Minimalism is in. Not just for home décor and fashion, but for web design and email design, too.

The trend goes beyond just looks. Minimalism makes for better conversion rates. Its simplicity focuses the user’s attention, thus making them more likely to act. Minimalism also has the edge with mobile devices. Small screens and distracted mobile users benefit from pared-down interfaces.

If you and your team have been pondering how to simplify your emails, or if you just want to reassess what you need – and don’t need – in your email newsletters, this post should help. I’ve scoured my inbox to find examples of 21 common elements of email newsletters, and then ranked them in order of importance.

1. Sender name

email sender nameWhen you hear the phone ring, what’s the most important thing you want to know about that call?

Who it’s from.

That’s why I put sender name as the #1 most essential element of any email message.

Maybe it’s why Apple decided to make the sender name the most prominent part of an email message from the inbox view. Or why Gmail decided to put the sender name furthest left in the rows of messages in your inbox, so you’ll read it first.

Does it seem radical to rank this ahead of almost everything else? Maybe it is. But if your email marketing isn’t permission-based, it isn’t email marketing. It’s spam. We’re supposed to give subscribers an easy way to opt-out in every single email. It’s the law. (It’s also good manners)

Gmail thinks the unsubscribe link is so important that they add an unsubscribe link at the very top of every email read in Gmail, whether the marketer already has an unsubscribe link in the email or not.

email unsubscribe link

3. Your company’s physical mailing address

Could this possibly be more important than the subject line? No way!

Yes, way. Having a physical mailing address included in every email message is required by US CAN-SPAM law, and by CASL, the Canadian law, too.

physical address

4. Subject line

Subject lines have a huge influence over whether someone opens an email or not. But that’s just their frontline duty. Subject lines can also frame the message inside the email in such a way as to make a powerful difference in clickthrough rates. They can even make a difference in the final conversion rates on your website.

That’s why subject line tests are the most common kinds of tests email marketers run. In fact, some marketers with large lists will test the subject line of every email they send.

email subject line

5. The call to action

You don’t send an email unless there’s a reason. Even a dumb reason. Even a “Hey I found a cute cat picture on the Internet!” kind of reason.

That reason is your call to action. It’s the core of your message, the one thing you want your reader to do.

A call to action can just be a blog post title, or a short “click here to read more” message. But that’s still a call to action.

call to action

And a call to action can also be a text link, or a button. It’s still a call to action.

call to action link

Many copywriters and conversion specialists recommend having only one call to action per email. This is the minimalism-for-focus principle I mentioned earlier. You want to focus readers’ fleeting, fractured attention into taking action. As the old-school admen knew: you never, ever want to confuse people. Confused people don’t take action.

Ugh. I hate putting this in at #6. Ahead of even preheader text and headlines! But legal made me do it.

email copyright

7. Preheader text

Preheader text has been getting more attention as mobile device use rises. That’s partially because preheader text takes up more space than the subject lines on mobile devices. Depending how short your subject line is, preheader text might take up lots of space in a desktop view, too.

Preheader text is important for the same reasons the subject line is important – it can help an email pass the first inbox cull. But it also serves to “pre-sell” the message of your email. Please, do more with this very valuable message space than just saying, “Click here to view as a webpage”.

preheader text

This is usually in the header …

web view link

… but you can find them in the footer, too:

view web version

Just in case something disastrous happens, it’s good to have a way for people to see the full, correct version of your email message.

9. Headers

Wow. We’re already at number nine, and I’ve only just gotten to something as critical as the headline?

Headlines are essential for obvious reasons. They may be the only line of copy your subscriber reads in your email. And if you had to kill your email’s body copy, a good headline should be able to take on the body copy’s work.

Here’s one email where that happens:

email headline

10. Social follow buttons

This is good insurance in case someone unsubscribes later. If a prospect is following you on social media, you’ve got an entire other channel to communicate with them.

11. Body

Finally we’re at what many people would consider the meat and potatoes of the email message. I’m lumping in images and body copy as the “body” of the email. This is basically where all that, um, content stuff would go.

Don’t forget that lots of people have images turned off by default, so your key message may not come through if it’s only in the hero image. I‘m pretty sure that the image we don’t see here is announcing a video (the call to action says “Watch Now”) but I have to keep reading to find out that it’s Guy Kawasaki. Perhaps his name should have been in the headline? (I only read that far to see if this would be a good example for this blog post.) Make sure your copy tells the same story your images do (and vice versa). And it’s a good idea to use alt text tags for all your images.

email body

12. Social sharing buttons

Now that you’ve got enough content to share, why not ask people to share it? Note that social share buttons are different than social follow buttons. Social sharing buttons will share your email on social platforms, making it easier for someone to share a photo or an article.

share this buttons

13. Forward this email

If you’ve got enough content in the email to share on social, why not share it via email, too?

forward email to a friend

And if you’re going to ask subscribers to forward these emails, let’s give the people who get the emails a way to sign up for your list.

Mobile Marketer Daily goes so far as to add an opt-in form and a forwarding form to their header:

signup forward

Most emails just add a link in the footer area:

subscribe link

15. Frequency controls

I see these far less often than I’d like. The #1 reason people unsubscribe is because they’re getting too many emails from a sender. So, give them a way to control how often they hear from you.

Having a link to “manage your preferences” is similar, but not quite as good. Specificity counts. Don’t make people have to wonder how to change something. They won’t wonder too long. They’ll just unsubscribe.

email frequency controls

You could argue that a logo is navigation in the sense of, “You only get one link for navigation. It’s your logo.”

Logos – and all images – should be linked to your website. It makes me crazy when I click on an image in an email and it goes nowhere. My browser just shows me a larger version of the image with a black background. I didn’t want to see the image bigger, guys. I wanted to go to the page the image is promoting/describing.

17. Greeting / Personalization

Personalization is optional, and some studies have found it can suppress engagement ( if you use it too much. But, as you know, there are also studies citing massive spikes in opens and clicks simply by adding a first name to the subject line.

In addition to the subject line, you can also personalize the greeting. And then, of course, you can personalize content too, creating the kind of “one to one” marketing that Don Peppers and Martha Rogers envisioned almost 20 years ago.

personalized greeting

18. Whitelisting request

Deliverability is always a concern. Nudge yours up a notch by asking subscribers to whitelist your emails. The ISPs notice this kind of thing, and it helps your sending reputation.


19. Navigation

Navigation can help click-through rates, or it can clutter up an email. It depends on the design. Usually it’s hard to get more than four items into a navigation bar and still have everything be easy to click on a mobile device. That’s why many marketers leave navigation out of their mobile emails.

If you want to use navigation, it can be in the header (and it usually is) …


… or it can be in the footer. Check out the navigation options Amazon includes in the footer of its emails:

navigation footer

20. “Why you’re getting this email” notice

Just in case people don’t remember signing up for your list.

why you signed up for this email

21. Postscript

Many email marketers have discovered that the postscript works just as well in pixels as it did on paper for direct mail advertisements.

post script

abcI made a lot of close calls in ranking the importance of these elements. Surely some of you will disagree with their order, and see different results in your own campaigns. To find where these items rank in your own personal list, read our ebook “The ABCs of A/B Testing” and let us know what your own results are!

Photo “I conquered Thebes” by Daniel Oines used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

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