Digital Marketing

Less Is More, Even in Email Marketing

Email once dominated the world of event marketing, but crowded inboxes and an increasingly savvy pool of recipients have led many marketers to see diminishing engagement across their email campaigns. With the rise of new digital marketing strategies and the complexities introduced by the General Data Protection Regulation (the infamous GDPR), is it still worth investing significant time and energy into promoting events via email?

According to Ben McRae, mdg’s Director of Web Strategy, the answer is an emphatic “Yes” with an important caveat. “The number one rule for successful email marketing,” McRae says, “is that less is more.” That’s not to say marketers shouldn’t be dedicating serious resources to email. But “to stand out in the era of short attention spans and hundreds of unread messages, one needs to make a point quickly, specifically, and without ambiguity.”

There are five ways to leverage the less-is-more principle for email marketing—shorter emails, smaller lists, fewer distinct calls to action, fewer deployments and shorter subject lines—but McRae says that “one of the easiest and most effective ways to illustrate the power of less-is-more is to look at the two most popular trends in email design.”

Simple text emails

“A few years ago,” McRae says, “a series of in-depth studies were released by big companies like Google and Hubspot that rocked the world of email marketing.” Flying in the face of accepted wisdom about the importance of a strong visual brand and captivating design, study after study found that the most engaging marketing emails were those that contained zero images.

“Seriously. Zero. That means no headers, no logos, no headshots.”

It’s intuitive, in a way. In a world where we’re constantly inundated by marketing and advertisements, the personal feel of simple text can appeal to potential attendees and exhibitors in a way no splashy graphic ever could. Still, McRae understands the apprehension many marketers feel when he suggests they give simple text emails a try. “It’s a big mental shift, and there are always exceptions—no one’s going to want to read a simple text newsletter, for instance, and if you’re launching a new event or rebranding an old one, it’s probably more important to develop familiarity with the show’s visual shorthand than it is to milk your emails for every last click.”

As such, McRae recommends giving the format a test run. “A/B testing is dramatically underutilized in email marketing. It’s used to test subject lines, but its potential goes way beyond that. It’s a great way to try out radical new email formats without the anxiety associated with committing blindly. And speaking from experience, you’ll be surprised by the results.”

For example, one of McRae’s clients opted to try simple text emails targeting exhibitors for an education-focused conference and saw an increase in click-to-open rate of over 7 percent, outperforming the standard, fully designed deployments. Compromise solutions can yield significant results, too: Late in the campaign for its flagship event NPE2018, the Plastics Industry Association took mdg‘s recommendations to embrace emails whose only design elements were a pair of event and association logos. They saw almost double the click rate as a result.

McRae offers an important clarification: “When we talk about simple text emails, we’re not talking about plaintext emails.” Plaintext emails refer to an alternative format served to users who’ve disabled HTML in their inbox. “Simple text emails still make use of HTML for things like links and text formatting.” McRae says that all emails should include a plain text version—less because anyone will see it and more because spam checkers and screen readers both leverage plaintext to serve their purpose.

Single-image emails

“The other design trend gaining huge traction right now is the exact opposite: emails that contain no editable text at all, outside of fine print in the footer,” McRae says. “The entire body of the email is a single image.”

“With single-image emails it’s vital to include meaningful alt text (the text a user sees if images don’t load automatically),” he cautions. “And be sure your image scales appropriately; it should still be easy to read on a phone screen.”

Still, he outlines numerous benefits to this approach. Most importantly, because the email contains only one unit of content, it can only accommodate a single link—which forces more targeted messaging and ensures recipients don’t experience choice paralysis or an unclear path to engagement. “Less is more, remember?” McRae reminds. This can be seen in the emails mdg designed for the National Restaurant Association’s BAR17 show, whose early-campaign single-image deployments saw previously unheard-of 31 percent click-to-open rates.

Additionally, single-image emails allow for more creative designs in the traditionally limited world of email coding. Things like diagonal content areas, overlapping boxes, non-web-standard fonts and other complex elements normally represent a huge headache for the team building emails, but with single-image emails, the possibilities are endless.

This highlights another benefit to both of these trendy approaches—they reduce the time it takes to build and deploy individual emails. “Simple text and single-image emails both simplify workflow considerably,” McRae says. “This frees up time to do the strategic work vital to successful long-term campaigns: planning automated sends, segmenting lists and developing content to target more specific audiences.”

A version of this content originally appeared in PCMA Convene September 2018