Step 7 of 10 to engage your membership with email
Last week we discussed using emails to proactively increase traffic on your Web site. Every email you create can tease a few more members to sign in and discover the wealth of information available to them.
This week we will show how the “look and feel” of your emails, with a little planning on your part, can increase the communication you achieve and improve the image of the club.
The biggest barrier keeping all of us from producing professional looking emails is that most of us lack confidence in our own artistic abilities. I certainly know I’m not an artist, and I’m color-blind on top of that, so at first making a nice looking email seems a daunting task to me. But over the last five years a number of services and technologies have become available that make the job easier:
- “What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get” editors;
- Simple tools to organize the layout of the page using tables;
- Photo galleries that organize pictures, clip art and stock photos;
- Artists available on an hourly basis to add touches beyond your (and my) skills;
- Templates that can be used over and over.
First, keep in mind that you don’t need to create artistically pleasing emails – all you need to do is create artistically pleasing types of emails. Then, using templates, you can produce new instances of emails very quickly. You could do a lot with just two or three templates, and even the most sophisticated email efforts seldom exceed ten types of templates at any point in time. Think about the way you add artistry to your newsletters: once you have the basic shell, the rest is fairly easy.
Use A Native HTML Editor
When you are creating graphically rich emails, you want to use an editor native to the Web, one that creates HTML directly (but you don’t ever want to have to deal with that HTML language if you can help it). You will want an editor that displays the results just as they will appear in the email (WYSISYG). Most of you will have a Web site that has a “style sheet” built into it. This includes a set of colors that match the branding of your club. Your editor should allow you to pick those colors off of a palette instead of typing in some strange numbers to get them right. You should try to use those colors for the most part, because that will make your emails tie in with the themes of your Web site and your club branding.
Tools For Tables Are Important
The key to a good design is the layout of the material. This is accomplished in HTML with “tables”. You may have had some experience creating tables in Excel or Word, and if so you know that there are lots of details you want to be able to change. For example, you may want to insert a new row or column, or merge some cells in the table to make a bigger space. You may want to put a color in the background of a table. In advanced cases you may want to place a “watermark” (that’s a picture of some kind that has been faded so it doesn’t overwhelm the text, and placed “behind” the text). Another common trick is to put a table inside one of the cells of another table. At first building tables to shape the layouts of your emails will seem confusing, so seek the help of your Web site provider to learn how to create them. You will discover that this is the most important information you need to create artistically pleasing emails.
The borders of a table are also very important. Sometimes you want them to be invisible, so that they act as an hidden skeleton that holds everything in place. Other times you may want to change the color or thickness of the borders. Often showing some borders and hiding others looks really good.
There are even more things that you will want to do with your tables, but the point here is that it should be easy to create and manipulate the tables. You want an editor that has at least as many “buttons” as are available in Excel for setting up tables, and you need to get training from your Web vendor until you are reasonably adept at using tables.
Organize Your Picture Gallery
Most Web site systems today include some kind of picture gallery where you can set up categories of pictures. Take the time to organize your pictures into reasonable categories. You may want a category called “Ice Sculptures” and another called “Staff Photos” and another called “Desserts”. You will also want to save copies of all your logos and branding materials for the club. Be sure, when you save your pictures, to resize them so they are one of the typical standard sizes for the Web. If you try to use pictures that are huge, it will make laying out your tables difficult. Another nice approach is to create “thumbnail” pictures that pop up into full images when double-clicked.
The pictures taken at your own club will for the most part not come out as well as the professional stock photos. They will be too dark or too light, or need to be cropped. Take the time, when you save these images, to brighten them or crop them as required so that you have what you need when the time comes. Your editor should allow you to do this conveniently. Also, if you know the names of the people in the pictures, be sure to add those names in the captions in your gallery.
The next step is to decide what templates you need. For example, let’s say the General Manager has decided to send out a short weekly news column called “Your Club” every Sunday afternoon. You want a template for this periodical so you don’t have to work on the design every week. It should have its own “branding” to distinguish it from your other club mailings, but at the same time should take on the flavor of the club’s branding so it ties in harmoniously with the rest of the club’s communications. You might, for example, want to pick a special font. Probably you will want to create a “logo” associated with this periodical. Most likely you will want to use some of the colors from the style sheet for the club, so keep them handy.
Next you should decide how large the template will be and how many parts there are to it. In the case of Your Club, you will probably want to allow for a fairly short mailing with only one subject or a longer mailing with several sections in it. So start laying out the table that acts as the skeleton of the Your Club mailing. Leave a cell for the Title at the top, a box for a picture on the right, a place for a sub-title if there is a second paragraph down below, etc. This is easier to figure out if you have the text for the first issue in hand, so you can see how large the boxes should be, etc. Most likely you will see right away that certain parts of the text are too long. (I know my text is always too long). So edit the text to take out duplications and needless words, then shape the tables to make it look good.
Select some pictures that match the theme. Remember that stock photos will tend to be prettier, but photos of your own club will actually get a better response. Especially if you name the people in the photos.
Get A Professional Artist’s Help
Once you have your first attempt at a design, spend a few dollars to get an hour or two of an artist’s time – an artist skilled at using your tools. Typically your Web vendor will have such people available for fees in the neighborhood of $100/hr. You can send your initial layout and have the artist redesign it with a bit more sophistication. You can then use the artist’s template over and over for other future mailings of the same type. Once you see how the artist improved upon your initial concept, this can give you ideas for another template you want to create. Copy some of the artist’s template such as the heading graphics into a slightly varied template that you create on your own. Your goal is “knowledge transfer.” If you modify what the artist created for you then you will not have to hire them again every time, except perhaps if you want something really creative like a custom logo for your e-news on the next template.
Also Use Stock Templates
Now that Web vendors are supporting templates, they are also creating sample or “stock” templates that can be used by any client. You may want to use a stock template directly or customize it for your purposes. It will be educational for you to examine how the tables where developed for the stock template, so make sure you understand how it was done. Ask your Web vendor to explain if you can’t figure it out, because if you can’t reproduce the stock template how will you be able to create a new one?
Another great way to build up a library of templates is to share them with other clubs. If you are in Ohio, ask your Web vendor for the names of some Web site administrators in Florida or Arizona. Give them a call and suggest that you work together to create templates that both clubs can use.
A Little Art Goes A Long Way
The resources are now available for you to become adept at creating classy looking emails. With a tiny art budget you can build some very nice templates and learn to create more as you need them. You can organize your photos, use tables to lay out your emails, and pull style sheet colors directly so you conform to the branding of your club.
One final suggestion: avoid “dancing baloney,” also known as “Nickelodeon Design.” These are designs where you mix and match all kinds of bright colors, huge type fonts and annoying animated (moving) clip art. If the look of the design would clash with the entrance to the club, maybe you should rethink it before showing it to the General Manager.
Next week we will talk about how to use your Web site’s marketing database to target your mailings to your members, so they don’t get inundated with mailings of no interest to them.