Email Communication and Marketing
Whether you are putting together a department or college newsletter or simply dressing up one simple message to a small database of readers, emails/e-communications provide a cheap, easy, and visually attractive way to extend your messaging to your audiences. When compared to a print project, emails are quick and easy to turn around once you become familiar with the method of delivery.
This guide is a project of a number of campus communications and marketing offices that regularly use email platforms to reach their audiences: WWU Outreach and Continuing Education, the College of Fine and Performing Arts, and the Office of University Communications/Western Today.
We hope it is helpful and provides some answers. If you have follow-up questions or need further help, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
In This Guide
Before Creating Your Email
The downsides to emails are also important to weigh before you begin any project:
- There is less shelf life for something delivered to an email in-box as opposed to a print project.
- Certain constituencies or demographics may not respond as well to email.
- Branding may be less precise when using an HTML email as opposed to using a print designer.
- Emails can also be viewed as spam.
Still interested? Then read on, as we tackle some basic issues every piece of electronic communications faces.
Email Best Practices
Focus your CTAs
CTA is a well-used term in communications that stands for Call To Action. In other words, what are you asking your readers to do? Attend an event? Enroll in a class? Consider a donation? Go to a website to see pertinent information? Or simply to digest the content to follow? Whatever your CTA is, don’t bury it at the bottom of your message; announce it clearly and completely as far up in the communications piece as possible.
“Voice” refers to communicating with your audience in the way that most clearly corresponds to their chosen communication style. For example, the voice of an Alumni Association outreach piece to Western grads for a 20-year reunion event will have a much different voice than an Admissions recruitment piece to a high-school junior. Failure to match your communications piece’s voice to its intended audience will result in a jarring piece that loses impact.
Timing and frequency
Make your decisions around how often your communications piece will go out to its audience, and then stick to it – and remember the incontrovertible rule of communications that every project will take longer and be tougher to produce than you originally thought, so it’s always a good idea to err on the side of fewer “editions” than to be unable to meet a stated deadline that your readers are waiting for – and remember that too many small emails can be viewed as spamming by your readers, no matter how valid the content is.
Nothing enhances the readability and impact of a communications piece like a gorgeous or impactful image. Asking yourself “how will I illustrate this” should be the second question you ask yourself in preparation for starting your project, the first being “what is the return on investment to me dedicating the time and effort to write and send this out.”
If you find that worthy image that we all seek for our projects, remember the old newspaper adage, “Good images are like Ivory soap – they should always float to the top.” Oh, and run that great image as large as possible – don’t bury a great picture and run it one column, when it could be at the top, running in four columns (or across the whole width of your email template)!
A word on permissions: Just because a nice image lives on the internet doesn’t mean it doesn’t have copyright! Make sure you have permission to use a photo, or you could be facing legal issues or have to pay lofty fees after the fact.
One way to avoid any issues around image copyright is to utilize a source you know offers images that you can use with no problems. For example, check out the Office of University Communications site on MABEL, or its extensive Flickr site. All the photos there are fully downloadable and for use by the campus community. Creative Commons sites like Wikipedia generally offer all images for use as well, as long as you give a photo credit to the photographer.
Western seeks to provide an environment in which every individual has an opportunity to learn, work, and contribute, and where full inclusion and respect for all people encourages creativity and productivity. Read our full accessibility statement.
Email is a highly used tool for engaging with the Western community. Therefore, it is just as important to make emails accessible for everyone, like you would for a webpage or digital document—especially for people with disabilities. There are some basic accessibility features that will make your emails usable by everyone.
Headings help users understand the overall structure of the email, as well as help those using assistive technology navigate it easier. Heading level numbers represent different sections of main content:
- Heading level 1
- the title of the page or email (there should only be one heading level 1 in an email or page)
- Heading level 2
- major sections of the email
- Heading level 3
- sub-sections of heading level 2 sections
- Heading level 4
- sub-sections of heading level 3 sections, etc.
Heading levels should decrease by 1 as sections are divided. A heading level 2 section is divided by heading level 3 sections. A heading level 3 section is divided by heading level 4 sections, etc.
Don't skip headings (an h2 to an h4, an h1 to an h5, etc.), especially if you're only trying to achieve a font size or color. Use email styling functions on the proper heading instead to achieve your desired visual appearance.
People who are blind or have vision disabilities use alternative text (alt text) to detect and understand graphics in an email. Alt text can also help users when images are slow to load or don't load at all.
There are some starting points for writing meaningful alt text:
- Don't include "image of"/"graphic of"/"photo of" in your alt text. Assistive technology can already tell the user they've come across an image. It's redundant to hear something like "image, image of people...."
- Not-as-good Practice: "image of students working at a table"
- Good practice: "students working at a table"
- Be descriptive and concise. Alt text of around 150 characters (the length of a Twitter tweet) should be enough to convey the image's main idea and what it's trying to accomplish.
- If an image is truly decorative (i.e. is redundant to content, or doesn't convey additional meaning), you should be able to indicate it in your email client. In an HTML email you can add
Related guide: Include alt text on images
Tables with proper header columns and rows makes it easier for assistive technology to describe the table and can help users navigate them easier. If you're using Outlook, you should be able to declare a header row using the table properties. In some platforms the ability to add more header structure than that is limited, so keep tables as simple as possible in email.
If using HTML for email, you can use <th> elements to add header columns or rows. Use the proper scope="" attribute to associate the header properly (either row or column scope).
Avoid "here/click here/read more" link text, and other variants. If you provide a link with the just "here" or "click here" as the text, the user would not know where the link goes. Instead, make the text following "click here" the link.
Note: the following example links do nothing.
Instead of: Click here for this year's annual reports.
Use: This year's annual reports.
If linking to a document in Word/PDF or other formats, convey the format type in the link, so users know it doesn't behave like a web link.
Example link to a PDF: 2018-2019 Catalog (PDF)
Western abbreviations and acronyms should first be used in accordance with the writer's guide, which indicates specific points they can be used in a document.
They can also increase cognitive load for anyone using assistive technology, and may not always be clear to first-time users or visitors. "WWU" is seven syllables to pronounce, while "Western" is only two and much clearer when first reading it.
Instead of: "WWU policies"
Use: "Western policies"
Abbreviations and acronyms should be used sparingly, and only if they have been previously defined somewhere in the document.
Mailchimp's drag-and-drop blocks include a block for Video. But Mailchimp doesn't include or embed video code in the emails. Instead, it scrapes a thumbnail image from the video host (either YouTube or Vimeo), adds a "play button" overlay to the image, and inserts the image and link to the video into the email.
Vimeo links inserted this way will include an alt field you can use to describe the video image.
YouTube links inserted this way do not include an alt field. To quickly work around this omission, do the following:
- Insert the YouTube link using Mailchimp's Video block.
- Preview your email using the "Preview" feature in the email designer.
- Take a screenshot of the video image with the play button.
- Exit the Preview screen.
- In the designer, delete the Video block you just made.
- Insert an Image block.
- Upload the screenshot of the video thumbnail with the play button overlay you just made.
- Insert alt text.
- Insert video link in the "Link" field.
For more accessibility info, visit the accessibility guide. If you'd like in-person help, please reach out to WebTech's accessibility staff.
With so many people and voices existing under a single brand, consistency is crucial to avoid a messy brand image. Structural elements of the Western Washington University brand, including our logo, color palette and typography, all work together to ensure our brand is recognizable wherever it appears.
When it comes to email communication, there are a few specific categories it is important to adhere to:
The Writer’s Guide is also a helpful tool that provides clarity on topics such as common abbreviations, grammar, punctuation and more.
Remember: When brand consistency is applied in email, emails act as an accurate touchpoint of Western, solidifying brand recognition.
Western's privacy and public records obligations are governed by state policy, state and federal regulations, and now international regulations. There are several Data Privacy Laws relating to e-communication including the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
More in-depth information about these laws and how they might impact your communications is available at rcps.wwu.edu/privacy/.
What is GDPR?
GDPR is a European privacy law that went into effect in May 2018. It regulates how the personal data of individuals in the EU can be collected, used and processed.
Why is GDPR important?
The law impacts not only European companies, but also businesses that target or collect, use and process the personal data of European individuals. In short, GDPR applies to organizations that process persona data of EU individuals – regardless of where the organization is located.
In addition, GDPR has helped to shape newer legislation, like CCPA, which secures new privacy rights for California consumers. Other states will inevitably follow by enacting more stringent laws. By following GDPR best practices, you ensure that your communications comply with any new laws. In addition, only sending to people who really want the message – smaller lists work best here – will result in a list of people who are really interested in your message and who won’t unsubscribe.
How do I comply with GDPR?
Use a tool like Mailchimp or Constant Contact, which have GDPR compliance features built in (GDPR-compliant signup forms, double opt-in, et cetera). Double opt-in is considered industry best practice. If a subscriber asks to see the data you have saved in their contact profile, they ask to be removed from your list(s), or they need to update their contact information, it is important to comply with their request.
Ensure you are being transparent about how you use your subscribers’ personal data – do not send them emails regarding things they have not clearly consented to be notified about. Do what you can to protect the integrity of your account and the data therein – create a strong password for the account and consider limiting the number of individuals that have access to the account.
Lastly, not having a clear and obvious way for folks to opt out is a really, really bad idea – and will result in people who not only don’t want your emails, they will have an increasingly bad view of your organization. Most e-comms clients like MailChimp automatically add an opt-out to the footer of your communications piece – leave it there, at the very least!
Subscriber email applications
Your subscribers will be using different software and hardware to read your email. The software/hardware combo is called an email “client;” the email campaign you send will look a little different in each client, regardless of what platform you build it in. It’s important to get as firm an idea as possible of how people will read your communications piece before you begin building it.
For example, in Mailchimp, one of the most often used clients, if you want to see the breakdown of your users’ email applications, go to your Mailchimp dashboard and navigate to your Audience Overview page from the top menu. Then scroll down the page until you see “Top email clients.”
You can use this information to test your emails by sending them to yourself or a colleague before you launch them to your whole audience. Use the “Preview” feature in the email design window while building an email to get a quick check of Mobile and Desktop, and send test emails.
Have more questions about emails?
We hope this was helpful! This guide is a living document that will be continually added to. Have suggestions for content? Email us at email@example.com.