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★ So far, I'm impressed with MailChimp

Why do email clients have such prehistoric web browsers? The web browser which comes built into my iPad RSS reading app (MobileRSS) is so much more fully featured than the majority of email clients. It’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t advocate that rich email clients should contain all the functionality of web browsers (and indeed, some email clients essentially sit within web browsers), but it does seem quite backward.

The reason I mention this is that I’ve been playing with MailChimpover the last two days, working out how to concoct and distribute nice looking email. A simple aim, no doubt, but one worth chasing. It turns out, that the above problem requires a considerate designer to think very carefully about which web technologies they’re prepared to forgo in search of the right email experience. MailChimp is not every man’s answer, but for me it seems to work.

I couldn’t give two hoots about learning old school HTML techniques and the right way to nest tables. The tool needs to suit the purpose, so email is perhaps a bad medium to choose, but choose it we have and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a little thing like email beat me! MailChimp understands your pain right from the start, and gives you some simple and good tools to get started. It helps you pick from a bunch of stock standard templates, and gives you guides to make things a little bit more you. I found that once I had a good idea of what I wanted to change, the limitations of the baked tools and the flexibility of the online template editing, I could quickly and easily build the email experience I wanted. Great stuff.

I’m only halfway through the experience, I’ve basically only learnt some of the capabilities of the tool. The really hard part is working out how to use these to achieve the result I’m after – and you know what – sending an email to a bunch of people is not my end game! The big questions come hard and fast, and you need to have answers. Questions like:

Who is your target audience?
What do you assume they care about, and how will this email relate to that?
what do you want someone to do with this email? Call you? Email back? Visit a website?
How soon do you want to have a response? Immediately, or after a period?
What impression do you want to leave on them?

These questions help define the basic structure of an email, which in my world is as follows;

1. Teaser, preview or trigger used to get someone to open the email. This is actually quite complex as it combines your header, your address, your name, their name and the entire email history they share with you or your organization. Any previous contact with them will influence the likelihood of this email actually being read.

2. The introduction, which can be used to remind the person about you, how you have been in contact before and the purpose of the email. The person should know the purpose of the email within seconds of opening it. Brevity is your friend, but of course be polite.

3. The body, where you flesh out the details of your problem/challenge/solution/opportunity and how it relates to them. It’s important here to keep in mind not only the smarts you may be bringing to the conversation, but how it relates to them. Don’t make someone wade through paragraphs to find the bit they can respond to.

4. A call to action, which places the responsibility of return on the recipient of the reader. This can take the form of a reminder, a question, a link or any other visual item, but it’s main purpose is to remind them that they either can, should or could take one specific action as a consequence of reading this email. Keep the options limited, and make the call to action specific. They can decide if they want to defer or differ from the instructions given, the point here is to give them a specific task which they can do.

5. The farewell, which should tie together all of the above.

Easy, right? Give someone a task to do, and let them decide if the want to do it. I don’t mean project management style task giving, I mean more like – click this button, or call this person. Simple, concrete and precise tasks. That way you can tell if it works or not, and they can decide in specific if they’ll respond to you. Vagueness and ambiguity are to be avoided.

So there it is. I’ve been playing with MailChimp, and I think it’s cool. Will let you know how we get on with the emailing, let me know if you have any tips or other suggestions for influencing email behavior.