Email @ 50: Retrospective + The Future of Email
Strategy + Design + Development

Email @ 50: Retrospective + The Future of Email


Nick Wunderlin
Nick Wunderlin

on 11/19/2021

Welcome to the final installment of our Email @ 50 series. For the last article, Email @ 50 contributors got together and discussed on Slack everything that they learned from writing this series and what they expect out of the future of email. Read through the transcript below!

Nick W, Digital Strategist: Based on your experience writing articles in this series, what did you learn about email with respect to your discipline?

Nick W: For me, it was a good opportunity to take a step back and see how far we've come with email marketing over the course of my career. When I got started in advertising/marketing in the early 2010's I feel like we were just scratching the surface of marketing emails—mainly improving design and layout and trying to determine the best practices for email on mobile.

I also remember a lot of conceptual ideas regarding automation, customization, and using data to better improve the user's experience that are now common practice. Things like abandon cart emails, auto-response emails to lead forms or reservations, or responsive design that looks good on all devices.

Nick S, Senior Developer: That MJML is by far the best tool at this point for fast email development that works across the board. Putting together a list of tools, it with Litmus provides the best experience right now if you are making emails by hand, after looking back at our old process of developing emails, it’s a night and day difference.

Morgan, Senior UX Designer: I was surprised to find that majority of emails in 2020 were opened on a phone as opposed to desktop... Makes design simplicity that much more important. Design has always been tricky for email specifically, but when you are working with so many different constraints and devices and platforms. There's so much that works on one and not on another that the most important thing in email design really is to reduce clutter or anything that isn't absolutely necessary to get the point across - Rule of thumb: Aim to create as clean a design as possible, and you will likely enhance the user experience. The fact that mobile email has taken over desktop just backs up the need to keep a single column layout, simple, large CTA's and headlines, legible fonts, high contrast etc.

Nick W: What remains your biggest hurdle when it comes to email marketing?

Morgan: Not having cut and dry standards to follow. Something may work for one browser or email client but then looks like complete shit and breaks on another. That and balancing client expectations vs. an achievable layout

Nick S: The email clients still don't have standards across the board (looks at Outlook). Even with those build tools, it can still be a major pain

Morgan: A lot of times, a client wants to see some super pretty, custom extension of their brand through an email newsletter (patterns, photography, overlapping elements, custom fonts, etc.), but you have to limit those expectations in an email if they want the thing to actually render for their audience

Nick W: For me, it would be a lack of emphasis on two things; 1. audience creation/management and 2. lack of a priority on content

First, too often email lists/audiences are sparse. Sometimes you're lucky to get more than just a single column .csv of email addresses. Other times the list is a mess and formatted incorrectly. Lastly, developing a good email audience takes time and effort. You need to first give them a good reason to subscribe. Sometimes it can be simple, like offering a discount for submitting your email address or to access additional content like white papers or case studies. But you also have to give your subscribers a reason to stay, which leads me to my second point.

Second, content is still king for email (and so many other digital tactics). If your email content is just recycled from elsewhere or you don't have something worthwhile to say, it will be ignored in your recipient’s inbox, or worse, they'll unsubscribe. A strong content strategy is key to keeping an audience engaged.

Nick W: I think it's interesting that both of you all referenced the discrepancy in how an email can render depending on the email client. It leads nicely into my next question...

Nick W: What do you think could help make email an even better platform for marketers? (I think I know what you all are going to say, lol)

Morgan: Vague - Being more flexible. Specific - Let me use more fonts!

Nick S: If we could move on from tables and the current lack of standards and limits

Also, if as an industry, we take a step back and make sure we don't bloat emails with too much media

Nick W: @nick "Also if as an industry we take a step back and make sure we don't bloat emails with too much media" this is a good point, especially considering how many emails are now opened on cellular networks rather than Wi-Fi

Morgan: It's truly frustrating having to pick between like 8 fonts if you want them to render correctly and not eff up the design for all of your audience

Nick W: Is that truly it @morgan? 8 fonts?!

Morgan: Well... 8 that are absolutely considered bulletproof

  1. Arial
  2. Courier New
  3. Georgia
  4. Lucida Sans Unicode
  5. Tahoma
  6. Times New Roman
  7. Trebuchet MS
  8. Verdana

Nick S: You have the web safe fonts, some clients don't support @font-face

Nick W: Interesting, I was unaware of how limited font options were for email!

Nick W: Are there any recent trends that you have seen that get you excited or make you curious about the future of email?

Nick S: People moving away from older versions of Outlook and moving more towards web clients, which tend to not have as worse issues or get updated more frequently

Nick W: @nick I think the further adoption Google Workspace will help with your point about older versions of Outlook. This article seems to agree with you too:

Morgan: No lol

Morgan: I have seen a lot more layering in emails recently. Not quite sure how it's being accomplished, but it does make me want to play around and find out what all is possible

Nick W: For a wannabe novice designer like myself, what do you mean by "layering in emails" @morgan?

Morgan: So not fully animated effects but I've seen a lot of overlaping animations with other, static images.

A quick example I found:

Nick S: Yea I've seen a lot of animated effects lately. At least alot of clothing (shoes) related emails

Morgan: YES! It's always shoes lol

Nick W: Interesting! I'll have to pay closer attention now that I know that's a thing lol

Morgan: But I'd love to dig into more animation in email to figure out what is possible and how without it breaking on half of browsers or platforms

Nick W: For me the trend that excited me most is the idea of real time marketing, but email doesn't feel like it's necessarily a real time platform. If you need to get a message out and a quick response, SMS marketing feels like the better route to go.

Nick W: Do you all believe email will become a bigger or smaller part of the marketing landscape in the future?

Nick S: I think it will become bigger, its like how podcasts and other mediums that were on a downswing and are now coming back up because of how simple they are (Compared to an app or something)

Nick W: That's a fair point @nick, or how the pandemic brought the QR code back into our lives in such a big way. Perhaps it should be looked at as being more cyclical in nature.

Nick W: Personally, I feel like it will likely shrink some but not much. As I noted, it’s not the most immediately actionable tactic compared to SMS or push notifications from apps, which will be better for smaller items like apparel or media. However, it is great for higher-priced goods and services that users need more lead time on, like say hiring an account or financial planner or purchasing a car or furniture.

Morgan: It will be bigger and creepier

Nick W: Creepier than the Meta-Verse @morgan?

Morgan: 100% personalized to you based on where you go and what you do, driven by AI. More of a result of your behaviors, history, preferences, and interests. Not just generic blasts of content to the masses

aka just about as creepy lol

It ain't going anywhere, I just think there will be less limitations and more customization

Nick W: Okay, my last question is a two-parter... What is your realistic prediction about the future of email marketing AND what is your bold predication for the future of email marketing?

Nick S: I think it'll be more of the same. From a dev perspective, we are still held back by legacy clients, and it’s a lot harder to cut those out than cutting out something like IE11. More usage, but more of the same.

Bold prediction is either Google or Apple introduces some feature breaking change which forces everyone forward, some sorta new medium for email that everyone jumps on.

Nick W: Realistic - hopefully fewer limitations on design/dev and a better perception of what recipients want/need from marketing emails. Less recycling content from elsewhere to re-purpose for email and more thoughtful consideration on when/how users view email content.

Bold - would be more dynamic emails that can change content even after they've been sent to reflect activities users might have completed or undertaken since it was initially sent. Something like an API that can connect to a CRM that ensures email content/promos/whatever is reflective of where that user is in the customer journey.

Nick S: Hosted emails, that would be nice - the actual email is just an iframe to content that lives on a website with the option of it being cached by the email server (so if its not dynamic and can live in history)

Morgan: Realistic - More customization options, fewer restrictions, more personalizations, and integrations.

Bold - Outlook and Internet Explorer become illegal to possess on all computer operating systems.

Nick W: Alright, we are out of time. Thank you guys for your skills, thoughtfulness, and writing as part of this series!

View All Entries in the Email @ 50 Series:

Intro: Email @ 50: A Brief History

Part I: Email @ 50: Email Marketing Still Works... Half a Century Later

Part II: Email @ 50: The Art of Email Design

Part III: Email @ 50: Email Development

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