How Email Design Affects Conversions

January 6, 2021 | 4 minute read
Jason Rodriguez
Community & Product Evangelist, Litmus
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There are an infinite number of ways to design an email marketing campaign. From simple, plain-text messages to interactive extravaganzas powered by HTML and CSS or AMP for Email and everything in between. But how do you design emails that get people to take action? How do you design emails that actually convert?

While there are potentially just as many answers to that question as there are emails in the world, there are a few guiding principles that can help you turn campaigns into conversions. Here, we’ll explore some of them.

1. Identify your goal

The first step in converting subscribers is understanding the goal of each and every email campaign you send. What does a conversion look like for your team — Is it a sale? A YouTube? Someone posting a review on your website?

You can’t optimize for conversions without answering that question, and the answer directly impacts the visual design (not to mention the copy, segmentation, send time, and more) of your email. For example, if your goal is to start a sales conversation, then a plain text email from an actual employee could go a long way. If you’re trying to get reviews, some social proof, as well as images of the product you want reviewed, helps.

Regardless of what kind of email you’re designing, figuring out what you want from your campaign is the first step in optimizing your email design.

2. Design for conversions

When it comes to designing for conversions, the name of the game is focus. When you know the goal of your email, focus on that goal more than  anything else. Visually, you want the conversion action placed front-and-center and any competing content hierarchically second. While there’s a lot of debate about whether or not ‘the fold’ actually exists on screens, there is something to be said about putting your most important message at the beginning of your email, especially since the average email read time is only 13.4 seconds, according to Litmus’ 2019 State of Email Engagement report.

For example, if your goal is to get views on YouTube, which of the two images do you think will convert more subscribers? As you may have guessed, using a video still with a play button superimposed on it in your email campaign can potentially help it work a lot better than a text link amidst a bunch of copy.

The same applies for sales and offers. If you’re running a promotion, make the details of that promotion large and high contrast so subscribers can’t miss it. Too often, marketers take joy in their own cleverness, whether it’s through design or copywriting, and that cleverness obscures that action you want subscribers to take. Being clear, direct, and honest, both through the copy and design, can help you reach your conversion goals.

The goal is to draw people’s attention, which can be accomplished by intelligently combining:

  • Font size and weight

  • Colors and contrast

  • Position of elements in an email

  • Repetition of the CTA, especially if the email is long

Perhaps, as important as what to include in your email design is what to leave out  Again, if the goal is to focus on the conversion, cut all of the content and decoration in an email that distracts subscribers. In particular, leaving out or reducing the visual impact of the following can help your campaigns convert:

  • Secondary articles or products not related to the focus

  • Navigation bars

  • Social media links, especially logos without any real context

  • Lengthy disclaimers and footers

Don’t lose your CTA

One issue that is unique to email is the case of the missing images. Not all email clients will load images in an email campaign and not all subscribers can actually see those images. If you really want conversions, optimize for images-off scenarios.  

This issue frequently crops up when it comes to calls-to-action. A lot of marketers are still using images to design buttons in emails. But when images aren’t displayed, subscribers lose any visual indication that they can take an action. More often than not, they’ll delete your email without converting. 

Using live HTML text and CSS to style your CTAs allows them to always be displayed, even if images are disabled. And, by using real text, people using assistive technology, like screen readers, can understand your message and take action if your CTA is compelling enough.

If you are using images for critical CTAs, provide appropriate alternative text for those images. Alternative text will be displayed even when images aren’t in most email clients and, you can design your alternative text to not only help drive conversions, but to stay on-brand, too.

When it comes to email design, test every campaign before it gets sent. This is especially important for the scenarios laid out above—missing images and accessibility.

Don’t let design distract customers let

One other suggestion is to keep in mind where your emails are being opened. More consumers than ever are opening emails on mobile devices and viewing campaigns in dark mode. Ignoring those contexts will lead to two obstacles —distraction and friction. Fortunately, there are lots of techniques for tackling dark mode. When it comes to mobile, code responsive campaigns that adapts to different device sizes.

Design either helps or hinders your goals. Too much or too little design can lead to bad first impressions or distractions for customers, resulting in reduced conversion rates. But, by thinking more deeply about a campaign’s goal, and selectively applying smart design decisions, you can help reduce the friction between customers and conversions.


For more information about email marketing, check out:

Jason Rodriguez

Community & Product Evangelist, Litmus

Through writing, speaking, podcasting, and webinar conducting, he helps the email industry send better emails and create deeper, more valuable relationships with subscribers. When not writing, Jason helps organize and host Litmus Live, the premier conference for the email industry. He routinely speaks at industry events and hosts practical, hands-on workshops to teach people how to design and develop better, more accessible email campaigns.

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