September 7, 2014

Campaign Critique 03: Johnny Steele

In an effort to encourage open discussion around email design, I’m starting a new series of blog posts called Campaign Critique. Each post in the Campaign Critique series will look at an email campaign submitted by a reader. I’ll discuss what I think works with the design and where I think things could use some tinkering.

Hopefully we’ll all learn something in the process.

If you want your campaign reviewed, you can submit it here.

Spotlight on Johnny Steele

This edition of Campaign Critique takes a look at a great email for the Scottish charity Quarriers. It was submitted by Johnny Steele. Let’s all take a moment and just breathe in that name.

Johnny Steele.

What. A. Name.

I’m not sure if it’s his real name or a nom de keyboard, but I love it.

Moving on…

In case you aren’t familiar with them (I wasn’t until now), Quarriers is a charity that provides support for people with disabilities, their families, the homeless, and people affected by epilepsy. A little research reveals a long and storied history, including the creation of an entire village which is still known as Quarrier’s Village.

Johnny sent over one of their recent campaigns. This particular email was sent by members of their Individual Giving Team and is a follow-up to a direct mail piece, inciting people to help support during the summer holidays.

Quarriers Desktop and Mobile Emails

Like all of the other campaigns I’ve reviewed, this Quarriers email does a lot of things well. Before I start tearing things apart, I want to say that this is one of the better emails I’ve seen come from a charitable organization.

The copy is clear, the design is clean (if a little dated), it’s not bogged down by disclaimers, and not only is it responsive, but it uses bulletproof buttons! Kudos to Johnny and the Quarriers team.

With that out of the way, let’s look at how things could be improved.

Brand Consistency

The Quarriers email actually does an excellent job of maintaining consistency with the overall Quarriers brand and website. As far as content goes, they are doing a great job. However, they could improve the overall design of their email campaigns to fit in better with the website.

While the existing design is clean, compact, and deliciously responsive, it looks dated compared to the Quarriers website.

Quarriers Website

The most notable difference is the full-width header and footer on the website. The email opts for a narrower design. Narrow designs are typically good for email, since some clients don’t support responsive styles and narrow emails are a good way to fail in those scenarios. However, you can still have full-width container tables for bands of color and narrower nested tables for the actual content, which looks and works great across email clients and, more importantly, allows brands to stay consistent across channels.

My big problem with the design is the use of those drop shadows. On today’s web, the curled paper, drop shadow look is one of the easiest ways to date something. It may just be my preference, but in the case of Quarriers, I’d drop them for two reasons:

  1. They aren’t really found anywhere on the Quarriers website.
  2. They take up valuable space on mobile.

That second point is a big one for me. While the current design is responsive, there is a ton of padding around the email, part of which is due to those drop shadows, that could be put to better use.

I would also consider updating the look of the buttons. Nearly every button related to donating on the website uses an arrow as an indicator to take action. I think that same concept should be applied to the buttons both to maintain consistency and to give subscribers yet another clue that they can tap on a button.

I’d also increase the radius of those rounded corners to make them similar to the ones on the website. Johnny is using nicely crafted bulletproof buttons, so a quick border-radius update is all that’s required:

<td style="-webkit-border-radius: 40px; -moz-border-radius: 40px; border-radius: 40px; color: #ffffff;" align="center" width="172" bgcolor="#739600" height="40">


When submitting, Johnny mentioned that the email was personalized with the name of the recipient. Taking a look at the email, one problem is clear: there is no fallback for when a recipient name is unavailable. All I see is:

Dear… With the school holidays now underway…

This may be a symptom of the email not actually going to anyone, a template before it’s dumped into an ESP. But, at the very least, basic personalization of an email should have a solid fallback. In this case, something along the lines of:

  • Dear Supporter
  • Dear Friend
  • Dear Quarrier (wonder if they refer to supporters as Quarriers? Would be cool)

When it comes to personalization, though, I’d love to see something a bit more advanced. In the case of a charity, I can imagine there’s some great data that could be put to use.

Since the campaign is asking for donations for their summer appeal, it would be amazing to tie in some info about past contributions. I’m assuming that Quarriers does an appeal each summer and are sending to past supporters. Pulling in the amount they donated for the same appeal last year could be a good way to remind them of what they did and incite them to do it again. Bonus points for showing off what that contribution did for the organization. Maybe something like:

Your contribution of £50 last summer helped one of our families enjoy a rare day off at the beach. Let’s get them back this year.

There’s a good chance that either that data isn’t stored or it’s not easily accessible but, if it is, it could be a great way to personalize the campaign even more. Reminding people of the good they’ve already done is a fantastic way to get them to give even more.

That sentiment is sort of present in the image with the quote, but I think making it personalized to the recipient would be even more effective. Speaking of that image, I’d drop the quotes. There is no attribution, so it’s not really a quote. OK, enough nitpicking.


The copywriting in the Quarriers email is good but, to me at least, it has a very negative tone to it. While it’s great at identifying the problem that the summer appeal addresses, it feels like it focuses too much on that problem instead of the positive effects that a donation can bring.

Let’s start with the main call-to-action.

Give a vulnerable child a happy memory

Not a bad CTA. It pulls at the heartstrings with the vulnerability aspect, but it almost feels pleading, or like a guilt-trip. I’d much rather see a CTA that focuses less on the vulnerability of a child and more on that child’s joy:

Help create happy memories

Instead of an act of pity—giving because someone is vulnerable—you can participate in the creation of something, a wonderful memory for a child, regardless of their situation. A small change, but that thinking can be applied to the entire email. Throughout, the focus is on the problem:

… a summer of isolation… leaving them feeling alone… barely afford basic essentials like food and clothes - let alone days out and holidays away.

While it is good to remind people of the problems, chances are that if they are receiving the campaign, they are well aware of the problems that these families face. Instead of focusing yet again on those problems, that space might be put to better use explaining all of the great things that come from donations.

Since (again I’m assuming) the summer appeal is a yearly drive, Quarriers should have information and stories about how previous years helped families in need. This would be a great opportunity to focus on those stories and share them with supporters. If I was a supporter, I’d be much more likely to give if I read something like this:

With the school holidays underway, many of us are packing our bags for an enjoyable trip away. Unfortunately, many of the young people Quarriers support don’t have that opportunity. Some can barely afford food and clothes, let alone holidays away.

We can change that.

Last summer, we gave over 50 families a day to remember—at beaches, zoos, and museums around the UK. With your help, we can create lasting memories for even more this year.

Then I’d hit them with the calls-to-action.

The current CTAs are great, but again, I think there is room for improvement. There is a strong case to be made for articulating the impact of donations, and I think Quarriers does a decent job in the email with the illustrations showing what each donation amount helps achieve. However, I think the donations page on their website accomplishes this more effectively:

Quarriers Impact

I really think that expanding those sections a bit in the email could help drive donations. Honestly, I often think that donating ten bucks to a cause won’t have much impact. Seeing a more detailed breakdown of how much impact that donation can have would go a long way to alleviating that concern.

I’m not often an advocate of adding more content to emails but, in this case, I think more defined donations sections could be beneficial. I’d love to see a few A/B tests to this affect, see if my hunch is right.

Another interesting, and overlooked part of the email, is the disclaimer underneath the calls-to-action:

Your donation will be used to provide a summer day out for the children we support. If we exceed the money needed then your donation will be used where it is needed most within Quarriers. Thank you.

I’m not exactly sure how, but I feel like that could be its own section of the email, with some more copy and maybe a visual attached to it. Think about it: what an amazing problem for a charity to have—too much money! I imagine that some supporters don’t end up donating because they think everyone else will. Making a big deal about how each and every donation, especially the ones over a certain goal, still matter could be huge. Hell, you could even tie in its own CTA as an appeal for people to donate an even larger sum, kind of like the ‘surprise us’ CTA on the website.

I just hate seeing that part tucked away and glanced over. I think it’s a missed opportunity that could work wonders. It may not drive a ton of donations in this one campaign, but over time it could help lessen the bystander effect amongst supporters.

The Odds and Ends

There are a few random things that could be improved, too.

On mobile, the call-to-action illustrations get really small. That generally makes the text hard to read and the details of the illustrations themselves harder to distinguish. There isn’t really anything fancy going on with the ‘give a child a day out’ text, so it would be trivial to just make that actual HTML instead of an image. Then, for mobile, media queries can be used to style it appropriately and make it more readable on smaller devices.

Likewise, if the quote or text is still kept in the photograph, it might be worthwhile to make it a caption below the photo. Design-wise, it might be cool to make that a callout section. Just have an HTML table that contains the image and the caption below, use a background color, some padding, and basic text styling to make set it apart from the rest of the email copy. MailChimp’s Email Design Reference has a nice section on doing just that.

Wrapping Up

On the whole, I really like this email from Johnny Steele and Quarriers. Like I said before, it’s already a few steps ahead of most charity emails I have seen. The big gripes I had with the campaign could be alleviated by rethinking the narrower, dated design and making a few adjustments to how images and text are used within the layout.

More importantly, I think testing out a more positive, results-focused campaign could be beneficial to Quarriers. I’m not an expert when it comes to non-profits, but as a recipient of more than a few of these types of campaigns, I think rewriting some copy and articulating more of the impact donations have could go a long way towards driving even more support.

Special thanks to Johnny Steele and Quarriers for sharing their design.

Want to submit an email for a Campaign Critique? Send it over.