Good™ email standards (we were going to write our own but they said it best):

  • Connect visual design with simple, clear hierarchy
  • Share content that serves the customer more than the company
  • Be consistent to your branding (including the website and app experience)
  • Surprise & delight where possible
  • Balance live text and imagery
  • Make it accessible for every viewer


Find your opportunities

You’re almost certainly missing out on potential sales from email. And you won’t know your potential until you take a close look at the numbers, performance, and competitors. Let us audit your email and uncover your opportunities, then make a plan to test and grow. 

Research. Build. Test. Improve.

Ask for Justin → 



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About Julie Overby

Julie Overby

Make stuff & make stuff happen. Help clients look good and hit goals. Growth strategy. Brand experiences. The art & science of copywriting. Surprise & delight. Brand DNA. "Does it support the story?"

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