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How to succeed at email marketing with minimal design

From January 2015 through June 2019, I had the honor of serving as Executive Director for the pioneering nonprofit, the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). The HPA is unique in many ways, but one of the most interesting is that our fundraising model looks a lot like an eCommerce store. In fact, online merch sales and merch-driven crowdfunding campaigns account for upwards of 75% of the HPA’s revenue in any given year.

Here’s my biggest takeaway from directing the HPA’s merch marketing strategy for over four years: when it comes to selling products online, nothing works like targeted email. Direct email marketing generated 65 to 80 percent of our site and campaign visits, and our most loyal target groups had open rates of 40 to 55 percent and click-through rates approaching 20 percent. The cumulative conversion rate at the end of a campaign usually landed around 30 percent.

With results like these, you might assume we had a very sophisticated email marketing operation. We didn’t. It was mostly just me, dutifully wrestling with an archaic email editor in our CRM. Our one graphic designer on staff was usually busy designing all that amazing merchandise, so over time I learned to make the most of my rudimentary HTML skills and our CRM’s segmentation features.

That meant we couldn’t send off flashy emails with beautiful custom graphics or interactive elements. But it turns out, we didn’t have to: text-heavy emails with minimal HTML elements proved very successful, as long as they were personalized and targeted with precision.

My experience at the HPA demonstrates that great results are possible–even if you lack a professional email designer.

Plain text vs. text-heavy emails

The difference between effective and ineffective text-heavy emails may be the brand’s ability to craft a message that connects with customers on a personal level.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note the difference between a plain text email and an email that is simply text-heavy. A plain text email is exactly how it sounds: the email only contains text and lacks any HTML formatting, including bold or italics, images, and inline links. Links can be utilized, but the entire URL is displayed in the email. 

Text-heavy emails use HTML sparingly; oftentimes, the goal is to achieve the same feel of a plain text email while using light HTML touches to highlight key information and maintain visual branding. Regular hyperlinks and buttons may be utilized for calls-to-action, while images are typically limited to basic branding elements like a logo in the header. The reliance on text leaves plenty of room for storytelling; in fact, the difference between effective and ineffective text-heavy emails may be the brand’s ability to craft a message that connects with customers on a personal level.

Studies indicate that text-heavy, light-HTML emails generally provide the same benefits as plain text emails. Here are a few of the most notable benefits of a simpler approach:

  1. Increased deliverability. One study found that the most common reason emails are flagged by spam filters is a low ratio of text-to-image area. Simply put: if your marketing emails are heavy on images and low on text, they are more likely to end up in spam folders. In contrast, another study found that plain text emails generated a 100 percent deliverability rate! While a text-heavy email may employ HTML elements like header images or buttons, the high ratio of text to images provides a safeguard against the dreaded spam folder.
  2. Higher click-thru rates. While studies are mixed on the effects of plain(er) text on open rates, the results on click-thru rates are clear: simple design generates higher click-thru rates. However, it’s important to note that generating higher click-thru rates isn’t as simple as upping the word count on your next campaign. Content relevance is also critical. As we’ll see below, text-heavy emails are often utilized for high-interest communications, like welcome emails and abandoned cart emails. These emails are sent in response to a specific action, and recipients are often expecting them. That said, relevance can be cultivated more broadly through the use of effective list segmentation. One case study found that an email campaign generated a click-thru rate of 38.8 percent when sent to a segmented list based on interest, while earning a click-thru rate of 3.45 percent when sent indiscriminately to all subscribers.
  3. Text-heavy emails feel more authentic. Think about the emails you receive from your friends and family. Sure, your parents might not appear to know about lowercase letters, but for the most part, your personal emails are devoid of formatting. Marketing emails that takes a simpler approach to HTML tap into that association and feel much more authentic and personalized than emails that are clearly designed to sell.
  4. Higher compatibility and accessibility. Have you ever put together an email that looked fantastic on your desktop, only to find that it looked all wrong when you opened it on your smartphone? One benefit of text-heavy emails is that the text will wrap to fit any screen size and function well in any email program, eliminating the possibility that your email will feel drastically different depending on how your subscribers are opening it. Additionally, because text is inherently accessible, customers who use screen readers due to visual impairment won’t have any difficulty receiving your message.
  5. Easier to put together. If you’re a one-person marketing department like I was and you lack a dedicated graphic designer for email, integrating text-heavy emails into your strategy can save you a lot of time and trouble. Most email platforms will enable you to add basic text formatting, CTA buttons, and other simple HTML elements without any HTML coding. A simpler approach allows you to focus on crafting a strong message, without sinking hours into adding functionality that may fall outside your area of expertise.

This article will explore a number of strategies you can employ to produce simple, tasteful, text-oriented emails that are sure to side-step spam filters and impress your customers.

Copywriting

Without the benefit of beautiful imagery to highlight your products, the emphasis will be on the strength of your words. This is where effective storytelling can make or break an email campaign. Start by thinking about what motivated you to get into your business in the first place. Think about the features you envisioned that would set your products apart from the competition. Think about the joy and pride you felt when you made your first few sales. The primary function of storytelling is to transfer that very personal passion to your customers and inspire them to support your business repeatedly.

Here’s the catch: copywriting is hard. It’s not something you can learn overnight. Perhaps you’re already aware of this. I’m keenly aware of it, as I’m currently working on my third rewrite of this paragraph! The good news is it can be learned, and the more you write, the better you’ll get. Here are a few quick tips to get you started:

  • Get to the point quickly. Nothing will cause people to bail on your email faster than long, rambling sentences. Let people know right away exactly why they should keep reading.
  • Use descriptive language. Use your words to show, not tell. Describe your products in a way that evokes an image in the reader’s mind. That’s easier said than done, but you’ll get better with practice, I promise!
  • Avoid big blocks of text. Your emails will be read on a screen by people who probably have a million other things demanding their time and attention. So make your emails easier to read by using short paragraphs and using formatting tricks to highlight the most important parts (more on this later).
  • Speak to customers with their words. Pay attention to how your customers talk about your product and the problems it solves, and then use the same language they do when communicating with them.

However, when it comes to creating powerful text-heavy emails, nothing aids impactful storytelling like effective personalization.

Personalization

While studies have found that emails with personalized subject lines have 26 percent higher unique open rates than non-personalized emails, there’s much more to effective personalization than using merge tags to add the recipient’s name to the subject or greeting. One benefit of text-heavy emails is that they will naturally feel more personalized and less salesy in nature. This can go a long way toward fostering a feeling that you genuinely value your customer’s patronage. The key with personalization is that you want it to feel like natural correspondence without taking it so far that it feels uncomfortable or inappropriate. 

Ugmonk strikes a nice balance with this abandoned cart email:

This email employs simple personalization with the use of a first name merge tag in the greeting. The rest of the message is structured like a personal letter from one caring person to another. It’s written in first person, comes from a real person, and clearly articulates the a story about why Ugmonk exists. Though the intent of the email is clear—to get the recipient to complete their order, the call-to-action is framed around reaching out to the customer with an offer of help. It’s a subtle way to avoid sounding pushy and impatient in an attempt to recapture the customer’s business.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have this example from FiftyThree:

FiftyThree abandoned cart email.
Via: Omnisend.

This abandoned cart email is heavy on HTML and very pretty, but it feels completely transactional. There is no obvious way to get in touch for help or to ask additional questions. There’s no attempt to personally connect with the buyer. Even the subject line feels a little pushy.

It’s especially important to limit text-heavy emails to just one clearly-conveyed call-to-action.

As the Ugmonk example illustrates, a text-heavy and personalized email can still make use of features like visual branding and links. The key is to emphasize strong, customer-oriented copy that provides a clear call-to-action—while still demonstrating that you serve your customer and not the other way around.

At the HPA, I rarely sent an email that I would consider to be visually sophisticated. Some of my most successful email appeals contained just the HPA’s logo and one or two link-based CTAs, surrounded by powerful storytelling and a heart-felt appeal. However, these emails would’ve fallen flat without advanced segmentation; the email appeals I sent were always directed at a specific group of donors with a particular history of engagement.

The same strategy can be employed by eCommerce stores. For instance, let’s say you’re launching the latest product in a line that’s very popular with male customers in the 18 to 24 age group. You can segment your list to target men between the ages of 18 and 24 who purchased the last product in that specific line, and then personalize your email by highlighting the product features that are most often cited by customers in positive product reviews.

You could even use merge tags in a more powerful way than simply adding the recipient’s name by reminding them of their previous purchase. For example, that could go something like, “We’ve changed a lot about [Product Name] since you purchased it on [Date]. Let me tell you all about our new version…”

Calls-to-action

One potential pitfall of text-heavy emails is that they contain so much copy they effectively lack focus, leaving your primary call-to-action buried and overwhelmed by words. That’s why it’s especially important to limit text-heavy emails to just one clearly-conveyed call-to-action. There are a number of ways to ensure that your call-to-action stands out. Conventional wisdom would dictate placing it above the fold; however, recent studies indicate that effective CTA placement goes hand-in-hand with the strength and clarity of your message. If your copy effectively motivates a customer to take action, then placing your CTA toward the bottom of your message won’t hurt click-thru rates and may feel more natural than placement at the top.

The welcome email above, from Modsy, is so close to plain text that the one single visible HTML element—a CTA link—really stands out. The gamble here is that the customer will be roped in by a great story and eventually make their way to the CTA. But even if they don’t, they can easily spot the two blue words in a sea of black text.

The following welcome email from National Dry Goods uses a similar approach, but upgrades the CTA to a button:

National Dry Goods text-heavy email.
Via: OmniSend

This example demonstrations that the use of a button won’t necessarily detract from the personalized feel of an email, and it’s a nice way to provide some visual variation from all that text. Even though this email is structured less like a letter, the copy is still personal. It may be a canned automation, but it has a friendly and intimate tone that makes it feel like it was written specifically for the recipient. It’s also worth noting that using a CTA button can increase click-thru rates by 28 percent over a link-based CTAs. 

As discussed above, any links in a text-heavy email are likely to contain your call-to-action. Here are a few more suggestions for making sure your links are clicked:

  1. Promote one thing. Ideally, a text-heavy email is going to be personalized and tell a compelling story. That story should be singular in purpose: to convince your customer to take one desired action. Especially when using a link-based CTA, you don’t want to distract your customer by giving them another thing to click. In fact, studies have found that focusing on a single link-based CTA results in higher click-thru rates.
  2. Work links naturally into your copy. A link-based CTA is usually a phrase that fits into a sentence. You want that phrase to feel natural in the context of your copy. For example, the above example from Modsy wouldn’t work if the CTA was phrased like this: “If this story sounds familiar I’d be thrilled to have you SAVE 50% WHEN YOU SIGN UP TODAY!!!” A heavy-handed approach undermines any work you’ve done to draw the customer into your narrative; in contrast, the gentler “try Modsy” is a soft pitch that feels consistent with the personal story that’s been shared.
  3. Use bolded links to help them stand out. Bold can be a subtle way to visually differentiate links from the rest of your copy and draw attention to them.

The following email from Harry’s uses links for two purposes: guiding previous customers back to their website, and sharing essential contact info.

The beauty of this email is that it feels like it could’ve been sent to you by a friend. A more aggressive approach to the email’s links would’ve undermined that feeling.

Simple text formatting goes a long way

When operating in a text-heavy, simple HTML mode, you have a limited array of tools at your disposal when formatting your text: bold, italics, underline, colors, and bulleted lists. Here are a few suggestions for when to deploy these features and when to avoid them:

  • Bold. Use bold font sparingly to highlight your main points, or to differentiate subject headers from the rest of your copy. Putting key items of your message in bold can make you email more scannable, which is especially important for longer messages that some people may not fully read.
  • Italics. Use italics (also sparingly) for emphasis. While bold might be the better choice for a full phrase like get 50% off your entire order, italics would be better utilized to emphasize one part of that same phrase: get 50% off your entire order.
  • Underline. You probably want to avoid underlining words or phrases in most text-heavy emails. Because any links you use will usually be underlined, it’s best not to create confusion by underlining non-linked words and phrases. 
  • Colors. Using text colors is tricky. Ideally, in a text-heavy email you’d want your links to stand out, like in the above example from Modsy. It wouldn’t work if other parts of the email copy employed color. Additionally, it’s important to be cognizant of how different colors are received. Studies demonstrate that colors have specific associations with feelings, ideas, and moods, and those associations can be shaped by culture. For example, red is often associated with anger or urgency. Using red text might attract attention, but it could also feel very off-putting if it’s not utilized at the right time and in an appropriate context. 
  • Bulleted lists. When sending a text-heavy email, it’s wise to work in plenty of white space so that your customers aren’t overwhelmed with words. A clever way to break up a lot of text is with a bulleted list, particularly when trying to convey several pieces of important information at the same time. (It’s a trick I literally just used in this post for this section!)

The following email from Printful demonstrates the power of simple formatting in a text-heavy email:

This email is conveying a ton of information; effective text formatting ensures that readers are guided quickly from point-to-point, so they can get to where they need to go. Bold is used to highlight four primary actions that customers can take to get started with Printful, while a bulleted list is employed to highlight Printful’s full array of customer service features. Plenty of white space is provided, as no single paragraph exceeds two sentences in length.

Note that they’ve elected to use text-based links in addition to a button, and they’ve chosen a color for all of them that matches their header image. It’s a subtle nod to the importance of visual branding that doesn’t detract from the otherwise personalized feel of the communication.

Finally, while this email links to several different locations, the main CTA (the button) leads to a dashboard from which everything else is likely to be accessible. 

Key takeaways

The email marketing landscape is dominated by high-quality visuals and complex HTML, which isn’t always the best choice. Opting instead for text-heavy emails is a great way to boost deliverability, increase open and click-thru rates, and boost your brand’s authenticity in the eyes of your customers.

  • Text-heavy emails utilize HTML sparingly. A text-heavy email may look like a plain text email, but basic HTML features are utilized to boost CTA success and maintain visual standards.
  • Personalization is key. Text-heavy emails provide unique opportunities for your marketing emails to feel personalized and authentic. Beyond merge tags, write copy that feels natural and avoids pushy, salesy language.
  • Text-heavy emails provide an opportunity for your CTAs to really stand out. A well-placed link or CTA button can draw a lot of attention when surrounded by simple text.
  • Put thought into how you utilize links. Especially when choosing link-based CTAs instead of buttons, the focus should be on providing only one link to click and not distracting readers with other options.
  • Simple text formatting makes a big difference. Bold and italics can be utilized to make key information stand out and emphasize important points; bulleted lists can break up big blocks of text and provide essential white space.
Matt Maggiacomo
Matt Maggiacomo is a writer, digital fundraiser, and musician with over four years of executive-level experience in nonprofit management. He has been utilizing digital technology to promote his creative projects since 2001 and is the founder of the creative consultancy Pitch & Prose.

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