To sketch an accurate depiction of a person takes a good understanding of human anatomy. Similarly, the art of email marketing requires understanding the anatomy of an email.
This anatomy is broken up into two major content groups:
1. The envelope content, the part of an email that’s visible in the inbox before it’s opened
2. The body content, the part of an email that’s visible after it’s opened
Understanding all the elements that make up an email’s envelope content and its body content allows you to design more effectively, personalize more thoughtfully, and test with greater purpose. Let’s start with:
As part of its envelope content, every email client conveys the sender name and subject line. Most, but not all, will also display the sender’s logo and preview content. Every email client will also display this content a little differently, with some showing more or less of your preview text.
Send date. While the inbox has become bifurcated into multiple inboxes because of the popularity of tabbed email inbox interfaces, the date and time of your email send are still crucial to maximizing visibility in the inbox. That’s why choosing the best send time is so critical.
“Using subscriber behavior data to guide the timing of your email sends is a tried and true tactic,” says Clint Kaiser, Head of Analytic & Strategic Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “In fact, among the brands that Oracle Consulting has worked with, optimizing the best time to send emails results in an average lift in engagement of 10%-12% and an average lift in conversions of 5%-7%.”
Sender or from name. Use a sender name that is immediately recognizable to your subscribers. Otherwise, you risk them not opening it or, worse, reporting it as spam. For most senders, their sender name will be their brand name. However, that doesn’t mean your sender name can’t change. To help differentiate your messages, we recommend using email from name extension strategies.
Subject line. A highly impactful element of email envelope content, your subject line should convey what your email is about and what’s in it for your subscriber. Subject lines are as much art as they are science, which is why they are consistently the most A/B tested email element. The use of emojis and AI-powered subject line writing tools are just two of the ways that subject line writing has changed in recent years.
Logo. In some email clients, your logo appears next to your sender name. Although not always controllable, the most common way to control which logo appears is by using Email Annotations, which works for Google’s Gmail, and BIMI, which currently works for Verizon Media’s Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, and Verizon.net email clients.
“Brands invest heavily in promoting their logo, so it makes sense to ensure the correct logo is displayed in the inbox,” says Clea Moore, Director of Deliverability Strategy for Email Deliverability Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “While BIMI takes some time to set up and Annotations take some time to learn how to code, the inboxes operated by Google and Verizon make up 70-80% of most B2C lists, so the payoff is well worth the effort.”
Preview content. In email clients where it’s supported, preview content is displayed either after the subject line or, more often, below it. This content comes in three forms:
Preview text. This is the most common content to appear. Preview text is drawn from the first HTML text to appear in your email, which is typically the preheader text, whether it’s visible or invisible text. However, it can also be drawn from your logo’s alt text, if that’s the first HTML text to appear in your email's coding.
Schema. This special coding allows senders to highlight specific content from their emails as preview content, including call-to-action buttons. Google supports schema, which they call Email Markup, and other inbox providers support some elements promoted by Schema.org.
Email Annotations. Google also supports Email Annotations in the Gmail Promotions Tab, with senders able to add image previews and deal badges to be displayed as preview content under certain conditions.
“Gmail has been a major innovator when it comes to preview content, and they’re likely to continue innovating,” says Myles Libby, Account Director at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Using Gmail Annotations can significantly improve your inbox presence and brand perception, and can effectively highlight key promotions. I encourage all of my clients to take full advantage of inbox preview content and to keep up with these evolving tools.”
While the design of email body content is delightfully varied, some fairly standard elements help define email as a design genre.
Preheader text. As mentioned above, this HTML text can be used to control what appears as your preview text in the inbox pre-open. Brands are fairly evenly split on whether to use preheader text that subscribers can see at the top of the email or make it invisible by making the text the same color as the background and giving it a font size of one. So, testing is recommended to see what works best for your audience.
“If the preheader text is actionable and includes a clear CTA link, it can add some value to the content of the email,” says Veronica Presley, Senior Designer for Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “That being said, for accessibility, simplicity, and to accommodate multiple screen sizes, we lean toward hiding preheaders, which are often overlooked and add clutter when they’re visible. With it hidden, your brand’s logo is the first thing the subscriber sees, and the primary content moves higher up in the viewing pane, both of which are positives.”
Header. This is the portion of the email that includes your company’s logo. Brands either left-align or center their logo. When it’s left-aligned, the space to the right is sometimes used to promote a standing offer, such as free shipping at a certain threshold, or to highlight key links, such as an “email preferences” or “find a store” link. If an interactive hamburger menu is used, it’s almost always against the left-hand margin with the logo centered. However, more often than not, the navigation is a separate design element.
Header-anchored navigation bar. Just as they do on websites, nav bars in emails make it easy to jump to key pages on your site. Most commonly, these are positioned right under the header. However, in some mobile email versions, to make them touch-friendly, nav bars are converted into interactive hamburger menus or moved to the bottom of the email where they have more room. Some brands find email nav bars so effective that they include a primary nav bar under their header and then a secondary nav bar toward the bottom of their email.
“Nav bars can drive upwards of 20% of all click engagement,” says Peter Briggs, Director of Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Given that these bars are typically in every email, many times they are a ‘set it and forget it’ part of your email template. However, you should regularly optimize these links, swapping out underperforming links and prioritizing the most popular links among your subscribers. Over time, small improvements here can have a major impact!”
Preview pane banners. Appearing either above the header or below the navigation bar, these are banners that tend to promote urgent secondary messages like a sale or announce a policy or feature such as free shipping offers, details on curbside pickup, or a promotion of your loyalty program. In 2020, many brands used preview pane banners to draw attention to their COVID-19 reopening safety precautions. We use them in the Oracle Digital Experience Agency newsletter to promote upcoming webinars.
“When possible, draw on what you know about the subscriber to use this valuable real estate to its fullest,” says Kaiser. “Customize the content based on geographic elements such as closest store (and their curbside details), their loyalty rewards balance, or even items from a recent browse session.”
Hero or primary content module. This module contains the most important message in your email and the message that you teased in your subject line—or at least in your preview text. To make it clear in the content hierarchy that this is the most important piece of content, the hero is usually significantly bigger than any other content module, containing the headline with the largest font size and the biggest image in the email.
“A subscriber interaction starts with the inbox and the envelope content and is paid off by the messaging hierarchy of the hero,” says Lauren Castady, Associate Creative Director for Creative Services, Oracle Digital Experience. “With the limited seconds a viewer would spend on an email, the hero is the No. 1 position to capture attention. Pull out all the stops.”
Secondary content modules. Whether they support the primary content block's message or promote something completely unrelated, the defining characteristic of secondary content modules is that their headline sizes and images are smaller than the hero. Other than that, the diversity is vast—everything from product grids to animated video promos and interactive content carousels to polls.
“The overall layout of your content from primary down to the footer plays a large role in user engagement,” says Allie Pietro, Designer for Creative Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “When it comes to secondary modules, you want them to help guide your readers through the rest of the email. The use of S-curve designs, numbered lists, and color blocking is a great way to simplify your content and keep your readers scrolling.”
Tertiary content modules. These modules tend to run in every email or on a seasonal basis. Common tertiary content modules include:
Footer-anchored navigation bar. This supplements, duplicates, or replaces the header-anchored nav bar. In the mobile version of an email, these nav bars are often vertically oriented rather than horizontally like header-anchored nav bars.
Recovery modules. Akin to nav bars, these modules generally contain links to popular or trending destinations on your site. The idea is that if the featured content of your email hasn’t captured your subscriber’s attention, then perhaps something in this module will recover their interest.
Gift services footers. Used during key selling seasons, chiefly by retailers and other B2C brands, these modules highlight order-by deadlines, buying or gift guides, financing options, return and exchange policies, gift card buying, gift-wrapping services, in-store services, and links to other information that would be helpful to shoppers.
Social media bar. This bar includes links to your pages on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and other social media sites. It’s best to preface these icons with “Join us on” or something similar, so your social media bar isn’t confused with a...
Social sharing bar. This bar helps subscribers share your email or your email's featured content on various social media platforms. It’s best to preface these icons with “Share this on” or something similar.
“While less important than a top nav, a bottom nav or recovery module can be critical because it’s your last chance to stimulate a click from the email,” says Briggs. “It’s easier to justify dedicating space at the bottom of your email to an array of links. Plus, these links often generate higher conversion rates because subscribers who spend the time to scroll all the way through your email and finally identify a link to click tend to have higher purchase intent.”
Footer. Like the preheader text, your footer is composed entirely of HTML text. Some footer elements are legally required under the US’s CAN-SPAM Act, the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Common elements of a footer include:
Legal disclaimers, offer exclusions, and other legalese. Depending on the content of your email, you may want to include various disclaimers. Consult a lawyer when making these decisions.
Unsubscribe link. Legally required in all emails that aren’t transactional, it’s best to hyperlink the word “Unsubscribe,” since that’s the keyword subscribers are looking for. It’s also wise to separate this link from other text to make it easier to find.
Preference center link. If you offer a preference center, highlight it in the footer with an “Update your preferences” link. However, even though preference centers always include unsubscribe mechanisms, you’ll still want to have a separate “Unsubscribe” link, even if it also links to your preference center.
Statement of permission. Many senders include a statement that tells the recipient why they are receiving the email and notes the email address that the email was sent to.
Copyright notice. Copyright laws protect an email’s copy and design, so brands make this right clear by including a copyright notice.
Postal mailing address. Anti-spam laws require senders to include a postal address in every email.
“The footer can sometimes turn into the catch-all of all the legally-required elements needed, plus plugs for app downloads and on and on,” says Presley. “Whenever possible, it’s best to really boil down the footer to only what is relevant to the customer and legally required. Regardless of the content, a clear typographical and stylistic hierarchy can significantly class up a footer, making it visually connected to the brand as well as easy to scan.”
While each element of an email should be optimized within itself, all the envelope and body content elements of an email need to work together to create a cohesive message with a clear takeaway, says Castady.
“Keep your subscribers engaged by clearly prioritizing content from top to bottom,” she says. “Within the email, design with scrolling strategies top of mind. For example, consider using an inverted pyramid, where copy and image elements start wide and then taper as the subscriber scrolls, culminating in a call-to-action at the point of the pyramid. Especially in newsletters, another popular strategy is to use S-curves, where content blocks have an image element and copy element on alternating sides, so the reader’s eyes snake down through the content. Whatever approach you use, don’t lose sight of the overall effect of your email design.”
Need help with your digital marketing campaigns? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers, partners, and employees, even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from creative and strategy to content planning and project management. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.
Want to better understand your email marketing risks and opportunities, take advantage of our free Email Marketing Assessment. Our experts will check your deliverability, review your email creative, audit your signup process, do a partial competitive analysis, and more. If interested in this free assessment, reach out to us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.
Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.