Top Email Design Trends for 2018

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This year you can expect to see more interactive and personalized emails in your inbox. Those two email design trends stood head and shoulders above all others, according to a Litmus poll of nearly 600 marketers.

The next tier of email design trends included creating smaller, more bite-sized email content and using storytelling more effectively, whether within a single email or across a series of emails. The six other email design trends that we asked marketers about received a bit less enthusiasm, although they’re still likely to be important this year.

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To bring some perspective to these email design trends, we reached out to our friends at Emma, Trendline Interactive, Yes Lifecycle Marketing, and Shaw + Scott. Let’s discuss each of these 10 email design trends in more detail:

1. Creating interactive email experiences

Email interactivity has been a hot topic of conversation for a couple of years now. In fact, email marketers declared 2017 the year of interactive email.

Interactive emails allow subscribers to interact with an email directly in their inbox with functionality like:

  • Hovering over an image to reveal another image or product details
  • Clicking a hamburger menu to see a dropdown menu
  • Clicking an image or arrow to advance content in an email carousel
  • Selecting an answer to an interactive quiz that reveals in the email if you were correct or not
  • Adding items to a shopping cart within the email, and then clicking through to checkout

It’s exciting to see this email design trend at the top of email marketers’ lists again this year. There’s lots of potential to make the email experience more efficient and more delightful. Large brands have been leading the way on interactive emails, but 2018 may be the year that interactive emails are embraced by smaller brands.

If you’re looking to convince your boss to green light some interactive email experiments, read up on our guide for How to Get Buy-In for Interactive Email. More resources include these 6 Tips for Getting Started With Interactive Hover Effects, and a full look at Interactive Email’s Opportunities and Challenges.

2. Focusing more on personalization and subscriber lifetime value

Creating relevance is a key goal for all email marketers, and personalization is one of the major levers to pull to create relevance and increase the lifetime value of the average subscriber. Especially in the age of Big Data and machine learning, brands have many opportunities to use dynamic content to pipe individually personalized product, content, and other recommendations into their emails.

The question isn’t whether to personalize emails, but rather how to efficiently do it at scale, says Logan Sandrock Baird, Design Services Lead at Emma.

“Email is the most relational marketing channel,” he says, “so the ever-present challenge is: How do we intelligently use the data we have about our subscribers when creating emails to craft a personal experience and establish trust, while still automating as much of the sending as we are able in order to scale effectively?”

This focus on personalization comes at the same time that brands are transitioning from campaign-centric to customer-centric metrics, says Lynn Baus, VP of Digital Experience at Shaw + Scott.

“In 2018, brands will be placing a high value on the long-term customer relationship,” she says. “They’ll focus on personalized messages and cadences, shifting from campaign-by-campaign analytics to customer lifetime value as a key performance indicator, which will ensure that email smoothly integrates into the full customer journey across all channels.”

A word of caution: As personalization capabilities are increasingly available to marketers, we must be careful not to overdo it, says Alex Williams, VP, Creative Director, Trendline Interactive.

“From a messaging standpoint, we need to do a better job of balancing personalization and discovery,” he says. “You need a balanced strategy on the past and the future.”

3. Using shorter, more bite-sized email content

Even though email attention spans have risen over the years, the trend has very clearly been in the favor of shorter-form content. Don’t get us wrong: Long-form email content can work. But, ever since the beginning of this decade, the growing influence of mobile has led to email marketers consistently reducing the amount of content they include in their messages.

Here are Litmus, we’re ruthlessly asking every content block, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word to justify its place in our emails. And it’s clear that most of you are doing the same thing.

“You only have 3-5 seconds to connect in email,” says Katya Hoogerhuis, Associate Creative Director at Shaw + Scott. “You need to grab their attention and get them prepped and excited for the next stage in their journey.”

Matthew Caldwell, SVP of Worldwide Creative at Yes Lifecycle Marketing, sees this as an area where email marketers can learn from our peers over in social media.

“In 2018, marketers should be looking to treat email like social,” he says, “and bring in more bite-sized, entertaining, sticky content.”

4. Building stronger narratives and storytelling

Perhaps counterbalancing the “bite-sized” trend is one in favor of better storytelling.

Don’t just tell me about a product feature—put it within the context of a role or job to be done. Don’t just tell me about a blouse—put it within the context of a few outfits, showing me how it dresses up and dresses down. Don’t just tell me about conference sessions—put them within the context of major trends or competitive pressures.

This storytelling can happen within a single email, across a sequence of themed emails, or across a triggered series of emails.

“Storytelling is under-appreciated,” says DeeDee Flagg, Director Digital Development at Shaw + Scott. “You need to take a customer on a journey, whether it’s through an onboarding, a new product induction, or simply presenting their own data back to them in an interesting and insightful way.”

5. Adding progressive enhancements to create richer experiences where supported

A “pixel-perfect” email is no longer the goal, if it ever was. That approach required marketers to play down to the lowest-common denominator in terms of email coding support. That’s definitely not the road to engaging email experiences.

Instead, the goal now is to create “platform-perfect” emails that play up to the capability of the most popular email clients. That means leaning into the functionality supported by WebKit-powered email clients, for instance, and providing graceful fallbacks for subscribers on other platforms.

“Whether your users are viewing email on an iPhone, a high-end desktop system, a Kindle, or hearing them on a screen-reader, their experience should be as fully featured and functional as possible,” says Katya Hoogerhuis, Associate Creative Director at Shaw + Scott.

6. Utilizing language that’s more human

Blame millennials: Robo-corporate-speak is out. More casual language that reflects how people actually talk to each other is in. So is using influencers, experts, executives, customers, and other agents to do the talking, rather than having messages come from faceless, disembodied entities hiding in the ether.

“One of the most under-utilized messaging tactics is speaking like a human,” says Caldwell. “In that same vein, another under-used tactic is thanking people.”

7. Scaling email build systems through templates, modules, snippets, partials, etc.

Email workflows are growing up. They need to scale flexibly, provide clear guidance, allow for easy updates, and embrace personalization. We see lots of evidence of this in our 2017 State of Email Workflows research report.

This year it’s time to take all that to the next level, says Baus.

“In 2018, marketers should be looking to adopt a systematic mindset,” she says. “That means moving away from thinking of an email creation process as a set of templates, a style guide, and a creative brief and toward investing in sustainable design systems that include modular templates that are built on the principles of atomic design and supported by pattern libraries that help to keep style and usability consistent and optimal. Brands need to invest more in ‘source of truth’ hubs that include living style guides, pattern libraries, audience data, and messaging details.”

These are the kinds of advancements that Morgan Stewart, Tim Watson, and other experts predicted were on the horizon in our Email Marketing in 2020 report. Looks like the front edge of that is arriving in 2018!

2017 State of Email Workflows

2017 State of Email Workflows

In this report, we take a detailed look at how brands plan, build, approve, and send their email marketing campaigns.

Download the free report →


8. Increasing message variety to keep subscriber interest

It’s easy to fall in a rut and use the same messaging tactics over and over. The repetitiveness of your messaging can be compounded if you’re among the brands that has embraced re-marketing of messages to non-responders. Plus, in B2B industries, with the pressures around maximizing your return on content, you might find yourself promoting essentially the same content multiple times.

All of that can lead to your messaging being repetitive and predictable—which is to say, not fresh and exciting.

“My biggest fear if I was running an email program is that the subscriber thought they already knew what was inside the email before they opened it up,” says Williams. “You have to have a plan to mix things up. You are not competing against everything in the inbox—you’re competing against your last email.”

One way to help with this is to maintain a year-round email content calendar, which only 49.9% of brands do, according to the 2017 State of Email Workflows report.

9. Improving email accessibility for people with disabilities (blind, color blind, etc.)

Email accessibility means making sure that everyone can receive and understand your message, regardless of any disabilities or assistive devices they may be using. Those disabilities include visual, physical, or cognitive and neurological ones.

“We don’t talk about email accessibility enough,” says Hoogerhuis. “It’s going to be a hot topic for the web in 2018, and that conversation should extend into email as it’s such a critical part of a communication stream.”

Email accessibility measures include using high color contrasts for the color blind, avoiding flashing animation that can cause photo-sensitive seizures, having enough HTML text for screen readers used by the blind, and including such text in semantic elements. For a full examination, check out our Ultimate Guide to Accessible Emails.

10. Sending more text-only emails

Image-based HTML emails dominate the promotional email landscape because they’re generally much more effective than text-only emails. However, that doesn’t mean they’re better in every instance.

Sometimes a plain text format gives an email more urgency or authenticity. Plus, the production costs are a fraction that of an HTML email. Some brands are finding smart ways of leveraging plain text emails, says Baird.

“Last year there were a number of articles about and arguments for using plain text-only emails versus more image-heavy traditional marketing emails,” he says. “But rather than going either/or, some brands like online custom-tailored suit retailer Indochino, use a mix of the two very effectively. They send image-rich emails with specials featuring their suits, then more personal (and personalized) text-only emails to let you know when specials have been extended or the like. Mixing those two approaches helps establish a familiar brand tone with the image-rich emails, while the text-only ones help build a sense of personal relationship.”

Which of these email design trends will impact your email program the most?

Now that you’ve read about all 10 email design trends, which do you think will play the biggest roles in shaping the email creative strategy at your brand? Did we miss a major trend? Let us know in the Litmus Community.

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