10 Things to Be Thankful For in Email Design


Look, I know it’s easy to gripe being in email marketing and design. It’s not always the most enjoyable gig. Often times things don’t make any sense and it’s a total cluster. We constantly battle email clients in rendering, ESPs in deliverability, bosses and clients in understanding what or why we do what we do. We’re all on the island of misfits who were one way or another thrown into this trash fire of a profession. It’s fun to lament together.

But, in the spirit of gratitude during this time of year, I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on all of the things to be grateful for in email design.

10 things I am thankful for in email design (in no particular order):

Apple, Gmail, & Outlook dominate market share: Currently, these 3 behemoths own ~85% of the market share. We'll all have different email client usage levels for our individual subscriber audiences, but they will predominantly just be a different scale of Apple, Gmail, & Outlook. In a world where there are ~15,000 potential renderings of an email, we as marketers and designers can focus in on those 3 key environments. If the market share was more evenly distributed, it'd create even more headaches for us to design and develop for. Plus, this potentially helps in improving rendering across the industry as these 3 email clients could possibly set the standard for HTML and CSS support in email (even if it is not in an organized manner).

Email client rendering has never been better: Currently, WebKit rendering engine clients account for ~45% of the market share, media queries for responsive email have ~80% market share support, and embedded CSS has ~99% market share support. Just a few years ago, Gmail didn't support media queries or display: none; (that was hell!). Even Microsoft is starting to make rendering fixes and updates to its email clients. Sure, there are still the fair share of challenges and frustrations, but there has never been a better time to design and develop emails than now.

Email clients are consolidating: Most likely given the dominant market share of iOS Mail, Gmail, & Outlook, we are starting to see less-used email clients shut down. In the past year, AOL's Alto email app was retired and Inbox by Gmail was announced to be sunset. Smaller email apps like Newton folded and Astro closed after acquisition. Microsoft essentially killed off Windows Live Mail a couple years ago and they are focusing on shifting customers to an updatable app model with Windows Mail. Their hope is to move away from the current legacy model of Outlook (I know this as I've spoken directly with the Outlook team about this). We're seeing a lot of email client consolidation at the moment. The less, the better!

Email clients are coming to the table: The past several years, representatives from Gmail and Outlook have attended Litmus Live in person and interacted with the community. Microsoft has a partnership with Litmus to improve rendering. Even if change isn't happening overnight, there are finally individuals from these organizations participating in and listening to the discussion. Yes, these are the smallest of steps, but consider this progress. It's a promising start.

Render testing services are more robust than ever: When I started in HTML email in 2012, generating email screenshots used to take 10+ minutes for a single test. Now, it takes seconds. The progression has been amazing on my workflow (and general life happiness 🤣). The days of spending an entire day building and testing a single email are long gone. Testing is now at our fingertips and design possibilities are limitless thanks to this. There are others, but most use either Litmus or Email on Acid. I strongly prefer and believe Litmus is a vastly superior and more innovative product, especially for developers. What I love about Litmus is it's not just a testing service for me anymore, but my actual development environment with Litmus Builder where I build and test all of my emails in an automated fashion with CSS inlining, Partials, Tracking Manager, sending test emails, and more. I never thought I'd see the day where I'd drop a desktop app for a web app as a code editor, but the future is here. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of Litmus.)

Outlook conditional comments: Sure, the Microsoft Word rendering engine in Outlook 2007-2019 is the bane of all our existences. But, the great thing about the Word rendering engine is that it never changes and is completely predictable. We can target every (or any) single version of Outlook with conditional comments to create simple fallbacks and fixes, which is just what we need for the last client in existence that requires tables to render layouts. This is why Outlook will never be my least favorite email client.

Progressive enhancement is simple: The biggest "aha moment" in email design for me was when I made an HTML5 video background email which wow'd subscribers. This was when email started to be fun for me: when I figured out how to progressively enhance for WebKit-rendering email clients (notably Apple and iOS Mail) while maintaining solid fallbacks for clients like Outlook. You can target WebKit clients using @media screen and (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio: 0) { } or use supports query targeting such as @supports (display:grid). I've built a live Twitter feed, interactive ticket checkout, interactive product tour, CSS grid layout, and more thanks to these techniques. It's been an absolute game-changer and I honestly attribute those little lines of code to much of my career success.

Email inspiration is everywhere: There are now a ton of sites that post good email designs and campaigns or let you follow any brand, including EmailTuna, Newsletry, and the predominant (and best one IMO) Really Good Emails. Litmus Scope allows you to view the source markup of any email in your inbox (if you're using Gmail), which is so incredibly helpful to research how others pulled off a specific technique you may have liked as well as creating a developer-friendly shareable version of the email.

The #emailgeeks community: There's an actual community of email marketers and designers connected now. We have the #emailgeks hashtag on Twitter, #emailgeeks Slack with over 3000 members, and the Litmus Community as a free Q&A forum. Litmus Live has become the greatest gathering and party for #emailgeeks every year. When I started in HTML email in 2012, none of this existed. Back then, it was like scouring the dark web. I'd Google certain issues to often find nothing except wildly inaccurate StackOverflow posts. You didn't have anywhere to turn to. Now, we luckily have banded together as a community and have countless resources at your disposal.

There's still room for innovation: Most think we've already pushed the limits of HTML email as far as we possibly could have. I disagree. I think there's more to be discovered. We need to continue to dig and be email archaeologists. Just last year at Litmus Live 2017, Mark Robbins debuted a completely table-less layout technique that even worked in Outlook! My biggest takeaway? This was discovered in 2017, but could have been discovered 10 years earlier in 2007 since the Word rendering engine hasn't changed at all. What else are we missing? What other hacks are out there waiting for us to discover? What other campaign concepts and applications have we overlooked? Go forth and dig, #emailgeeks.

It doesn't always feel like it, but we've come a long way in email design. We're moving in the right direction.

Take a moment to appreciate that and the amazing #emailgeeks community we are all a part of.

What are you thankful for in email design?

Agree or disagree with what’s on my list? Let me know @KevinMandeville.

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