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By Suzanne Norman

RISMEDIA, April 22, 2008-(’ve put together the perfect offer for your customers. You’re ready to send it to an audience that’s smartly targeted. But even if your message arrives in all the right inboxes and says all the right things, your recipients might not bother to notice it if the design doesn’t grab their attention.

By devoting some serious attention to the look of your campaign, you’re showing off your brand, building loyalty with your readers and giving your e-mail a fighting chance amidst cluttered inboxes. Here are five tips to help you on your way to creating campaigns that are as stylish as they are effective.

1. Aim for a balance between your images and your text. It stands to reason that e-mails with images in them perform better than their graphics-less counterparts.

But how many images are too many? The general rule of thumb is to avoid sending one, big, honkin’ (it’s a technical term) image and strive for a healthy balance of graphics and text. Not only does that create a pleasant viewing experience, but it also avoids trouble in cases where an e-mail server doesn’t accept large files, the recipient’s e-mail program doesn’t immediately display your graphics, or your reader is on a slow Internet connection and, well, decides to run out for a sandwich before your image files can load. It is lunchtime, after all.

2. Make the most of your e-newsletter’s prime real estate. With more readers using preview panes in their e-mail programs, the top few inches of your newsletter are more important than ever. Keep in mind, when you’re designing your e-mail, that those four inches could be the only chance you have to catch a busy reader’s eye. Make sure your logo is there. Make sure you’ve introduced your e-mail’s topic or theme. And make sure you start the conversation early — that way, folks are more likely to feel inclined to read on. Is there an important link or action item in the body of your e-mail? Don’t bury the lead; instead, put it near the top in case a quick preview is all someone needs to inquire, purchase, sign up or learn more.

3. Design for three display possibilities. By now, most marketers are aware of the two primary ways an e-mail shows up in inboxes — as html or as plaintext. And most marketers know to fine-tune the latter just a bit, keeping in mind that without graphics or columns, a plaintext e-mail typically requires a bit of tweaking. But there’s a third display possibility to consider, and it’s the “Images Not Displaying” scenario. Some e-mail programs let recipients decide whether to view an e-mail’s images, which means many of those lovely html masterpieces you send at least start out minus the graphics. To design for that possibility, make sure your campaign still makes sense — and makes its point — even if the graphics are, ahem, out of the picture. Sure, the hope is that everyone views your art the way you intended it to be seen, but even if they don’t, your e-mail can still do its job.

4. Use design elements to build trust with your recipients. Inbox clutter is on the rise, which means your e-mail message has to compete for the attention of busy readers. Studies show that people are most likely to open an e-mail when they know the sender, so design your e-mail with an eye toward making a personal connection with your reader. Put your first-name “Dear Bob” personalization where it won’t be overlooked, but don’t stop at a personal greeting. Make sure the e-mail aims to make a connection with an individual recipient. Does it use a warm, personal tone? Are the images stylish and compelling? Rather than thinking of your campaign as an indiscriminate blast (ick) to a database of e-mail addresses (ugh), design your e-mail as a one-on-one conversation that just happens to reach lots of people at the same time.

5. Above all, experiment. The great thing about e-mail is that so much of what happens can be tracked. People tell you how interested they are in specific stories, products or other links, and they occasionally tell you they were so excited that they forwarded your e-mail to 10 friends. Use that tracking to learn what your audience likes — and doesn’t — and mix it up from time to time to see how small tweaks affect those response numbers. Try two different images; try flipping stories one and two in the body copy; try personalizing to half of your recipients and seeing how it compares to an un-personalized version. E-mail marketing is like your very own laboratory, just without all those pesky chemistry classes or unflattering lab coats.

Suzanne Norman is the director of community relations at Emma, a Nashville-based e-mail marketing service provider.