When you need to design an email campaign, what’s your first step?

Answering that question will be a little different for every designer or company, and it depends on the size of your team, your resources, and what you’re looking to accomplish. An organization with an in-house team of designers (a marketing department of one size or another) most likely already knows well ahead of time what their designs are going to look like and what the timeline is going to be to produce a finished email marketing campaign.

Many other organizations, however, don’t always have it so easy. A one-person design team (“Eric, the intern”) is going to approach this task in a very different way than a whole team of professional designers, and if we’re talking about a small business or startup, it’s likely that one person is going to wear multiple hats – including digital marketing and design.

So where do you go for a design, and how do you build a robust email message?

Some teams are going to build an HTML email from scratch (or, snippets), while others may use the pre-designed templates provided by their email service provider, and still others might Frankenstein their way through a combination of both. There are a lot of options available online, so let’s dive into some of the most popular resources available, and determine what is helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) about them.

Email Templates from Email Marketing Services

One of the hallmarks of modern email marketing services is the dual selling point of the catalog of premade templates and a user-friendly ‘drag-and-drop’ email creator. In addition to the many standard templates that organizations such as Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact, or MailChimp offer straight out of the box, these and other popular services offer in-browser email creation tools of one variety or another. Campaigner, in fact, boasts “800+” email templates on their homepage in addition to their build-it-yourself email designer. These services offer folks just getting their feet wet the ability to go from planning to execution in as few steps as possible.

  • One of the drawbacks, however, of utilizing services like these (as helpful as they are for teams short on time or designers without extensive HTML experience) is that it will make it more difficult for you to communicate your distinct brand identity to your audience. And that may not even be your immediate concern – but at some point, it will be.
  • Using templates like these is not a bad decision at all because they offer the ability to start at a level playing field. Many of the templates you’ll find are clean, modern, and mobile aware – three challenges that take professionals a lot of hard work to implement well. But that accessibility comes at the cost of standing out to your audience.

Email Templates & Tools from Third Party Sources

Whether you find yourself unhappy with the offerings of some of those email marketing services, or if you simply want to venture out to discover what else the internet has to offer, have no fear! There are many (and I mean many) third-party resources for both pre-made templates and drag-and-drop style email design tools. Whether you find that these help you achieve your goals comes down, again, to the balance between convenience, quality, and uniqueness. Additionally, learning these resources and implementing them into your marketing pipeline also means that you may need a little more ingenuity (and time!) to get started.

If this approach sounds like it matches your goals and resources best, take a look at the free templates created by our friends at Litmus and Email on Acid. While these two companies are indeed competitors in the realm of email testing and validation, they both have built robust communities that are intent on making email better and sharing their knowledge with users. In that approach, both constantly put out great resources, including their own templates that are free to use.

  • If you go check out Litmus’ templates, you’ll find that they’ve helpfully categorized all of their templates based on the purpose of your email campaign.
  • Email on Acid offers their free responsive email template and a fluid hybrid email template on their blog, and there are a few more templates that they offer if you create an account with them.

Finally, if these resources still leave you itching to create your own email templates, but you lack the deeper knowledge involved in building responsive emails, there are many drag-and-drop enabled email editors available for free online. BeeFree and InkBrush are two of the most simple to use in-browser editors for creating emails, and both are completely free to use.

What’s an Email Marketer to Do?

So, what do you do? If you need to get your footing in the world of email marketing, ESP’s with pre-designed templates are a great option – I don’t have the hard numbers, but I imagine that most users who choose to use pre-designed templates find that their needs are adequately met. You can use other online services that let you drag-and-drop your way to a mostly ‘custom’ design, or you can turn to third-party/free email templates. Even without any HTML knowledge you can get far with these tools, depending on the time you are able to commit to brute-forcing your way around some of the simplified and limited controls. But it can be done.

If you are just getting started with a new campaign or if you lack the time and/or experience to build your own email templates, there are a lot of really good resources available. The trick to using them well, however, is finding those resources that come from professionals and communities of professionals that are familiar with the ever-changing landscape of email design and the minefield of issues therein.

The resources I’ve listed here are a good place to start, and if you’ve got questions about getting prepared for your next newsletter or Email Change of Address (ECOA) campaign, ask us too!