Email at the Turning Point

January 27, 2015

This post was adapted from a talk I gave for the e-Village Inspiration Sessions in the Netherlands. In it, I wax philosophic about the current state of email design and make a few predictions for the future. Hopefully they turn out to be true.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about email marketing and, more specifically, email design. Over the course of six or seven years, I’ve worked with email in a variety of capacities. I’ve helped clients as both a freelancer and an agency grunt. I’ve written two books on the subject. And for the past year or so, I’ve worked alongside the Litmus team, arguably the best in the business.

After all that time, it’s sometimes fun to look back at what’s happened over the years. More importantly, by looking back at my history (and the history of email marketing over the past decade), I think I can use that information and make a few predictions about the future.

What We Do in Email

At this point, it seems nonsensical for anyone to argue against the importance of email. Email marketing is consistently one of the most valuable digital channels and routinely provides amazing returns for companies willing to spend the time, effort, and money on email.

Aside from driving business goals, as email marketers, we do two extremely important things: inform people and build connections. Through the power of email, we help keep our subscribers up-to-date on what’s important to them. Through transactional emails, newsletters, product and service announcements, etc. we give people information that is useful and improves their lives. And, when we can provide that information in a delightful, surprising, entertaining, or just uncomplicated, thoughtful way, we build real connections with people. We are oftentimes the voice of a company, of a brand, and through us, those companies deepen connections with their users, subscribers, customers, and loyal fans.

Building Connections

I talk about building connections because it’s so important not only today, but in the future of email design as well. Too many companies focus solely on driving revenue, much to the detriment of their subscribers. Which is kind of crazy. I understand it from a business perspective, but honestly, by focusing more on informing and building relationships with people, those same companies would likely see those business goals absolutely crushed.

But how can we inform people more effectively? How can we build and deepen those connections? To understand that, let’s look at the history of email design…

The Past

The history of email marketing over the past ten years can roughly be broken up into three eras. It’s important to note that these eras have a lot of overlap. And these are just broad generalizations. There are a lot of edge-cases and weird developments in the email design world, but I think these three stages accurately describe how email has evolved.

Early Stage: The Desktop Days

The early days of email are defined by the desktop. For years, that’s the only way people accessed the internet. The email clients available to users directly influenced how marketers built emails. Clients like Lotus Notes and Outlook shaped how we coded our campaigns. Hell, they still do today. The lack of support for proper HTML and CSS forced designers to hack together emails. The one (arguably) good thing about the desktop days is that the environments in which emails were viewed were known. Designers could rely on screen sizes falling within a known range. As a result, email campaigns were fixed-width by nature. There was no need to fluid or responsive emails and, despite the problems with terrible rendering engines, an email designer’s job was largely easier than it sometimes is today.

Middle Stage: The Mobile Revolution

Email was forced to evolve shortly after the iPhone was introduced in 2007. While smartphones and internet-enabled devices existed prior to that, the iPhone’s huge screen and touch interaction created a new paradigm. People were now reading their emails away from their desks. And, as more device manufacturers entered the market, so did mobile email subscribers. No longer were designers worrying about a handful of desktop and webmail clients on 13-, 15-, and 17-inch screens. With the mobile revolution, we saw increasing fragmentation.

This fragmentation took two forms: the number of email clients themselves increased and the number of different screen sizes exploded. Email designers were forced to adapt. And adapt we did. We took cues from web designers and started using techniques like fluid and adaptive layouts in email. This alleviated some problems, but introduced others. It made the inconsistencies between email clients and rendering engines blindingly obvious. Fortunately, we saw the rise of not only reactionary design techniques, but reactionary tools, as well. Most notably, tools like Litmus allowed you to test your campaigns in all of this different clients and devices and services like Campaign Monitor and MailChimp released amazing templates that worked well across most clients.

Late Stage: Responsive Design

The latest stage in email’s evolution started around 2010, but hasn’t really picked up steam until the last two or so years. Again, taking cues from the web world, email designers have adapted the three tenets of responsive web design (fluid layouts, fluid images, and media queries) to work with HTML email. We’re now seeing some amazing campaigns that move beyond basic fluid tables and truly optimize their layouts for a variety of screen sizes. It’s opened up a world of opportunities for designers and companies that aren’t afraid to break new ground. More importantly, responsive emails have improved the experience of email for an increasingly mobile audience. This improved experience allows us to inform people more effectively and build deep connections. Which is what we should be trying to do all along.

But, as great as responsive design is, there are still a few problems that we can’t seem to shake as an industry.

  1. Dinosaurs. Not the Jurassic Park kind, though that would be cool. No, we still have a huge number of senders that haven’t moved beyond that first, desktop-focused era. These dinosaurs keep the average level of quality in email design really low. That de-facto, low quality level of design makes it hard for progressive designers to get company buy-in for pushing email design forward.
  2. Email Clients. Email clients, especially ones with shitty rendering engines, just stick around. And, with the rise of mobile devices, we’re seeing a few really, really bad clients gain marketshare (looking at you, Gmail). These clients make it hard for designers to focus on anything other than hacks, forcing them to design defensively.
  3. Tooling. Until recently, the tooling around email design hasn’t changed much at all. We’ve been stuck with sloppy, hack-filled code written in editors meant for the web. And for email marketers not familiar with coding, life has been even harder.

Stuck in the Past

The Turning Point

But, I truly believe that email is at a turning point today.

Pretty soon, we’re going to see a solution to most of these problems. As a result, we’re going to be transitioning from defensive design to exploring interesting, innovative approaches to email design. That’s the turning point: we’re going to be freed up from worrying about shitty email clients and hacks. Once that happens, we’ll be able to focus on content, interaction, experience, and building those deep connections with people.

Here’s how I think it will go down:

Email Will Become a Solved Problem

The biggest and oldest problem for email designers are the lack of standards which are a side effect of email clients and their rendering engines. No real standard exists for coding emails since no two email clients support the same HTML elements and CSS properties. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, but I predict that email will largely become a solved problem for senders.

This is due to two interesting developments.

First, more and more email designers are sharing their knowledge. With places like the Litmus Community and tons of brilliant folks talking about email design, we’ll see the refinement and adoption of techniques that will make email design easier than ever before. I’m not saying that people won’t need to know how to code or hack Outlook, I’m saying that the method of doing so will be well-documented and easy to implement. Once that happens, designers will be free to think about more important aspects of email design, like strategy and content.

Second, the tooling around email design is constantly improving. This past year, we’ve seen a number of companies tackle tools for email design. There are now code editors and visual design tools that make email design a lot easier. These tools aren’t without their problems, but they are constantly being improved and, over time, will go a long way towards making everyone’s lives easier. Coder and non-coder alike.

Gmail Will Get Better

As it stands today, Gmail is the worst email platform out there. At least as far as HTML email designers are concerned. A lack of support for CSS and media queries means that Gmail’s various apps and interfaces routinely break designs that work well everywhere else. While there are fixes for Gmail, they are involved and lead to volatile code that is harder to maintain over time.

Fortunately, there have been indications that the Gmail team is finally beginning to listen to our complaints. While I still don’t think they fully understand all of our concerns, they are finally putting in some effort and attempting to. I think that, within the next year, we’ll see better CSS support and media queries introduced in Gmail. They cite security concerns, but honestly, if Yahoo and AOL can figure this stuff out, Google doesn’t really have an excuse anymore.

We’ll See an Increased Focus on Content

Once all of the headaches involved with coding are alleviated, email marketers and designers will be able to focus on what’s really important in email: the content. We’re going to start to see more thoughtful, relevant, and valuable content in emails. One thing I’m really looking forward to seeing is better personalization that takes into account a subscriber’s history and context.

As we grow these relationships with subscribers, we’ll be able to tailor emails to an extent we haven’t seen before. While personalization exists to varying degrees today, we’ll start to see it really take shape when we can focus more on content. Looking at past interactions, preferences, where and when people open, what they did on your site after engaging with an email, etc. will push content to new heights. It should be interesting.

Apart from the use of advanced personalization and context, I think (and hope) we’ll see just plain better content. Better copy, better aesthetics, valuable information—pretty much everything that subscribers want, but not too many companies do well right now.

We’ll See the Rise of Email Experience Designers

Along with this increased focus on content, we’ll see a new role emerge in email marketing: the email experience designer. On the web and in software development, the role of a user experience designer is commonplace. These are the people that shape how users interact with and experience a software product. They think not only about content, but how people engage with that content. Then they design interactions and animations to facilitate that engagement.

While there are some amazing examples of interaction and animation in email, they are rare. I think that will start to change. We’ll eventually see people taking on the role of experience design in email. Crafting interactions and animations that not only display information, but surprise and delight users as well. That surprise and delight is working towards our ultimate goal: building deep connections with our readers.

So, when will this actually happen?

All of these predictions are great (especially if they come true, or else I’m left looking like an idiot), but when will they actually come to fruition?

I think we’ll see Gmail get its platform into shape in the next year. By 2016, we’ll all be a bit happier. The bad part is that Gmail likely won’t announce it on their blog or anything, so one of us will have to stumble on the update instead. I’m fine with that, as long as they fix their clients.

Once that happens, that whole ‘email as a solved problem’ prediction will naturally come about. I don’t think it will be as quick, but in the next 2-3 years we’ll see tools that truly take the pain out of email design and a body of knowledge about email design, problems, and solutions be widespread. You’ll have to be living under a rock (without internet access) to keep pumping out bad emails.

The focus on content and the rise of email experience designers may take a bit longer. We’ll see both in fits and starts but, like most things in email, we’ll still see a lot of companies just not really caring about either. They’ll stick to their old ways, regardless of what everyone else is doing—or what subscribers will start to expect and crave. Eventually though, it will happen for anyone that cares about email. I’m looking forward to that.

Building Connections

We Can Start Today

Ultimately, it’s all up to you (and me) to change things. We are finally seeing the knowledge and tools needed to make this future a reality. Once we can all move beyond that defensive design mentality, we can start focusing on content, experience, design, and delight. We can focus on building relationships instead of building emails that render fine in Lotus Notes. We can pay attention to our audiences instead of hacks. We can finally push things forward and deepen connections with real people in the most personal of digital spaces: the inbox.

I’m looking forward to the future. I can’t wait to see what you build.