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12 Tips to Format Business E-Mails and Newsletters
1. Give Recipients a Reason to Open
While the Subject: field isn't exactly formatting, the subject is the single most important line in your entire newsletter. Unless your subject line interests your readers, they'll often pass your e‐mail by without opening ‐‐ even if they know you. Time is short. The question that the subject line must answer is "What's in It for Me?" How will this e‐mail benefit your recipient, your subscriber, your customer?

I strongly recommend personalising the subject line to include the recipient's name. I know that some spammers do this. But they do it precisely because a personalised subject line dramatically increases the open rate. Seeing your name stops your eye long enough to consider the e‐mail more carefully.

Nearly all modern e‐mail programs enable you to insert fields into your e‐mail, but to do this you'll need to capture your subscriber's name during the subscription process. Won't asking for a name decrease the number of people who complete the subscription process? Some. But I'm convinced that using the person's name is important to the process of building a relationship ‐‐ and that's what e‐mail newsletters can do exceedingly well.

2. Identify the Sender Consistently
When your recipients are sorting through their e‐mail inboxes ‐‐ discarding junk and deciding what to open ‐‐ they'll look at two fields: the Subject Line and the
From: field. If they don't recognise the sender, chances are they'll delete the e‐mail without reading further.

Always make clear who the newsletter or business e‐mail is from. Using only an e‐mail address as the sender is the mark of a novice. The sender needs to be some person or organization that your recipient recognises. For a long time my newsletters were sent from "Dr. Ralph F. Wilson." More recently, the From: field is "Web Marketing Today." Chose as sender the most recognisable name in your organization.

This field must be consistent. Don't switch from one sender to another. What you're trying to do here is build recognition, so when recipients see the sender, they'll open the e‐mail because they have come to value your content. On the other hand, if you don't really offer value to the recipient, your name will become a reason to delete the e‐mail.

3. Select HTML -- Most of the Time
You'll need to choose between formatting your newsletter in HTML or plain text. For the most part, the text e‐mail letters I receive come from "old school" senders who cut their teeth on e‐mail before HTML was available. Newer senders almost always use HTML ‐‐ and for good reason.
HTML e-mails offer several advantages:

• Click‐through rates are perhaps twice that of text e‐mails.
• Tracking codes can be used in links to help you determine effectiveness of your e‐mail offers. Such codes make the URL too long to display in a text newsletter.
• Attractiveness and readability are enhanced with color, graphics, and font choices. Yes, there's a downside here, but we'll discuss that later.
• Product pictures and formatting make HTML a natural vehicle for retailers to send out a mini‐catalog of sale items.

Text e-mails offer other advantages:
• Universal readability. Text‐only e‐mail programs were dying out. But with the advent of cell phones as an e‐mail platform, that's changed.
• Consistency. Many large corporations and government agencies routinely strip out HTML to protect against viruses, so HTML e‐mails will be viewed
• Preference. Some readers prefer plain text over HTML, perhaps because they have a cell phone or work for a large organization. In my subscription forms I pre‐check HTML, but find that about 16% select "plain text" anyway.
• A slightly higher delivery rate is available with text only messages, since bare HTML is considered more likely to be spam. For this reason I always send my HTML e‐mails combined with text as "multi‐part MIME" rather than sending HTML by itself.

E‐mail best practice is to let your subscriber select the format. Since I format a text version of every e‐mail for the multi‐part MIME version, it's not much more difficult to send a text‐only version to those who request it.

4. Employ HTML Tables, Not Full CSS Layout
Old‐school HTML uses tables to lay out the sections of a webpage, with FONT tags to indicate font sizes. New‐school HTML relies heavily on Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to control the layout, color, and fonts. Webpages typically have a link to a single online style sheet that controls the entire website. ... a little tricky to set up the first time, but when it's working, it's wonderful.

While all modern browsers support CSS fairly well, e‐mail programs, on the other hand, are all over the map in terms of support.

Fonts. I use a <STYLE> tag at the top of my e‐mails to control fonts, sizes, and colors, and it seems to work reasonably well.

Positioning. But CSS positioning is something else. I still use old fashioned HTML tables to block out the large spaces in my e‐mails, and I recommend you do so also until e‐mail programs get caught up with web browsers.
Here's a hint when using a two‐column design with tables. Make sure that each cell includes the element valign="top". Otherwise the content in one of the cells will be centered vertically and not be seen at the top of the page.
You can see how your e‐mail will appear in different e‐mail programs with the Campaign Monitor Testing Tool (

5. Design Page Layout Carefully
As you're laying out your newsletter, you need to keep several things in mind:

• Long lines of text are hard to read, especially if you have lines of text extending all the way across the width of your newsletter. Studies have found that the maximum length of a line of text should be about 50 to 55 characters. Shorter lines are okay, but longer lines than that will hurt readability. As a result, many newsletters restrict the width of a line of text by putting it within a fixed width table.
• Use 10 pt type or larger. Just because you have good eyes and a large monitor doesn't mean that your recipients do. Make sure your type size is at least 10 point for readability. 9 point is okay for copyright and legal boilerplate, however.
• Multiple columns have some advantages. Many designers use a two or three column layout. You see this on websites a lot. The text column (cell) is a fixed width, for example, <td width="400">, while the other columns (cells) are variable width, for example, <td width="25%">. The other option is to have a fixed width for each column, but then you force a people to open their e‐mail window to your e‐mail's full width to read your copy ‐‐ and many may not bother.
• Avoid important messages in your side columns. Webpages and e‐mails are a linear medium. People read from top to bottom, scrolling as they go. Few people will scroll back up to the top to read a second column. Side columns can contain incidental information, display ads, or just show patterns or color, but shouldn't contain the important messages.
The exception is an e‐mail displaying multiple products. Products are often shown in a grid of 3 or 4 across and 6 or more down ‐‐ a small graphic, a couple lines of text, the price, and a link to click to see more on the website. People typically scan them left to right and scroll down until they see all the products.
• Low contrast hurts readability. Pattern backgrounds look so cool! But they usually make reading more difficult. Always use a white or very light solid background for your text area, with black or very dark letters. That makes for maximum readability. But by all means use colour in your narrower columns at the side to add design flair.
• People don't always read with their e‐mail window wide open. When I work, I seldom have a single window filling the entire screen. Some are larger, some smaller, placed strategically on my monitor. Therefore it's wise to make your e‐mail format flexible, compressible if someone wants to have a narrower window. Instead of a banner‐logo all the way across the top of your e‐mail, extend it part way only and fill the cell it resides in with a suitable background colour.

Every e‐mail service provider offers a variety of free templates you can use. But you'll often find that their designs don't obey the guidelines above. Be careful.

6. Use Text for Your Offer, Not Graphics

One of the stupidest mistakes I see on a daily basis involves e‐mail ads from major companies that consist entirely of graphics. They look great when all the graphics are downloaded. What they don't take into consideration is the fact that a large percentage of e‐mails are opened by web mail users where graphics are automatically blocked by default. Instead of your wonderful graphic message being seen in all its colourful glory, your recipient sees 
only a bunch of empty boxes. Unless you've used ALT tags in your images, your recipient won't even know what the graphic was supposed to represent.

Yes, it's a good idea to include a message at the top of the e‐mail: "Click here to see this message in your web browser" to provide a webpage alternative, but few have the incentive to click unless they see a compelling offer (which is contained in the graphics), so you're out of luck.

I know this advice runs against the mainstream of e‐mail advertising today, but I stick by my guns: Use text to convey the essentials of your message; use graphics to add punch to the message. That way you know that at least your message, your offer, got through, even if your recipient didn't see your graphics.

7. Optimise Images for File Size
For the majority of Americans who use broadband, e‐mails with large images can be fully displayed in a second or two. But for those who still use dial‐up or perhaps a slow DSL connection because they're located some distance from the telephone office, they will have a terrible experience reading your e‐mail if it is filled with large graphics. They might even curse you as they wait ‐‐ not a good start to building a relationship.

Therefore, best practice is to optimise every image for the smallest possible file size. Your designer should be doing this routinely, but many neglect this. Here's a good rule of thumb: If the graphic is a photograph, use a JPEG image type with a low to medium image quality. If the graphic is clipart or primarily fonts with few gradients, use a GIF or PNG image type. GIF images can display up to 256 colours, but the file size will be larger. Reduce the number of colours in the image as far as you can without noticeably degrading image quality. I try for 16 to 32 colours if possible. It makes for fast‐loading graphics.

8. Create a Spare but Attractive Look-and-Feel
It's tempting to try to cram everything you can into your newsletter. But since people scroll down a newsletter to read it, choose carefully what you want people to see and place that in the downward eye‐path.
Create a top graphic that doesn't take much vertical space. A tall top graphic may prevent people from seeing your content "above the fold" without scrolling. For the same reason eliminate any navigation buttons above your content that aren't absolutely necessarily.

Avoid clutter.
Elements to the left and right of your copy aren't usually very effective, so don't put important content there. Rather, use color and small graphics to create the right ambience. If you need help with your newsletter's look‐and‐feel, hire a graphic artist to help you ‐‐ but make sure he or she reads this series before designing!

9. Dangle "What's In It For Me" (WIIFM) Upfront
These days, people don't read e‐mail messages, they scan. I scan subject lines to see what to discard and what to open. If I open an e‐mail, I scan the article headlines to see if there's anything that interests me. If not ‐‐ Zap! Delete! ‐‐ I'm off to the next e‐mail.

Therefore it is vital that on the first screen ("above the fold") people see something that captures their interest. They're all asking: What's In It For Me? (WIIFM)

Note: Your top graphic and logo won't capture readers. Yes, your "brand," if recognized, may cause people to pause a moment longer and make them positively inclined toward your content, but by itself it won't get people to read the content. Therefore, keep your top graphic relatively thin in vertical space. Too often top graphics are so fat that they take up most of the e‐mail preview window, so that a recipient has to scroll down to see article headlines ‐‐ and most won't.

Therefore, make your headlines or offers visible above the fold. Your headlines or offers need to coincide with your readers' self‐interest. Titles should offer help in understanding or doing something. Your offers must appeal to readers' needs. Remember: WIIFM.

10. Realise the Relationship-Building Potential
Regular e‐mails are one of the best relationship‐building tools I know. They can help you develop a powerful (albeit one‐sided and virtual) relationship between you and thousands of readers. Small businesses can shine, since, instead of dry, anonymous "corporate‐speak," they can feature actual people in their company.
Three ways to build a relationship via e‐mail newsletters are:

1. Call people by name. When they subscribe, ask for a first name. Then use that first name in both the subject line and in the greeting that begins your message. To Americans, at least, addressing a person by first name creates a sense of friendliness. (Britons may want to collect different information so they can address each other a bit more formally, such as, "My dear Baroness Shrove‐Jones").
2. Feature photos of your authors. People connect with faces. When they see the face of your author again and again, it builds a sense of personal recognition that strengthens the relationship.
3. Be Friendly. Write in the first person employing the same tone or "voice" that you might use in writing to a friend. Don't be afraid to share an occasional personal anecdote in a sentence or so ‐‐ but don't dwell on it. To write personably does not mean you should ramble. Rather you must write clearly and concisely so you don't waste your readers' time.

All this relationship building may sound to you like warm and fuzzy drivel. After all this is business! I know, but take my word for it: e‐mail relationship building is important and it works!

11. Supply Full Contact Information
In every newsletter, provide full contact information including a physical address and phone number, if possible. In some cases, the CAN‐SPAM Act requires it. But it also makes good sense. When people want to respond to you after reading your newsletter, help them do so immediately.

12. Make It Easy to Unsubscribe
I know you don't want to encourage people to unsubscribe, but subscribers come and go. It's a fact of life. In the US and many other countries, the law requires an easy way to unsubscribe. If you fail to provide one, even though you might not be prosecuted, you will incur the anger of many readers over a period of time and create bad mojo for your brand.

So there you have it ‐‐ 12 tips that can help you design an effective e‐mail newsletter. Now it's time to put these tips into practice. Go for it!
In honest opinion, instead of formatting your email, I would rather have you spend time to buff up your social media instead.

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