Two Schools of Thought About Email

In email marketing, less is more. Here are two minimalist approaches, each taking an opposite tack.

mdg’s Director of Web Strategy Ben McRae

Email once dominated the world of event marketing, but crowded inboxes and an increasingly savvy pool of recipients have led to diminishing engagement across many marketers’ email campaigns. With the rise of new digital marketing strategies and the complexities introduced by GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), is it still worth investing significant time and energy into promoting events via email?

According to Ben McRae, mdg’s director of web strategy, the answer is an emphatic yes — with an important caveat. “The No. 1 rule for successful email marketing,” McRae said, “is that less is more.” That’s not to say marketers shouldn’t be dedicating serious resources to email. But “to stand out in the era of short attention spans and hundreds of unread messages,” McRae said, you need to “make a point quickly, specifically, and without ambiguity.”

McRae lists five shorthand ways to leverage the less-is-more principle for email marketing: 1) shorter emails, 2) smaller lists, 3) fewer distinct calls to action, 4) fewer deployments, and 5) shorter subject lines. And one of the easiest and most effective ways to illustrate the power of less is more, he said, is to look at today’s two most popular trends in email design.

“A few years ago,” McRae said, “a series of in-depth studies were released by big companies like Google and HubSpot that rocked the world of email marketing.” Flying in the face of accepted wisdom about the importance of a strong visual brand and captivating design, study after study found that the most engaging marketing emails were those that contained zero images. “Seriously,” he said. “Zero. That means no headers, no logos, no headshots.”

It’s intuitive, in a way. In a world where we’re constantly inundated by marketing and advertisements, the personal feel of simple text can appeal to potential attendees and exhibitors in a way no splashy graphic ever could. Still, McRae understands the apprehension many marketers feel when he suggests they give simple text emails a try. “It’s a big mental shift, and there are always exceptions,” he said. “No one’s going to want to read a simple text newsletter, for instance, and if you’re launching a new event or rebranding an old one, it’s probably more important to develop familiarity with the show’s visual shorthand than it is to milk your emails for every last click.”

As such, McRae recommends giving the format a test run. “A/B testing is dramatically underutilized in email marketing,” he said. “It’s used to test subject lines, but its potential goes way beyond that. It’s a great way to try out radical new email formats without the anxiety associated with committing blindly. And speaking from experience, you’ll be surprised by the results.”

For example, one of McRae’s clients opted to try simple text emails targeting exhibitors for an education-focused conference and saw an increase in the click-to-open rate of more than 7 percent, outperforming the standard, fully designed deployments. Compromise solutions can yield significant results, too: Late in the campaign for its flagship event NPE2018, the Plastics Industry Association, with mdg’s help, embraced emails whose only design elements were a pair of event and association logos. They saw almost double the click rate as a result.

McRae makes an important distinction between simple text emails and plaintext emails. Plaintext emails refer to an alternative format served to users who’ve disabled HTML in their inbox. “Simple text emails still make use of HTML for things like links and text formatting,” McRae said. All emails should include a plaintext version, he said, because spam checkers and screen readers both leverage plaintext to serve their purpose.

Single-Image Emails
“The other design trend gaining huge traction right now is the exact opposite: emails that contain no editable text at all, outside of fine print in the footer,” McRae said. “The entire body of the email is a single image.”

With single-image emails, he cautioned, it’s vital to include meaningful alt text (the text a user sees if images don’t load automatically). “And be sure your image scales appropriately,” he added. “It should still be easy to read on a phone screen.”

The benefits to this approach are numerous. Most importantly, because the email contains only one unit of content, it can only accommodate a single link, which forces more targeted messaging and ensures recipients don’t experience choice paralysis or an unclear path to engagement. “Less is more, remember?” McRae said. The early-campaign single-image email mdg designed for the National Restaurant Association’s BAR17 show resulted in click-to-open rates of 31 percent — previously unheard-of for the event.

Additionally, single-image emails allow for more creative designs in the traditionally limited world of email coding. Things like diagonal content areas, overlapping boxes, non-webstandard fonts, and other complex elements normally represent a huge headache for the team that’s building emails, but with single-image emails, the possibilities are endless.

This highlights another benefit to both of these on-trend approaches: They reduce the time it takes to build and deploy individual emails. “Simple text and single-image emails both simplify workflow considerably,” McRae said. “This frees up time to do the strategic work vital to successful long-term campaigns: planning automated sends, segmenting lists, and developing content to target more specific audiences.”

Mobile Matters
Making sure your event marketing emails are easy to read on mobile devices is critical when you consider that it’s the way many people open their emails. According to emailmonday, mobile opens accounted for nearly half (46 percent) of all email opens, followed by webmail opens at 35 percent, and desktop opens at 18 percent (from a Litmus trends report published in June 2018).

In another study cited by emailmonday — this one conducted this year by Fluent — three quarters of consumers say they use their smartphones most often to check email.

The takeaway from reams of data cited in the emailmonday post? Mobile email will account for 22 to 77 percent of all email opens, depending on your target audience, product, and email type. For the full article, visit

For more tips on email marketing, read Zapier’s blog post “Experts Weigh In: 21 Email Marketing Mistakes to Avoid” at

Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes