5 actionable newsletter design tips for non-designers


Lots of non-designers end up taking on design duties with newsletters. It’s hard. You have your job and your responsibilities, and then piled on top are tasks that you are good at, but probably didn’t get the training you wanted.

That happens a lot.

Sometimes that means newsletters have issues that can be easily fixed, but the person who is producing it may not have the training they deserved. Below are 5 tips – 6 if you count the bonus tip – that are easy to implement and will make your newsletter more reader-friendly.

1. Include a “View in Browser” link

Give people the option to read your email in a browser. There are enough readers with different needs and preferences that it’s helpful. Even if you love your layout.

48 of the 99 Newsletters do not include a View in Browser link.

Some readers open emails in browsers to make them larger and easier to read. Others may have images turned off in their inbox, but want to see the images without fussing with settings.

Every so often I run across wonderfully designed emails that I want to save and read later. I know it will get lost in the black hole of my inbox, so I open it in a tab to revisit when I have time. No view in browser link makes that harder, and generally means I forget about it.

The view in browser link also makes emails easier to share on social (or dig into as part of a 99 Newsletter Project).

2. Make your body text bigger

Open your newsletter on a phone. Extend your arm with your phone in your hand. Now close one eye.

Can you read the body copy without straining?

To check the 99 Newsletters, I took off my glasses and performed this test. I can easily read a printed letter or Twitter with one eye at arm’s length.

12 of the 99 Newsletters had text that was definitely too small.

24 of the 99 Newsletters had text that was borderline too small for my nearsighted eyes. Nudging up one step would fix these.

Keep in mind that serif fonts like Times are harder to read at small sizes than sans serif fonts like Arial. Also, don’t rely on the pixel size. Take the time to look at it, and have other people look at it too.

If you have larger blocks of text, you may need to increase the line spacing as you increase the type size. The only way to know is to test, evaluate and re-test.

3. Use large, compelling images

The bigger your images are, the better. Especially on mobile. Full-width photos are easy to see, easy to skim, and help break up your content. They are also easier to click (more on that in a second).

40 of the 99 Newsletters had images that should be larger.

Bigger is better, but images also need to be compelling. Zoning meetings are important, but they aren’t sexy. You know what’s less sexy? A photo of a zoning meeting.

If photos don’t say “hell yes”, then leave them out. Photos are more work for you and slow down your newsletter (and gobble up data) if they are too big. Try a map or illustration or a great file photo. Otherwise, let your words sell the story.

This is crucial if you are using small images on mobile. On a phone, I’ve seen newsletter images that are the same size as my thumbnail. That’s smaller than a postage stamp!

Lastly, never use stock photos. It looks cheap and everyone knows they are stock photos.

4. Link your newsletter images

In addition to using larger images, make them clickable. If you are using compelling images, people will be drawn to them. Don’t make readers hunt for the text to click. Make it easy. Let them click the image.

32 of the 99 Newsletters did not link their images.

I’d also look at linking your logo. 68 of the 99 Newsletters have a clickable logo. Most of those go to the home page, but a few link to the browser version of the email or a specific section.

Bonus Tip: Link your newsletter headlines, too

Tapping on a link on a phone can be hard. Make it super easy. Create a useful link package for each story. Headline, photo and “read more” link all go to the story on the website.

5. Think smaller: Gmail clips newsletters over 102 kB

Gmail limits emails to 102 kB. If you go over this limit, it clips off the bottom of your email and adds this message.

Gmail users aren’t getting your whole newsletter. That’s probably at least 30% of your subscribers. It may be 50% or more

But it’s worse than that.

Your newsletter tracking is in the bottom of your email. It gets cut off too. If this subscriber doesn’t click the “View entire message” link — you aren’t getting data from this email.

How many do you think are clicking to open the full message in another window? Not many.

Tips for fixing clipped newsletters in Gmail

The 102 kB applies to the HTML of your email, not images. Would you believe 19 of the 99 Newsletters send out clipped emails? One was 179 kB. Not even close. It sucks seeing a small publisher shoot themselves in the foot.

Here are three ways to avoid Gmail clipping:

  1. Simplify and streamline. Rather than spelling everything out, use links. Drop any unnecessary images. The code putting images in place takes more code than text. If you have a multi-column layout, move to a one column layout. It’s easier to read, and it saves you some code.
  2. Don’t paste text from Docs or Word. Word processors add formatting that will chew up your 102 kB, even though you don’t see it. If you use Mailchimp, use the “Paste Rich Text” feature. If you don’t, paste your text from a plain text editor like Notepad.
  3. Preview, preview, preview. If you don’t have a tool like Litmus, send yourself test emails to make sure your message isn’t getting clipped.

Little things add up

These may seem like small issues in an overall newsletter design strategy, but these details add up. Even big name brands aren’t executing on all these small issues. I looked at all 99 Newsletters on mobile and desktop. None of them got 100% on these tips. That’s disappointing. These are easy.

When you make it easy for users, they are going to trust you more. They are going to trust your reporting and your work. It all adds up, so grab that low hanging fruit.

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

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Cory Brown

Cory Brown

I know shiny objects, magic bullets and "pivoting to video" won't help journalism. I help newsrooms develop email and subscriber strategies, so they can grow reader revenue, reduce churn and build loyal audiences.

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