Designing for Email

Yesterday I spoke with Justine Jordan. Justine is the Marketing Director at Litmus.com, a product that allows you to test email designs across all the clients you could imagine as well as providing spam testing and a whole host of other services.

The interview covers some topics I hope you’ll find valuable like:

  • How should a new company approach setting up their email program?
  • Some insight Litmus’ marketing strategy.
  • How to think about responsive designs and mobile when designing your emails.

You’re really going to enjoy all the wisdom Justine has to share.

Watch the full interview below:

Show Notes

Full transcript

Colin Nederkoorn: Hey everybody, I am here with Justine Jordan. She’s the Director of Marketing at Litmus.com. Justine, I’d love to hear a little bit about what Litmus is.

Justine Jordan: Sure. Litmus is a small software company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We build software to help email marketers make their emails better. We do some rendering testing. We take screenshots of what your emails look like in a variety of different email clients and mobile devices. We also offer a spam filter test, so you can see if you’re going to hit any spam filters before you send, and then, we also offer an analytics service that lets you know where people are opening your emails, how long people read them, and if they printed and forwarded, so some cool behavioral data around email too.

Colin: Cool. Your role there, you’re the Director of Marketing. What does that entail? How many people are on the team with you? Tell us a little bit about that.

Justine: Sure. I frequently make the joke that my job is whatever needs to get done that day. I’m sure a lot of you can relate; as a small business, a lot of us wear a lot of hats. I joined the Litmus team almost three years ago, and I was the first official marketing hire that the company ever had. For a while, probably about a year and a half, I was a one woman show. I did everything from writing blog posts to helping handle customer support issues, to jumping on demos when prospective customers asked for them, to writing and designing and coding emails; basically just like I said, [Indecipherable 1:45] , so I guess “marketing” is a really broad term in the Litmus universe.
Today, we have three people. We have myself. We have a Marketing Coordinator named Lauren, and then a brand new hire who I’m very, very excited about named Kevin, a Content Designer, that’s helped ease the design load here in the marketing team at Litmus.

Colin: Your background is actually more design than marketing, is that correct?

Justine: Absolutely. I have a BFA, a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I went to an art school in Indianapolis, Indiana. My passion, or my dream, was to become a brand manager one day. I spent my first year out of school designing brochures and other things that you print and physically hand to people, before I found a job doing mail design. It was there that I really fell in love with this idea of a designer being able to be so connected to their audience, and getting immediate feedback on their designs. I’ve never truly been that creative of a person, so I always felt like kind of a fake as a designer.
I really liked email marketing because it let me flex my analytical, rational, logical muscle, while also still being creative.

Colin: When you think about the marketing strategy for Litmus, what are the different pieces that you guys have in place? What are the different ways that you reach your audience?

Justine: Strangely enough, email isn’t one of the primary methods, although it is one of the ones that drives the most traffic. As all [Indecipherable 3:31] startups can probably relate, it’s really hard to make good email with a small team, so we really focus on quality over quantity, although we’re hoping to change that.
I think a lot of people are surprised when they hear that our marketing maybe isn’t as sophisticated as they assumed it was. [laughs] Again, I definitely think we take the quality over quantity approach. Email is definitely a huge driver of traffic to our website, which is a primary indicator of making sales and money, which is a good thing.
But Twitter is really big for us, and social media in general. I’m really surprised every day, looking at Google Analytics, the number of visitors that Facebook drives our way. We primarily spend a lot of our time blogging and creating content for the blog. All that content on the blog goes into our newsletter, and then to Tweets and Facebook posts, and all those things are intended to drive traffic back to our site.
It’s a pretty simple model, but it’s been working really well for us.

Colin: Hey folks, at this point we had a brief interruption in our Internet connection, so we jump back into the interview a few minutes later. Let me see, where were we?

Justine: I think we were talking about emails. [laughs]

Colin: Yeah. That’s a great transition into the next thing. Oh, I know what I was saying. Right as soon as we cut out, I was saying how much I love the emails that you guys put together. I was really curious about the process that you guys go through to build those emails. They’re really colorful. You have these different sections, and they look beautiful on my desktop, on my mobile phone, which is really what Litmus helps its customers to do.

Justine: Yeah. I’d say one of the biggest challenges of doing email marketing for Litmus is the whole “eating your own dog food” thing. Marketing to marketers, or especially doing email marketing to email marketers, is really interesting sometimes. Every time we send an email out, we get a ton of praise, but we also get a ton of really critical comments about, “You should have done this,” “You should have done that.” “You should be practicing what you preach,” yadda, yadda, ya.
I have too much to say about this topic. [laughs]
Our emails weren’t responsive up until very recently, when Kevin joined us a month ago. Occasionally, our emails were responsive, but our monthly newsletters were not. If I did an email or a webinar on mobile email, I knew that if I didn’t do a follow up email that was responsive, I was going to hear about it later.
Those emails in the past have definitely been responsive. Others like our newsletter, the turnaround was too quick. They were too complicated, and frankly. our stats didn’t support us doing mobile optimization, which is the funniest thing of all.
If people really dug a little deeper or thought a little more, they would see that we were practicing what we preach, because although we talk about mobile optimization a lot, we also talk about how it’s important to know your audience and know if it’s the right fit for your company.
It’s fun when you get to use your own software; you can probably attest to this, Colin.

Colin: Yup. [laughs]

Justine: It’s always fun when you can use your own software to do your own company’s business, so we use our own email analytics to look and see how many people are opening our emails on mobile, and it’s never really gotten above 15 percent that’s one five whereas the average that we’re seeing overall is more like 45. We’re way below average in terms of our mobile opens, and we’re a really small team, as I mentioned before, and it just was never really worth the effort to mobile optimize.

Colin: Let’s hypothesize about that for a minute. You’re saying you get 15 percent mobile. Do you think that’s because you’re a tool for businesses, and people are reading your emails during the workday, while they’re in the office?

Justine: Absolutely. I think that we’re a B2B company, so the majority of our opens I want to say like 60 percent come from Outlook and Apple Mail, which are desktop clients. I’m assuming that the Outlook users are primarily the more corporate or the more marketing based of our users, whereas the Apple Mail folks are primarily our designer audience, or the creative audience, that tends towards Mac. It makes a lot of sense, when you really think about it. Yeah, we have very few mobile opens, and even fewer mobile website visits, which is why our website isn’t responsive yet, either. Being small, you have to be smart about where you use your resources, and it just hasn’t made sense for us to do the mobile bit, up until now.

Colin: Cool. Yeah, I think that’s a really good practice for any company with limited time, limited attention, that you really need to look at your numbers to decide where to focus. There’s no point to build a mobile site if nobody looks at your site on mobile. I know, for a long time, we didn’t have a mobile site, but I ended up using ZURB’s Foundation, and they just make it really easy.

Justine: Oh, nice! They really do, yeah. ZURB is great. Yeah, I say make decisions based on data, not on your gut. Marketers are famous for being distracted by the latest shiny object that everyone’s talking about, and mobile has been a hot topic for a really long time. I don’t blame people for wanting to embrace it, but I think you have to be smart about how you want to embrace it.

Colin: Thinking about new people starting to do email today; we’ve talked a little bit about making that decision, about should you be mobile responsive. What are the other decisions and things to think about, that someone building their email program in 2013 need to think about, with regards to the design?

Justine: Oh, gosh. If you’re brand new to email, like if you’re starting a new company and you’re trying to send email from the ground up, I would say definitely start with a plan. Before you even think about mobile, just start with a plan. You produce excellent content about that type of thing. If you jump straight into design I know you had a blog post about this recently if you jump straight into the design process and just start making emails, but you don’t have any content to go into them, that’s probably a big red flag.
I think, first and foremost, you don’t need to have some giant strategy mapped out but you definitely need to have some sort of strategic goal in mind. That’s one of the best things about email, is that you can measure its performance really, really easily.
If you don’t have a goal in the first place or you don’t even know if your email’s going to work after you send it… [laughs]
But in terms of design, I would say that companies that are in the travel industry or have really urgent communications or are communicating with consumers are more than likely going to have to think about mobile, before someone that’s B2B or serving an older audience, or some of those older things.
Again, your gut sometimes is really wrong, and your instincts can be surprising. I would say do what you can in the beginning. Focus on great content, simple designs that are going to be I would say mobile first. Make sure that they’re readable everywhere before you go embrace a full on responsive design because it can be a lot more effort, and sometimes not worth it, frankly, in the end.

Colin: Yeah. One of the things that I’ve seen is people want their emails to kind of look like their website in many ways. Then, a lot of times that prevents it from being responsive because they haven’t gone the extra step. It also prevents someone on a mobile device from reading the content.

Justine: Absolutely.

Colin: Probably the first step for people is, make it possible for everyone, everywhere, to read the content. Then focus on getting the design and the branding the way you want it, after.

Justine: There’s just one blog post. If you’re going to read anything about that topic that you just mentioned; the whole “Make it readable first,” Luke Wroblewski has a blog post called “Mobile First.” It’s literally a couple paragraphs. It will convince you. Go read it.

Justine: It just talks about that idea of making sure that the mobile user’s needs are considered first and foremost, because if you can read it on a mobile device you’re going to be able to read it on the desktop, is basically the argument, as far as that goes.

Colin: Got you. Once you evolve a little bit and you’re in a position to start making beautiful emails like Litmus does, what does your process look like? How do you guys go about it? Do you start in Photoshop? What do you do?

Justine: Yeah. The design that you mentioned a little earlier, how we have those blocks of content that are each a different color, has actually been in place for quite some time. The emails look different every time we send them. It’s actually kind of a really easy trick to make it look like you went and started from scratch every time in Photoshop, without having to. We just have a template that has these 100 percent width columns set up, and then a smaller container width nested inside. You just swap out the background color on each of those bars. Then we do go into Photoshop for the imagery, but that’s really about it. We don’t do a full layout.
We might do parts of it in a full layout every time if we’re doing something tricky or new, but for the most part you can just build each of those images in Photoshop, and then the whole rest is HTML and CSS.
We try to send email newsletters monthly, so probably about two weeks before we’re going to send; I have a Marketing Coordinator. We say, “What blog posts have gone live in the last month, since the last newsletter?” or “What do we want to make sure hasn’t gone live yet, but does go live for the newsletter?”
We kind of build our content strategy, frankly, around the newsletter because that’s what drives a fairly significant chunk of traffic to our website.
We’ll plan blog and blog content around the newsletter. Then, now that we have Kevin, the Content Designer it used to be me that did some of the design work for the emails; it used to be our UI designer that did some content and design for the emails but now Kevin owns the whole thing.
We’ll put together, in a Google Doc that everyone can edit and share, we’ll put all that content in a Google Doc and share it with Kevin, and he’ll start doing the basic layout for the newsletter. It’s really collaborative.
We’re small enough and we’re lucky enough that if we don’t like the way that text is breaking on a line we’ll go in and we’ll edit the headline, and that kind of thing. It’s not possible with big organizations that have to use templates and that kind of thing, but it’s really flexible and streamlined.
Say we want to send the email on Wednesday, but we did something quirky and ran into a rendering issue and we had to test it, it’s no big deal. We just push it off till Thursday. It’s really, like I said, collaborative, “agile,” to a certain extent. We just ship it when it’s ready. [laughs]

Colin: Has adding more people to the marketing team freed you up to explore new types of content? I noticed you doing some videos recently, and one that was particularly awesome was talking about the different pre processors in web mail clients, and the different things that happen when they pre process the emails that they display.

Justine: Yeah. Having a bigger marketing team, it has let us do some bigger, more ambitious projects. The conference is a really great example. We’re hosting this email design conference this fall.

Colin: Three cities, right?

Justine: Three cities, two days each. [laughs]

Colin: Yeah, it’s San Francisco, London, and Boston, right?

Justine: Yes, and you’ll be speaking there. We’re really looking forward to that.

Colin: I will. I’m very excited.

Justine: It’s hard enough doing that with three people, so I can’t imagine having done it just by myself, or without the help of Lauren and Kevin. The videos are an ongoing initiative. We hired a part time in house videographer, probably close to a year ago now. He’s here a day a week, and we have some ongoing initiatives like the understanding webmail rendering with the pre processors and stuff, that you mentioned that’s part of a three part series. We’re going to do desktop, mobile, and webmail.
Things like that definitely make it a little bit easier to have a bigger team. More resources mean that you can tackle more complex and more specialized things, but I think there’s a never ending wish list of things that we still want to tackle, too, no matter how many people we have.

Colin: Yeah. Well, I think you guys are doing an awesome job. Like us, like many other companies, you’ve focused on education and creating content that educates people, and I think, really helps people do their job better. I think that’s a really awesome way to grow and nurture your audience. Yeah, I love reading your content and watching your videos.

Justine: Thank you. Likewise.

Colin: Yeah. We’re about 20 minutes in now. You mentioned the conference; do you want to wrap up and tell people about anything else, you guys.

Justine: A shameless plug for the conference?

Colin: Yeah, a shameless plug.

Justine: Yeah, absolutely. I will welcome it. We’re hosting three email design conferences this fall. We’re coming into San Francisco at the end of September. We’re coming to London at the end of October, and then, to Boston at the end of November. You can go to Litmus.com/conference and check those out.
Colin’s going to talk about customer centricity and how that focus on awesome customer data can help the email experience. We’re going to have how data informs design decisions for email, a panel on how to improve workflow and process, and a whole bunch of other really awesome stuff. We’re really looking forward to it.

Colin: Yeah. I’m super excited to hear everyone else talk there. I think it’s going to be really, really great.

Justine: It’s going to be like the world’s largest meet up of email geeks.

Colin: Yup. [laughter]

Colin: Yeah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. I’m going to add a bunch of links to great content that you guys produce, and that Luke Wroblewski article that you mentioned in the blog post that accompanies this video. Thanks again, Justine, and I look forward to talking to you soon.

Justine: Yeah, thanks.

Colin: Bye.

Justine: Bye.