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A few recommendations:
- Use a one-column design with a width no larger than 600px. This will scale the best and effectively make your email responsive. There's responsive code out there, but not enough email clients support media queries, so it's really hit or miss.
- Analyze your audience -- do you use enhanced email reporting (like Litmus or Email on Acid)? They will give you a good idea of what kind of email client your recipients are using. Likewise, these services let you preview your email in almost every client you can think of. You can't make it perfect in all of them, but you can make sure it does in your audience's favorite clients, and you can make sure it degrades nicely in the others.
- Assume your audience won't see your images -- while Gmail now automatically loads images, other clients still do not. So you want to make sure that your email works just as well if the reader can't see the images.
- Have a solid unsubscribe/profile center strategy and method for churning out bouncers -- if people don't want to receive your emails, don't keep forcing it down their throats, instead make it easy for them to unsubscribe or change what they're receiving. The alternative is they spam report you and it hurts your sender score. Likewise, make sure you're sending your emails to people who exist (and not bouncing addresses).
- Make your email click-friendly. Use buttons (HTML preferably) and think about whether or not it would be easy to click on a mobile device.
- Get the most important stuff up to -- most people won't browse your entire newsletter, so get the most important stuff to the top and don't eat up all that space with a giant banner or something. One thing I like to do with newsletters (and a good thing to test), is using a table of contents. I usually do a bulleted list of headlines of the content that follows below, but they're all linked to their respective landing pages. It allows a quick way to get all the content up high and not rely on scrolling.
- MOST IMPORTANT -- make your content as relevant to the person as possible. Marketo lets you segment a whole bunch, so use that to your advantage. The newsletters I send out are all segmented based on information we've gathered. Even if it's just rearranging the content so what applies to them most is up higher, it will help.
Thank you for your input as I appreciate all technical insight when it comes to deliverability for custom html templates.
Could you elaborate on bullets #2 (Email Clients) & #3 (Regarding Images). Are there any tips here?
Regarding email clients... Marketo's out-of-the-box email reporting gives you a high-level overview of your email's performance, but doesn't really dig any deeper. If you use an additional service (I use Litmus, but there's others out there, most with free trials), you can gain considerable insight into your audience. For example, I sent out a webinar invite that had ~4,500 opens and with Litmus I'm able to find out that of those opens, about 30% were using Outlook (and it will break it down further to which version of Outlook), 25% Gmail, 18% iPhone, etc. This information is very helpful when designing, because each client has its own quirks for how it renders HTML, so I recommend prioritizing them, while still making sure your emails will render OK in all of them.
For images, most email clients by default do not load images immediately, unless they're in your address book. So this means that if you lay out a beautiful image-filled email and I open it in Outlook, I won't see anything until I click the warning saying images weren't loaded, and choose to load them. This also affects your open rate, which is why that number is pretty misleading and you should focus more on clicks instead (opens are only recorded when images are loaded, or a click is registered).
I also should have mentioned that when it comes to deliverability, it's very important to avoid spammy practices. There's a lot of debate on what constitutes spam, but a tool like Litmus or Email on Acid can help with that too (it will run your email through spam filters and let you know if it thinks it will fail or not). Generally you need a good balance of text-to-image, avoid things like $ dollar signs, ! exclamation points, % percent symbols, the word FREE, using lots of caps, etc. You can get away with a few, but I prefer to reduce my risk.
Thanks again for the feedback on points #2 & #3. If you have any more design tips which help with deliverability similar to bullet #1, feel free to share.