Email templates are endlessly customizable: they give you the opportunity to experiment with fonts, colors, graphics, GIFs… but — at the risk of sounding like your mom — just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

An email template isn’t an arts and crafts project: it’s a vehicle. It exists to drive subscribers to your website or mobile app, or take some other action outside their inboxes. Make no mistake — you have very little time to convince a subscriber to act. On average, people devote between 15 and 20 seconds to an email, according to MarketingSherpa. Why have them spend that time on frills if you can lead them straight to the meat?

On top of that, emails templates need to be flexible. Modern consumers spend their days switching between devices, and more than half of emails are now opened on mobile devices. The more complicated your email design, the more likely it is to render in bizarre ways.

Last — but certainly not least — simpler emails have a better chance of actually making it to subscribers. If you’ve taken our email quiz, you know that using too many fonts and colors sets off spam filters. Creating an email entirely composed of graphics is a deliverability faux-pas (and people who block images won’t see anything at all).

That doesn’t mean your emails can’t (or shouldn’t) be beautiful. Companies like Apple, Medium, and Virgin America show that simple can be downright gorgeous. It just means your template should follow a few basic guidelines:

Create a Mobile-Aware Template


Responsive design is great, but it doesn’t work with all email clients, so it’s smart to make your fallback template simple enough to work across devices. Elements of a mobile-aware template, according to Litmus:

  1. Design a single-column layout
  2. Use large text
  3. Create touch-friendly buttons




Follow a Consistent Structure


In the precious moments a subscriber devotes to your email, they should be able to easily determine who it’s from, why it’s relevant, and which actions they should take. The best templates transmit this information in seconds. To keep things simple and powerful, we suggest using the following skeleton:

  1. Your company’s name or logo.
  2. An eye-catching photo, graphic, or illustration. (This part is optional, especially since a lot of email clients block images by default.)
  3. One or two lines explaining the purpose of the email and the action subscribers should take.
  4. The main CTA. It often makes sense to have multiple CTAs, but one should clearly dominate.  

A wonderfully simple example from Duolingo, a company that helps people learn languages:




This newsletter from Sidecar, a marketplace for design tools, has more going on — but the basic structure is still there. The CTA urging subscribers to read content simply repeats a few times:



Use the Five-Second Test


People devote 20 seconds to a single email, but it only takes about 100 milliseconds to form a first impression. Is the first thing people feel delight or confusion? 

To find out, you could conduct a five-second test: using UsabilityHub, you could upload a template, have people look at it for five seconds, ask them questions about what they remembered, and see if they focused on the action you were trying to drive. Alternately, you could take the ad-hoc approach and ask friends or coworkers to take a peek at your email. 

These approaches aren’t exactly scientific. They do, however, allow you to form solid hypotheses, which you can later A/B test. (If you want some A/B test ideas, check out our infographic: 8 A/B Tests to Boost CTOR.)  

This Chanel template gets the point across in seconds — and it doesn’t skimp on character:


We’d expect nothing less from a company founded by the woman who purportedly said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

What to optimize your email content? Check out our eBook on machine learning for email marketers. 

Share This