The Power of Email

More than ten years ago Andrew Odlyzko wrote that:

“We can expect [the] evolution of communications to continue, and eventually to achieve that convergence in which there will be a continuum between point-to-point and broadcast communication.”

We're there. Facebook and Pinterest are where people go for recommendations. Twitter has been the best place for breaking news for years. Tumblr is worth over a billion dollars because it lets people express themselves in new and creative ways. Online, the distinction between point-to-point and broadcast communication is so blurred as to be irrelevant.

Email has always blurred these lines. My inbox currently contains unopened mail from my grandad and old friends from university alongside those from Fab and Threadless; there's nothing jarring about this dichotomy because it is on my terms. Conversely, whenever I scroll past a 'recommended app' in my news feed it is (momentarily) annoying. Facebook hasn't succeeded in making adverts not just unobtrusive, but welcome.1 As Dave Pell puts it:

“Email is still the killer app. It looks great on all your devices and the user experience is always exactly what you've come to expect… Email is also a technology that everyone understands, and it's personal.”

Email has become thoroughly unremarkable, which is exactly what makes it such a great tool; it is one of the most efficient and cost effective ways to communicate with your audience (and almost everyone uses it; mobile internet users in the US spend the greatest percentage of their mobile web time using email). Yet it is precisely those things which people love about email that are routinely ignored. Your message will benefit from embracing the medium rather than struggling against it.

Don't abuse the fact that you are being allowed into the inbox (it's a privilege that can be revoked at any time); if you're trying to get me to do something then make it stupidly, ridiculously obvious. Emails that work everywhere are inevitably simple and clear, which is exactly what is required for the medium. They should respond to fill the available space, and images should be used sparingly to illustrate the message.

The most egregious errors are some of the more common: insisting on sticking to a corporate font even if it means locking up your text in an image; a 400 pixel tall banner before the actual content;2 six different calls to action (or none at all); overly-complex layouts that only work on a widescreen.

Campaign monitor reports that for email, mobile market share overtook both desktop and web clients in April of last year. As ever, take such figures with a pinch of salt and a good look at your own stats, but the message is pretty clear:

“…those that aren’t tracking which device their subscribers are reading their emails on, or optimising their emails or websites for mobile devices stand to lose out. A poor user experience could mean no response, no action, or plainly put, no ROI.”

It's impossible to imagine what the landscape of devices will look like in the future, what is certain is that we are undergoing a sea of change. The beauty of designing and building emails that embrace the medium and work everywhere is that you'll be as prepared as possible.

[1] It's not a wholly accurate comparison, but it is fair. I choose to receive emails that are of value to me, whereas Facebook has to guess. But that's the whole point.

[2] Not only do I have to scroll to get the message, I also have to foot the bill when I'm downloading it over a mobile network.

Ed Melly
Ed is the man that takes the design of a site and builds it in the best possible way to comply with W3C standards and accessibility. Ed is a front-end oracle and delivers on time, every time.