This month in MediaPost I wrote a column about redesign. Appropriate, of course, given all the changes around here this week. In fact, the topic wasn’t coincidental. Everyone here has spent a lot of time getting to know the new interface and features (love the new Reports module), and we devoted a lot of time leading up to the launch discussing how our customers would respond to it. Ultimately we concluded that change is good, and pushed onward with the redesign.  At the same time, it occurred to me that as email marketers, we face the same dilemma when considering whether or not to update the look and feel of our emails. How will our subscribers respond to the change? Will the new features wow them, make them dizzy, go unnoticed? How does our current design reflect our brand? How should it? The article addresses these questions, though doesn’t ultimately answer them. Design is important. And your design, in particular, is too important to leave to someone who doesn’t know your business as well as you do.

Redesigning Your Email’s Cockpit
by Mike May
published on 5.5.10 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

At Real Magnet, we just flipped the switch on a redesign of our application. Like any website relaunch, it feels as if you’ve just bought a new car. You step in and the vital controls are still where you expect them to be: steering wheel, brake and gas pedals, mirrors benefit from some design improvements, yet otherwise function exactly as before. But there are new gadgets and features everywhere: in-dash navigation, Bluetooth integration for a phone, more electronic indicators on the dashboard providing feedback on fuel efficiency or outside temperature, and twice as many cup holders. There are also enough cosmetic differences to create an entirely different impression from the last car. Who would have guessed that changing the dashboard illumination from eerily glowing red to eerily glowing purple could have such a profound impact on the user experience?

For many businesses, email is their cockpit. It is through email that their customers experience much of the company’s brand, and how they navigate through and into the company’s offerings. Like a car, it’s comforting to step in and find everything exactly the way you like it. But also like a car, it’s exhilarating to upgrade to this year’s model, with modern looks, features and smells. When you’re considering an email redesign, how do you strike a balance between consistency and innovation? How do you find the middle ground between boring and inscrutable?

I don’t know the answer. Maybe I’m supposed to for these articles. I suppose I could follow the pundit’s formula and mix together a hypothesis, an anecdote and a wild guess, into something I’d call a best practice. I could convince some of you that this was the answer, and probably a few more that I at least believed this was the right answer.

But the truth is that design is just too important to fake, and too individual to each company to provide generalized advice. Design’s resistance to convention and best practices makes it especially difficult to master. We pour hours of resources into tracking and analyzing the way our emails perform, but precious little into the way they feel. Often our objective is to get people through the email as quickly as possible, instead of taking full advantage of our brief ownership of the inbox. Why do we work so hard to drive people to our websites to experience our brand, when they’re experiencing it already in the comfort of their own preview pane?

But email — you may argue — isn’t about feel; it’s about immediate results, measurable ROI and accurate attribution, right? Isn’t the effectiveness of email design visible in the performance data? It is an easy argument to agree with, in part because doing so relieves us of the burden of allocating to design the discrete resources it deserves. Agreeing that design is contained within performance data is logical, yet vaguely unsatisfying. Design is powerful in an emotional, intangible, perhaps inexplicable way. Looking for it in click-through rates is akin to deconstructing the Sistine Chapel with a brushstroke analysis.

If you believe I may be onto something here, you’re certainly in the minority. I expect I lost most of you at the word “feel.” Better for you though; if competitive advantage can be achieved through design, the fewer of your competitors who get it, the better. For the few of you still reading, here is my complete catalog of recommendations for redesigning your email, the cockpit of your brand:

1. Put more resources into design. Even if it is not a ROI windfall, better design certainly can’t hurt. Besides, you’ve probably already tried to optimize every other aspect of your email program, with varying degrees of success.

That’s it: my entire list. Anything else would presume I know something about your brand, what it stands for, how it’s positioned, and what role email plays in how your customers perceive it.  All of that is for you to figure out. When you do, will you have the design to show it?