4 Examples of Swipe Files in Action

A swipe file is a record of your top-performing subject lines, emails and landing pages that you return to for learnings and inspiration. Every brand should keep one.

To demonstrate how a swipe file can be used, I’m going to share examples from four brands that clearly keep good records and return to them to make improvements or to extend a concept.

Norm Thompson’s Christmas stocking emails. Back on Dec. 10, 2007, Norm Thompson sent a skinny email that uses the image of a Christmas stocking to entice you to scroll, which exposes you to various gift links along the way and culminates in a ginger bread man call-to-action. At the time, skinny emails were novel and really stood out since they were about half as wide as the average email in your inbox.

Over the next five years, Norm Thompson returned to the email creative each year, using the same overall design and tweaking the headline, gift links and call-to-actions. And, of course, over that time skinny emails became much more common as marketers have tried to make their emails more mobile-friendly.

Sony’s CES emails. This electronics-maker has been promoting their presence at the Consumer Electronics Show for many years now. Their 2008 CES email focused on providing show announcements via SMS and their blog. Their 2009 and 2010 emails were more focused on promoting particularly products, and then video and social media interaction became the focus after that. The strategy for the emails changed over time and the advent of new social platforms certainly played a big role in those decisions.

LinkedIn’s “Connections with New Jobs” emails. In January of 2011, LinkedIn sent their first email that updated you on how many of your connections changed jobs in the previous year. The email was really a breakthrough in personalization. Not only did they crunch the numbers on how many of your connections changed jobs, but the email was built from a selection of their profile pictures, each with alt text stating their name. Seriously impressive back then.

This year LinkedIn tweaked the delivery, using some larger pictures, calculating a percentage, adding a share-with-your-network call-to-action, and a call-to-action to update your own profile. This latest iteration goes beyond the informative nature of the 2011 email and focuses much more on driving action.

Banana Republic’s model cropping emails. While the Norm Thompson, Sony and LinkedIn examples were of a particular email being modified and improved over time, you can also use your swipe file to refine concepts. Banana Republic has done this with the concept of cropping model images. This technique creates a visual call-to-action to click through in order to see the full image, as people are naturally curious to see the entirety of something that’s partially concealed.

Banana Republic first started using this technique back in a Feb. 16, 2010 email. They’ve since explored variations on it in at least five other emails. While they’ve cropped models mostly on the right side of the email design, which I would expect to create the strongest click incentive, they’ve also experimented with a cropping on the left and top and bottom. With something like this, it’s hard to know for sure until you test it.

I hope this has inspired you to dive back into your past campaigns and look for winning emails and concepts that are worth remaking and further experimentation.

Norm Thompson's Stocking EmailsThe Evolution of Sony's CES EmailsLinkedIn's "Connections with New Jobs" Email Banana Republic's exploration of using cropped model shots

Minimalism Trend in Email Design

Minimalistic Product GridsMobile is driving big changes in email design and one of the niche developments is a trend toward minimalism. Emails contain fewer messages, and those that remain are getting simpler, shorter, and more image-driven.

In The Best of the Email Swipe File, we represent this trend with a Kickstarter email that consists of a logo, headline, three sentences, a call-to-action, and nothing else. This Tumblr email and this Meetup email are also great examples of this trend toward minimalism.

These emails are focused on piquing a subscriber’s interest to earn that click. They leave all the heavy lifting in terms of details, pricing, etc. to the landing page. In some cases, the landing page is extremely rich and detailed, as is the case with the Kickstarter example. So it’s not so much that email is being dumbed down as that content is shifting out of emails and more onto landing pages.

Emails as Window Shopping

This trend is also present in longer emails in the form of minimalistic product grids. In the past, these were often 4-column-wide grids that consisted of a product image and text that included product name, brand, price and other information.

But in the name of mobile-friendliness, now images sometimes stand alone without any supporting text. For instance,a May 23 Crate & Barrel email had a promotion for outdoor pillows that was supported by a 4-by-5 grid of pillows. And a June 4 Banana Republic email promoted a collection of Father’s Day gifts with a headline and some copy that was followed by a bunch of product shots from the collection with no names or prices.

At the same time, product grids have shrunk down to just two columns in many cases—and in a few cases just one column. For example, a June 11 Lululemon email used a 2-column grid with occasional subheadings. And a Mar. 4 Levi’s email uses a simple 1-by-2 grid that shows a model in full attire to support the primary message.

While not true in every case, a number of the product grids in these emails aren’t truly product grids at all because all of the images in the grid all link to the same landing page—whether it’s a product category, seasonal or brand collection, or a gift assortment. It’s worth testing these to see if a link to a collection is truly better than linking to individual products, since the latter puts the subscriber one click closer to buying the product.

Particularly if you’re a brand that’s not built on price, I urge you to give this new approach a try. Your subscribers—which are your most loyal customers—are already familiar with your price points, so why not keep the focus instead on what your products look like and other on brand imagery?

While there are a growing number of video in email options, each with their own limitations, the animated gif is still the predominant way to add motion into an email design. Since the eye is immediately drawn to motion, animated gifs are a wonderful tool that can be used to accomplish a variety of goals:

Apr. 3, 2013 Lego emailShow an assortment: Animated gifs can give you more screen real estate to show a wider selection of products, especially products in the same category or different colors or styles of the same product. They can also be used to show how different products coordinate, such as different blouses and skirt combinations. In this Bed Bath & Beyond email, they show off a variety of coordinating textiles for curtains, chair upholstery and pillow coverings.

Product comparison: Similarly, you can use an animated gif to highlight the differences in particular products. For instance, in this Ann Taylor email, the retailer illustrates the various lengths of shorts and crops that they sell in way that makes it easy to understand how long each is.

Product demonstration: Simple product demonstrations are also possible with animated gifs. For instance, Sony has used a gif to show how their Xperia PLAY smartphone slides open to reveal a gamepad controller. A spin on this product demonstration idea, this Home Depot email shows how you can makeover your backyard patio.

Video call-to-action: Animated gifs make great calls-to-action to click through to video content. Just bundle a few frames from the video into an animated gif and place it inside the image of a video player console. Lego used that tactic in an Apr. 3 email.

Whimsy: By far the biggest use of animated gifs is to inject a little fun, delight and surprise into an email design. This Havaianas Australia email (from The Best of the Email Swipe File) is a great example of this tactic, where they make clever use of the Cheshire Cat’s habit of (mostly) disappearing.

Feb. 18, 2013 West Elm emailThe Drawbacks

When using animated gifs, you should be aware of two drawbacks. First, Outlook (and a few little used email clients) block animated gifs from progressing to the second frame. Because of this, it’s important that you include any critical information on the first frame of your animation. In some cases it may make sense to start your gif with what would otherwise be the last frame.

And second, animated gifs that are large or contain lots of frames can slow the loading of an email, particularly on a smartphone. While big animations can be striking, don’t dismiss the power of small animations. For instance, in a Feb. 18 West Elm email, they use a gif to make Lincoln give a little wink, which is a great extra touch.

This TOMS Shoes email (also from The Best of the Email Swipe File) takes both of these drawbacks into consideration. The email, which uses responsive design to serve up a desktop-friendly and a smartphone-friendly version of the email, contains an animated gif that only appears in the narrow-screen version. That means they only needed a small version of the gif is necessary and the email takes advantage of the better support for animated gifs on mobile devices.

Keep those limitations in mind as you dream up your own uses for the very versatile animated gif.

Register for this webinarEmail design practices are being shaped by five major trends: (1) a growing requirement to be mobile-friendly, (2) increasing relevance through personalization, (3) greater sophistication for triggered messages, (4) a stronger editorial voice, and (5) a continued evolution of inspired fundamentals.

Join me and Andrea Smith, Design Lead of Content Marketing & Research, on July 11, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. (EDT) as we discuss these trends and how they guided our selection of the 20 emails in The Best of the Email Swipe File.

REGISTER NOW >>

The Trends Guiding Great Email Design

MediaPostWe recently released The Best of the Email Swipe File, which identifies five trends affecting email design and highlights 20 examples that best exemplify those trends.

The Mobile-Friendly trend addresses the shift from wide screens and mice to narrow screens and fat fingers, which includes mobile aware design, responsive design, text-heavy emails and the move toward hyper-minimalist emails like… Read my entire Email Insider column >>

Check Out the Curves on These Emails!

Variations on S-curvesEarlier this week I discussed 9 Ways to Get Subscribers to Scroll, one of which is to use S-curves. This design tactic takes advantage of saccades, the fact that the human eye jumps around as it scans things. So rather than designing things in a linear fashion, try arranging content in an S-curve, where an image on the left and text on the right is followed by an image on the right and text on the left, and so on.

The traditional S-curve is an alternation of text and images, which Zazzle demonstrated well in a Mar. 25 email. However, there are many creative variations of S-curves that are worth exploring.

For example, in a Mar. 25 email, Ann Taylor starts their S-curve in the primary content block and then extends it seamlessly down into the secondary content blocks. In an Apr. 24 email, Vera Bradley uses an S-curve where the product images are clipped by the left and right boundaries of the email.

Using two scrolling-friendly tactics, Ann Taylor combines a S-curve and a numbered list in a Mar. 31 email and smartly uses the subject line to prime subscribers to be ready to scroll to see the whole list: “5 Trends To Try | Style Alert: Exclusive Offer Tonight…” Staples also uses two scrolling-friendly tactics, combining an S-curve with lines to guide the reader’s eyes in a Mar. 4 email.

One of my favorite S-curves is in this Dec. 15, 2011 Sephora email, which uses collections of products to create a very literal S-curve.

But you don’t need a text component to create an S-curve. Images alone are enough. For instance, Restoration Hardware uses a cascade of product shots to create an S-curve in a June 11 email. And Vera Bradley creates an S-curve in a Mar. 1 email primarily by using alternating pairing of bags and sunglasses.

This is a tried-and-true design tactic that’s ripe for experimentation and creative re-interpretation. So give it a try.

9 Ways to Get Subscribers to Scroll

While there’s a trend toward shorter emails—even very short emails—don’t be fooled into thinking that subscribers won’t scroll. They will. Consistently delivering great email content is one way to get your subscribers to scroll, but there are also some design tactics you can use to encourage scrolling:

9 Ways to Get Subscribers to Scroll1. Ask them to scroll. J. Jill has used this tactic on many occasions, most often placing this request to the right of their logo so it appears above the fold. Beyond asking subscribers to scroll, J. Jill gives them a compelling reason—“to see today’s great offer”—in this Mar. 22 email.

2. Train them to scroll. Consistently placing valuable content near the bottom of your emails will train subscribers to scroll over time. General Mills’ Live Better America newsletter uses this tactic by always leading with recipes and other content but always punctuating the end of their content with a banner about coupons. They often call out the coupons in their subject lines to nudge new subscribers into scrolling and teaching them that’s where they position their deals.

3. Use a numbered list. People love countdowns, top 10 lists and other kinds of ordered lists. They’re effective because people naturally want to discover what’s next in the list, so once you get them started they tend to finish out the list, especially if it’s short. Make it clear that your email contains a list by mentioning it in the subject line or at least in the headline of your email. You can do a progressive list like in this Crate & Barrel email or a countdown like the one used by Uncommon Goods to promote their top 25 Mother’s Day gifts in a May 2 email.

4. Use a calendar. A twist on a numbered list, calendars—like the one used in a May 31 Ann Taylor email to promote releases and niche holidays in June—can provide a framework for touting products in a seasonally relevant way.

5. Direct them with arrows and lines. Your eye naturally looks where arrows are pointing and naturally follows lines. For instance, in a Mar. 19 email, Gap put their promotional language inside a big arrowhead that drew your eyes down through the creative to the call-to-action at the bottom. And this horizontal-scrolling JCPenney email uses a lot of right-sloping lines to visually cue readers to scroll to the right.

6. Use long images. People like to see the whole of something, so if only a portion of an image appears in the preview pane they are likely to scroll to see the entirety of it. Some of my favorite examples of this tactic in action include this Beach Park email, this Norm Thompson email and this Brooks Brother email.

7. Use downward motion. Animated gifs can provide movement that draws your readers’ eyes down through an email. This is a rarely used tactic but can work well.

8. Use a model’s gaze or hand positioning. People are naturally curious what other people are looking or pointing at. Victoria’s Secret used this tactic in a Mar. 26 email, making effective use of the preview pane.

9. Use S-curves. Positioning a series of text blocks and images on alternating sides of an email has proven to draw the eye down through the series. This tactic is so rich with variants that I’ve written a column dedicated just to it: Check Out the Curves on These Emails!

If you’ve read this far, I’ll assume it’s because of my consistently great content rather than my use of a numbered list, although I’m sure the latter didn’t hurt.

The 1, 2, 3 of Defensive Design

Despite Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail recently moving to enable images by default, there are still many email clients that block images by default. Upwards of one-third of your emails are likely opened with images disabled. That makes “defensive design” techniques like HTML text and alt text a must.

I have a three-pronged philosophy when it comes to defensive design:

May 22, 2013 Urban Outfitters email1. Basic, low-effort defensive design should be status quo. That means baking a fair amount of HTML text and alt text into your email template, using preheader text, using HTML text and alt text in your primary and secondary messaging.

This Orbitz email is a great example of using HTML text and this B&H email uses a strong mix of HTML text and alt text. The B&H example is particularly telling since on the day that I took that screenshot, they were having image server problems or something so that none of the images loaded despite them being whitelisted. A similar issue affected a recent Urban Outfitters email, such that only some of the images loaded. It revealed that they don’t use any HTML text outside of their preheader and footer and that the alt text for their primary message block was “graphic1,” which is placeholder text they’ve used in the past.

2. More attention to defensive design is warranted for transactional emails, welcome emails, win-back emails, and re-permission emails. Since these are emails that are more likely to be viewed with images blocked, more HTML text in particular should be used.

3. Consider periodically designing more heavily for blocked images. Just like you spend more time on the image-on appearance of some emails, it’s worth spending more time on defensive design on occasion as well. More advanced techniques like using background colors for images or creating mosaics by color blocking table cells come into play here.

This Bendon Lingerie email is a great example of a simple and powerful mosaic paired with succinct alt text. And this Mothercare email uses a mosaic, background colors on images, and extensive styled alt text to create an images-off experience that rivals the images-on experience.

Future Prediction:
Considering that spam is well under control and that mobile bandwidth is becoming more plentiful, I predict that image blocking will gradually go away in the years ahead. By 2018, I think defensive design will be unnecessary. But while we wait for the future to get here, these techniques will continue to be effective and well worth marketers’ time.

JCPenney’s Mobile Aware Email Makeover

While responsive design is getting all the buzz, there are many gradations of email design between the old desktop-centric designs and full-fledged responsive designs. For marketers with smaller budgets or ones looking to take gradual steps toward being mobile-friendly, there are options.

Many brands have taken the first step and adopted what I call a quasi-mobile aware email design, which uses a single-column design with larger images, larger fonts, and larger buttons for the primary and secondary content blocks, but keeps the desktop-centric header, navigation bar, administrative links and footer. Over the past year or so, JCPenney has used both desktop-centric and quasi-mobile aware designs. But last month they took the next step up the ladder to a wholehearted mobile aware email design.

As you can see in the graphic below, the shift to fully mobile aware entailed…

  1. Narrowing the width of their emails to 665 pixels from 710
  2. Making their logo 4-times larger
  3. Reducing their number of navigation bar links to 10 from 12, making the remaining ones larger, and using a two-row nav bar
  4. Increasing the size of their content blocks, their fonts, and call-to-actions—with the main CTA for each content block now being a button
  5. Making their gift services footer for Father’s Day much larger than the one used to promote Mother’s Day
  6. Drastically increasing the size of their social media links, as well as their “store locator” and “customer service” links

All of those changes make for emails that are roughly twice as long as before, but way more mobile-friendly, especially on smartphones.

This is a smart transition to being mobile-aware. What’s also smart is how they haven’t stopped experimenting and tweaking their design. A May 29 email used both a different navigation bar design and gift services footer. The mobile behavior of consumers continues to evolve, so ongoing testing is critical.

JCPenney Emails Become Mobile Aware

The Last Word on May 2013

The Last WordA roundup of articles, posts, tweets and emails you might have missed last month…

Must-read articles, posts & whitepapers

A False Dichotomy (ClickZ)

Most Effective Emails Are Personal (MediaPost)

Make Your Memorial Day Email Messages Memorable (E-Dialog)

Emails We Love: Hyatt Reservation Reminder (Movable Ink)

Four Types of Email Content that Your Customers Want Now (ExactTarget)

Social Commerce Revenue By Industry (GetElastic)

Google Makes Email More Interactive With Customizable Gmail Action Buttons (Techcrunch)

A new inbox that puts you back in control (Official Gmail Blog)

Insightful & entertaining tweets

@vantran_78: Obama email marketing had 166 segments and 84 of them were tests! #MKTG13 Testing is powerful. #truth

@maxymiser: Dell saw a 203% increase in student sales with free xBox-with-purchase promotion targeted to .edu domains. #TLE2013

@rblum: No welcome email < welcome email < generic onboarding stream < targeted behavior-based emails @LorenMcDonald #spop13 #emailmarketing

@ConstantContact: There’s no such thing as a good email list that’s for sale. << We couldn’t agree more, RT if you’re with us.

@GraceofWrath: Did you know you can watch the #insideamy trailer and read @amyschumer‘s tweets IN THE EMAIL? @movableink is magic. http://t.co/eDody83p7A

@ETscreens: Remember to use responsive templates if you want your emails to look awesome on me.

@DenZhadanov: Samsung Android Screen Sizes: 2.8 3.14 3.2 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.65 3.7 3.97 4 4.2 4.27 4.3 4.5 4.52 4.65 4.8 5 5.3 5.5 5.8 6.3 7 7.7 8 10 10.1

@shannonholato: I like big buttons & I cannot lie #SPOP13 #email #design

@andrewkordek: “Automated messages” = Set and optimize…plus you need to spot test your automated messages every 4-5 months. #mpeis

@jesshastings: “Customers know we have a lot of data about them and expect us to use it.” -Jamie Nordstrom #MKTG13

@iamelliot: LinkedIn just emailed me to tell me that I left a new comment on a discussion. Cretins.

Great additions to the Email Swipe File pinboard

Toms email sent on 4/12/13 >> View the pin

Mothercare email sent on 9/10/12 >> View the pin

Pandora email sent on 4/12/13 >> View the pin

Ann Taylor email sent on 5/6/13 >> View the pin

Noteworthy subject lines

ASPCA, 5/23 — OK Tornado: What You Can Do‏
The Container Store, 5/17 — Go where laundry has NEVER gone before‏ [plays off release of the latest Star Trek movie]
Tiffany & Co., 5/2 — The Jewels of The Great Gatsby‏
The North Face, 5/22 — Help preserve our planet by recycling apparel at our stores‏
Subway, 5/29 — Take a look! This meal is certified by the American Heart Association.
Walmart, 5/13 — Special Buys? ✓ Clearance? ✓ More cash in your wallet? ✓
ModCloth, 5/29 — Your 10 most-pinned items are on sale!
Sony, 5/1 — #XperiaTablet, the World’s Thinnest | Just Unveiled‏
Nikon Store, 5/31 — Get Inspired with Nikon World Magazine‏
Wayfair, 5/13 — Bar-raising pub seating, style your coffee table, accent furniture, rugs, and garden gear‏
Karmaloop, 5/6 — The Sale You’d Like To…
Threadless, 5/2 — The sorting hat knows which of these back in stock tees you belong in.
ModCloth, 5/26 — Your styling questions answered by our ModStylists®!
Neiman Marcus, 5/26 — Pre-Fall Trend: Violet Hues‏
Wayfair, 5/27 — Shop made-in-the-USA furniture to celebrate Memorial Day‏
Sears, 5/27 — Today, we raise the flag and drop our prices, way low!
Urban Outfitters, 5/26 — Salute the flag, dudes!
Lululemon, 5/11 — no mama drama – send an egift card
Dunkin Donuts, 5/2 — The best Mother’s Day carDD ever‏
Staples, 5/6 — Great gifts for Moms & grads!
HP, 5/5 — Celebrate your grad with these campus pre-reqs‏
TigerDirect, 5/3 — Top Cinco PCs, HDs, TVs & More‏
Lego, 5/1 — May the 4th be with you!

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