Email design inspiration: Do all marketing emails need to be designed?

Estimated read time: 14 minutes

Brandon Walton joined me on the Business Storytelling Podcast to give some email design inspiration. The article below also dives into more email design inspiration for you. The main question that needs to be answered though: Does every email really need to be designed?

I’ve been in many meetings over the years where people were looking for email design inspiration. Let’s look at competitor email newsletters to see what they are doing. Should we copy that or something similar? Where should the images go? We will use images after all, right?

But not all newsletters or email marketing campaigns need to be highly designed. There are advantages and disadvantages.

Brandon Walton
Brandon Walton

A highly designed email can scream “marketing message.” A marketing email that looks just like any other email from people can appear more authentic, Brandon said on the podcast.

One of my own highest-performing email campaigns was just that. A personal email sent to attendees of my Agora Pulse Summit talk.

Here’s how it looked.

Email design inspiration - simple

It was one of the better days of book sales for me. I didn’t even share an image of the book, but yet people clicked and bought it. It was also the third link down. The first had no appointments, the second one had some reads and the third was selling book.

An example of a designed email:

Email design inspiration: designed template

Things to consider for designed emails

Brandon mentioned that the design of email templates can be an exercise that takes time. Time is money. Think about all the time that goes into brainstorming, drafting, production and more. I’m all for brainstorming and collaboration. It’s just something to consider: Will it be worth it? Of course, sometimes we don’t know whether or not a content project is worth it until we try and run it for a bit.

Read next: Collaboration in a Content Performance Culture

When it comes to designed emails, there are things to consider:

  • Mix of images and text
  • Preheader copy
  • Who it comes from
  • Subject lines

For plain emails, you cut that grouping down to half already. No need to worry about pictures and preheader text.


Pictures draw attention. Especially good ones, but they can also present problems in emails. Sending emails that are only pictures can present a real problem. Here’s one example:

You can see the outline of an image if your email is set to not download images automatically.

My iPhone email doesn’t download images until I click the “download images” text and even my desktop Outlook doesn’t until I click to ask it to.

Basically, the email – the entire email – is designed as an image. That image is then emailed out. I would think that this tactic offers some production advantages to the email sender-for example they can design and create the entire email basically in one place.

But, it’s not viewable by users like myself who don’t allow automatic image downloads.

I’m not opposed to the use of images at all in emails, as long as those images add to the story, and are not just the only piece of the story. Powerful images coupled with great and relevant copy can really make an email – or any story-  stand out. But if it’s too hard for people to consume the content, they might not make an effort or even realize that they have to take another step to consume the content.

And people might not even notice that they have to take another step.

My recommendation for email marketers would be the following:

  • Use an email template that works well on all devices-including smart phones – were many people will read emails.
  • Certainly use images to help illustrate the content in the email, but don’t use image-only emails.

Here’s an example of how to use images in a way that’s user-friendly in email marketing. This is from the Internet Marketing Association. Without the image download it looks like this:

As you can see, even without the image it’s still very readable. Users can see that there’s something for them to consume.

Once I download the image, here’s how the email looks:


Preheader text in email marketing may potentially be as important as the subject line, but is also often overlooked.

I see so many emails coming in with terrible preheader text it’s terrible. Maybe an epidemic of ignorance of preheaders.

So what’s a preheader in email marketing anyway?

Here’s an example. I circled it for you:

Preheader copy is one of three things email readers see.

  • The sender name (Meetings Today in this case.)
  • The subject line (5 Ways to use food to inspire … )
  • The preheader text (the short teaser text)

And it should be teaser text. Not a summary. But its goal – just like the subject line – is to get people to open the email.

But preheader text is often overlooked.

I see emails that say:

“Want to read this on the web? Click here.”

Others say:

“Unsubscribe here.”

Some email systems have these as the default and that’s what will go out if no update is made. But it’s silly to send that. People unsubscribing probably shouldn’t be a top goal.

That default copy is not enticing at all and you can’t even take the call to action until you open the email, which you likely won’t based on that preheader text. If the preheader must be changed globally and can’t be changed on an per-campaign basis, at least make it more enticing:

  • Here are your updates
  • Don’t miss these important updates
  • Etc.

Related: Unsubscribing on iPhone is easier than ever

Of course, the subject line or sender name might pull people in. But why give up another chance to  get people’s attention?

Read on Meetings Today:

Cool event tech: Closed captioning during my talk in Los Angeles

Photo by Peter Minges

Other bad preheader texts are just letters and what appears to be image HTML or other coding verbiage.

Of course, it’s hard to measure – maybe impossible – to see if your subject line or the preheader text got people to open the email. It also could depend on send timing.

But I know this: The preheader area exists. So let’s make use of it. Maybe one test could be to make it completely blank and see if that makes a difference.

Having copy that doesn’t make sense or looks bad is useless and might even hurt your brand perception. You wouldn’t let a print ad with gobbledygook go out the door now would you?

Imagine a digital agency doing this and they try to pitch email marketing. Automatic disqualification!

How to write good preheader copy?

Make it pop. Oh yes, there’s that dreaded direction. Lol. But, seriously, the copy needs to stand out. It needs to entice people to click.

Tell enough to engage. Don’t tell the whole story, which isn’t possible in that small space anyway. Make it clickworthy – not clickbaity – and there’s a difference.

  • Use active words. Words that mean something.
  • Create a real fear of missing out.
  • But don’t sensationalize

The subject line and the preheader can work together and are the first thing people will see. Make sure it’s not the only thing they’ll see of your email.

How about a good email infographic?

I was heading to Nashville flying on Delta during the holiday season.

A few days before the trip Delta sent me an email with potentially helpful things. It as created as a nice-looking infographic.

The Delta email had the picture-only issue that I mentioned above. So some text would have been helpful. Once I clicked to download the images, though, it was a fantastic experience.

Some pretty basic information there with when to show up and those kind of details. But there’s also a link to download the app. And travel apps are actually very helpful when you’re heading somewhere.

Given that it was close to the holiday travel season the tip to wrap gifts later was timely.

Of course there is a clickable link at the bottom of the image to head on over and download the app now.

Then the email infographic gave tips on how to connect when in the air. Also very helpful.

As I keep scrolling Delta reminded me that I can earn Delta miles while riding with Lyfts.

And then finally it reminds us that we can always send a gift card for the next Delta purchase to somebody. Also very timely for the holiday season.

I like this infographic especially when it loads because it actually does offer useful information in a very easily digestible way.

Producing content for the web requires us to produce skimmable content. And an infographic like that – which is kind of like a more beautiful bulleted list really makes that simple.

It certainly could also be send out as a text-only email and might even work that way.

Delta can also use the graphic on other channels. Like social media, their website and really anywhere where it might be relevant. So it is a good example of Create Once, Publish Everywhere as well.

Advantages and disadvantages of plain emails

As Brandon mentioned, plain emails can be cheaper to produce and drive bigger results. They can appear so much more authentic and personal. It looks like they are coming from a person. That can also present a problem as this example shows.

I’m a big fan of nurture campaigns in email marketing. Sometimes, I stumble across interesting use cases. My inboxes start filling up more than usual when I attend conferences.

Read next: Are virtual conferences really working? And how about the networking?

This latest use case unfolded as follows:

  • I was attending a conference
  • Received an email from a company’s CEO as part of their nurture campaign
  • Then happened to run into the CEO
  • And mentioned his campaign, which he said he knew nothing about.

Make sure the executives know a campaign with their name is triggering!

WordPress plain-ish emails

The automatic WordPress Jetpack emails are another good example of mostly plain emails. These are the emails WordPress sites, likes this one use to send new posts to subscribers. Here’s an example. As you can see it’s pretty plain, but automated and gets subscribers what they signed up for.

Email design inspiration - WordPress blog emails

As long as you use self-hosted WordPress and the Jetpack plug-in – which helped me grow my list quickly, you can easily use this function.

Read this to learn how to set-up your email list and distribution on WordPress now

When people sign up for my email list on here they also get options.

First, they get the email saying they subscribed. Please confirm.

On the confirmation screen you can set the frequency ask. When do you want the email?

    Immediately when a post published
    Up to once a day
    Once a week

Even in the emails they remind you this is an option:

Also, I love how the confirmation email send the latest high-performing posts:

What’s listed there is also pulled from Jetpack stats.


Whether we use designed emails or plain ones, both can be automated

Tom Fishburne poked fun at what can be annoying email automaton. He isn’t wrong.

His weekly cartoon basically said that marketers send an offer and then relentlessly and automatically follow up asking if you got that offer. It’s not a lie necessarily.

Automation fail: Thanks for the email reminders about my dead dog

I’ve been there and run similar campaigns. Of course, Tom takes his cartoon to the extreme and I like to think I’m not that annoying. But the bottom line is that I (and many marketers) have followed the concept.

Now the email nurture campaign starts.

Get Tom Fishburne’s book with the best marketing cartoons here.

The “did you get my email” emails work

Some people respond to our first automated email. Others don’t. Some delete the email because it hit them at the wrong time. I know I do that. Other times they may not have read it closely enough to see the value even.

It’s the world we live in.

So I’d set the step 2 of my email drip cadence to replying on Day 3 to my Day 1 email with:

Hello, <first name> (because that’s personalization)

I know how email can be and just want to make sure you received my email below. Let me know if any questions.

I’m here to answer any questions take your money when you give up and my email marketing defeated you. (Snark. I don’t say that obviously but ya know!)

<Then I leave the previous email below.>

Day 3 triggers if they didn’t respond to Day 1 or clicked a call to action. Yup, automagic!

When I first set up that Day 3 email internal people said it won’t work. All emails should add value.

But everything comes back to results and I’ve seen them. These emails work: People respond to them.

Day 3 opens and responses were better than Day 1, which weren’t bad to begin with.

Sales usually didn’t happen until step 5-9 of a cadence – or later. That’s why marketers keep sending emails.

Read now: How many enewsletters are too many?

The easiest way to get marketers to stop sending is to unsubscribe, block and most importantly not respond AND stop ? buying something.

I see surprisingly few marketing emails in my inbox nowadays. Most actually end up in spam or I’ve unsubscribed.

Some marketing emails end up in the promotions tab in Gmail, Brandon said on the podcast. That’s another reason we want to make them more personal so they make it into the main inbox.

How to use old but relevant content in your emails

Whether you are using plain emails or designed ones, you need content to share with your audiences. This section gives some quick tips on how to do that effectively.

Email is also a great way to repurpose your content marketing content.

Common state of content marketing emails

Many companies do this with their content marketing content – which is often housed on their blog and then resyndicated.

They publish it on their site and then share it from there.

On their blog many, have a sign up form to get future posts send to them. I have that too on the top of most posts and it works. It even grew my list by 5 percent in one day.

Then going forward email subscribers get all the new posts. In my case that’s daily if they chose the daily delivery option. Or they can opt to get it weekly – which on many weeks is five posts.

That model works to a degree and people like reading new things in their email newsletters it seems.

I’m guessing that’s a belief held by many from the hay-days of printed newspapers. Nobody wants to read yesterday’s news!

The state of old existing content

There’s a ton and companies are creating more daily. There’s a ton of content on here and I only used it on that first email – the one on the day of publication…

Looking back that seems like a waste. Sure, many of the old posts get a ton of traffic from search engines but the email list was a lot smaller five years ago than it is now.

How to use existing content in new emails

Of course, we can use much of this content – often evergreen – later.

We can re-share it on social media, optimize it further for SEO and also send it again in emails.

I currently use the WordPress Jetpack for my email sends. Freshsales for cadences.

So here’s what you can do and I have done with tools like Freshsales, HubSpot, Marketo and more:

When somebody signs up, put them on a cadence.

On Day 1, they get a thank you email with a link to download something valuable or your favorite and most relevant blog post. Something else that adds value. Don’t stop at just saying thanks for signing up.

On Day 7, they get Evergreen post 1.

On Day 14, they get all the content published in the past week.

Day 21: Evergreen post 2

Day 28: New content catchup

Day 35: Evergreen post 3

You get the idea. You can certainly step up volume and decrease intervals or set it differently. This is a sample!

Once in a while, it wouldn’t hurt to send an offer or you can just add inline calls to actions to offers.

Using smart email design with a smart strategy to maximize content makes sense to me. It’s interesting to me that plain emails seem to be the way to go in many instances now. That thought would have unthinkable a decade ago.

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