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Let’s say you’ve just received a newsletter from a new contact. You’ve opted in to receiving it, but you’re not (yet) sure what to expect. So you decide to open it and check it out.

What will make you go on to read it? And what could make you check it out, briefly, and then dismiss it?

A good, engaging headline will certainly help, but won’t be enough on its own. Because this is the point where good design can be crucial.

If a newsletter ‘looks the business’ then, as often as not, it is. Or, at very least, you’ll be that much more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Meaning that good newsletter design isn’t just desirable. It’s essential.

Why newsletter design is a challenge

The problem with designing a newsletter in a world of convergent media is that different people will see it in very different ways.

A contact opening the newsletter on her office desktop will see it full-screen and full-width.

Another, working from home, might see it in a narrower format on his tablet.

A third, travelling to her next meeting, will probably see it come up on her mobile phone – and decide then and there whether to bin it or save it for reading later.

Your design needs to look good to all of them – it’s called being ‘responsive’. And that’s a challenge.

If you’re using an email distribution service – like MailChimp or AWeber – they do, of course, offer a solution. The free email templates they provide have been tested and retested in the dozens of different browsers out there in the marketplace. So they should look OK wherever, and however, they are seen.

However, that comes at a cost.

You’ll be using a standard template – the same one thousands of other people are also using. Deployed with care and skill, it will certainly produce an acceptable result. But it’s not likely to help you stand out from the crowd – and while it can certainly be ‘personalised’, it won’t necessarily reflect your organisation and its image in precisely the way you want. And in terms of design, it’s the ‘lowest common denominator’ – because, inevitably, it hasn’t been designed with a specific, targeted purpose in mind.

So if that ‘cost’ is unacceptable, you need to consider a financial cost.

First off, you will need a design – or, more accurately, two or even three designs.

A good, switched-on designer will know what’s needed, though it may be better to go to a specialist supplier who will also do your coding. But be selective – good coders (and you’ll need one!) aren’t always good designers, and even the best non-coding designers aren’t always aware of the very demanding restrictions involved in creating a responsive email layout.

In the meantime, you just need to decide what you want.

Getting started

For an email newsletter, a good design is one that helps you achieve the marketing goals you are looking for. And the usual place to start your thinking is on your existing website.

Assuming, of course, that your existing website is doing its job and generating the traffic, and the responses, that you are looking for…

First of all, branding. If you’ve been working with a professional designer you will already have a guide to the proper use of your logo, the exact colours required, and some notes on positioning and use of the various elements in the design.

If not, you can still see the ‘look and feel’ of your website, and that’s what you need to work with.

Try opening the site on a desktop computer, on a tablet, and on a mobile. (Or just try resizing your browser window, and see what happens). Is it still accessible and easy to use on all three? (If not, it’s time to have a word with your web designer!) Check the layout on each device – what’s different about it? Would the same or a similar layout work in your newsletter? If not, what would you want to change?

And – finally – could you get something like the layout you want using a free template from an email distribution service?

If so, excellent – go ahead and use the service (but it may still be well worth your while to run the checks we suggest in our next article – Design – is yours responsive?).

If not, then consider paying for a custom email newsletter template. It’s a one-off cost that could pay substantial benefits down the line – and could save you a huge amount of head-scratching, too.

Or, of course, you could try building your own template. But be warned, if you do you’re about to enter a programming minefield. Email browsers vary wildly in the way that they interpret even what you might consider the simplest of code, and what you see in your web design software is all too often not what your recipients see in their inbox.

There are many reasons for this, but the upshot is that emails are created using coding that largely went out of fashion ten or more years ago – basically because it’s the only form of coding that will (mostly) work with all the different browsers still in use. As a result it’s surrounded with caveats and restrictions that severely limit what it is (easily) possible to achieve. So all the more reason to leave it to an expert!

So what makes a good newsletter design?

A good design should deliver in six key areas:

  • It should be recognisable – good branding really helps here, and ensures that your contacts not only know it was you who sent the newsletter, but clearly recognise it from its branding and its format.
  • It should engage – a well-designed newsletter is easy to read, and immediately focuses the reader’s eye on its most important areas.
  • It should be legible – light grey type on a dark grey background has been (and may again be) trendy, but it’s almost impossible to read for anyone over the age of 40.
  • It should have an appropriate colour scheme – something of a study in itself, though obviously you should start with the colours of your existing branding.
  • It should have impact ‘above the fold’ – meaning that the bit people are likely see in their preview window should have enough of the right content to pique their interest.
  • Above all, it must be responsive – because otherwise there’s a very good chance all your efforts will go for nothing.

This is a big subject, so look out for more articles dealing with layout, images, fonts, colours and all the elements that go to make up a truly successful design.