Iuliia Nesterenko

Technical Writer

Email Marketing Trends 2021: Content & Design

A new year means it’s time to take a look at new email trends.

Going forward, not all of the trends I’m going to speak about are genuinely new: some have been dominating our inboxes for years and will continue their reign. Some are only making their way in email design, and it’s not clear yet whether they’ll unleash their potential to the full.

Anyway, I’ll try to figure out what email content and design trends to look for in 2021, and in December we’ll see to what extent these predictions would be accurate.

Content

Text-Based Emails

COVID-19 has made many businesses switch to online communication. Offline interaction with customers, like physical shopping, live events, face-to-face meetings, got unavailable which was especially critical for B2C brands with loyal communities around. Marketers got a new task to transfer all direct communication to the digital world, keeping it personal and friendly.

Text-oriented emails turned out to be a solution. First, they were used to send We’re In It Together kinds of messages. People received campaigns signed by companies’ CEOs and business owners who proclaimed their readiness to work hard and provide all the necessary service to their customers despite any occasions.

Next, there was a wave of How We Made It Through messages in which companies’ executives thanked the audience for their loyalty and brand support.

Naturally, aggressive promotion didn’t belong to such heartful messaging. For some period of time, most people didn’t have an opportunity and/or will to consider commercial offers but still continued being your customers. Writing them simple emails with words of support and encouragement was the right strategy to keep the conversation going.

I believe this approach will keep on thriving and become one the main email marketing strategies in 2021. The lack of face-to-face communication will contribute to increasement of sending volume, but you can’t always talk about sales. Simple text-based emails, with one banner at most, is what can keep your brand top of mind without being too commercially aggressive.

Text-based email examples

Usefulness

Traditionally, there have been two basic types of marketing emails: upfront advertising aimed to generate instant sales and newsletters with storytelling or educational content aimed to build brand awareness and loyalty. Now, however marketers will try to deliver usefulness with every message. This approach will increase the overall value of campaigns, making people anticipate new messages.

By usefulness I mean all the content and activities that aren’t related to direct sales. It can be free materials for download, access to gated content, useful links, Q&A with experts, etc.

For example, Tattly has recently introduced a new section with fun links to click on. The links are always different and don’t focus on temporary tattoos (which is the company’s main product). Most materials are interesting to consume. This makes me somehow want to open their emails even if I’m not currently planning to order new tattoos. Wool and the Gang often offers free knitting patterns which serve as encouragement to finally start a new project, most probably using their wool.

Promo codes and discounts will remain important interest boosters but everyone is sending them. Learn to deliver usefulness beyond sales and your emails will be always welcome in the Inbox.

Examples of emails with extra value

Inclusivity

Started last year, this trend is persisting. Brands try to cover as many categories, so emails became a kind of proclamation of diversity and inclusion. This is especially apparent in campaigns by fashion commerces that feature models of different color, size, age, ethnicity and sex identities. Some brands introduced specialized products optimized for people with disabilities. For example, Tommy Hilfiger released Adaptive, a clothing category that enables people with physical challenges to shop by solutions. You can select clothing with easy closures, that fits prosthesis or fits a wheelchair.

A wide range of models isn’t the only manifest of inclusivity in emails. For their email campaigns, brands are using more diverse stock photos with different backgrounds. Team members start featuring more women, especially black, and people who identify as LGBTQ. Regular support managers or shop assistance are now introduced to a wide audience alongside executives and senior officers.

By doing so, brands send their customers a clear message: We appreciate all our customers because we’re like you and we share the same values. Of course, their aim is more than just fighting for the rights of minorities. For example, the LGBT community is the most undervalued economic demographic, with a spending power of $4.6 trillion, so no wonder it’s so targeted.

Examples of inclusive emails

Green Marketing

Sustainability sells. If you aren’t talking about how carbon neutral and eco-friendly your business is, you’re losing the game. Sustainable reports have become a common element of modern emails not without a good reason.

According to the consumer preferences report by IBM,

  • 40% of respondents worldwide pursuit products and services that resonate with their values;
  • 57% are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact;
  • 71% of respondents who think that traceability is very important are willing to pay a premium for brands that provide it;
  • 77% say it’s at least moderately important for brands to be sustainable and environmentally responsible.

And although you can often hear that consumers reporting eco-consumption rarely do follow it in practice, the stats tell differently.

According to the report by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business,

  • 50% of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products;
  • Products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not;
  • In more than 90% of consumer-packaged goods categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts.

And although some numbers may fluctuate, green marketing is a big email marketing trend, and COVID-19 has strengthened its positions. In the minds of many, the pandemic is related to climate change and the environmental situation. According to the Coronavirus Research by GlobalWebIndex, almost 3 in 4 consumers report that after COVID it will be important that companies behave more sustainably.

Examples of green marketing in emails

Usefulness, inclusiveness and sustainability could be the 3 pillars of solid brand building content this year, and content writers should include them in their content strategy for the year.

User-Generated Content

User-generated content isn’t the new thing in email marketing. It has been long used to build the bridge between the brand and its audience, and provide social proof for the offered products.

Apart from fulfilling the strategic purpose of customer engagement, UGC also serves as a content generator. When you send 4 to 5 emails per week on average, it may be hard to come up with genuine ideas each time. UGC provides you with ready ideas and material, both text and visual, to fill your templates.

What’s more, the COVID-19-forced isolation spurred a need for human connection. Many brands shared images of their audience and teams making it through the quarantine, and people found themselves relatable. UGC encouraged the feeling of connection, giving meaning to the otherwise protocol message of we’re all in this together.

UGC will continue being an important part of the email marketing strategy 2021, incorporating the emerging employee-generated content (staff stories, behind-the-scenes footage, favorites). Also expect to see more connected narratives. Brands will be creating a series of interrelated UGC-based emails that will make one single-piece campaign, and the customer will be the center of it.

UGC in emails

Video

Videos are a perfect addition to other elements you are using in email marketing. It’s a rich format that can perform a whole bunch of tasks:

  • Sell a product;
  • Give instructions;
  • Tell a story;
  • Report on the hosted event;
  • Provide customer testimonial or feedback;
  • Drive traffic to the video page;
  • Deliver entertainment.

Videos are hard to overestimate when it comes to marketing complex products like software, analytical tools, banking, and explaining how to use them. The more functions the tool has and the more structured its interface, the more useful the video guideline would be.

However, even if you’re selling mats for dogs, a fun short clip with a great message behind would also be appreciated. Moreover, it alone generates the content for the campaign and can function independently without any extra additions. That’s why video will keep on motivating readers to get engaged with your messages and make those clicks.

Video in emails

Gamification

You've probably heard that the gaming industry was among the few booming during the corona crisis. People overwhelmed by stress and bad news searched for escape and relief in the digital dimension, and gaming managed to provide those. However, gamification isn’t only about game consoles and PlayStation vs. Xbox battles. This is a multifunctional tool that has been long used in email marketing.

The millennials are the most game-minded generation ever, so adding gaming elements to your emails is a good strategy to win their attention. Game design makes otherwise usual elements exciting and intriguing. A sense of competition gets people engaged and triggered to participate and get the often secret prize.

Gamification has many forms and faces, but the most often used gamified elements are wheel spinning, prize revealing, quizzes and trivia. They can be styled differently but have the same idea behind: make people interact with the campaign more instead of simply giving easy discounts.

The main drawback of gamification as of now is that it still directs you to the website. When you click to spin the wheel or scrub to reveal the offer you’re taken to a corresponding website page. Some people get lost during this migration and some feel confused as they expect to see the results straight away. The AMP technology is what can solve the problem and give the mechanics to enable interaction with the content inside the email.

Emails with gamification

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Design

Customer Experience

The customer experience over product approach has started dominating marketing strategies long ago. In a world where many brands offer the same product, look and often sound the same, customer experience is what can help your company stand out. The more satisfying it is, the more chances the customer won’t go looking for new options elsewhere.

All brands serious about their campaigns have already started bringing in customer experience via emails. It’s often overlooked by regular recipients, but today’s emails are way more user-friendly than they were even two years ago:

  • The unsubscribe button is placed not only in the footer but often in the header and sender info.
  • The preference update link is often added to emails.
  • Emails feature a store finder, store map, contacts, social links, chats, my account.
  • Emails are uploaded faster because the copy size is watched over.
  • Images are provided with alt text that makes emails accessible to visually impaired people who use readers to read emails.
  • Emails are optimized for mobiles.
  • Marketers are learning to optimize emails for Dark Mode.

All these experiences will only get better. We expect to see more substantial Dark Mode optimization. Since today, different email clients have different color rendering algorithms, by far it’s impossible to pick up one color palette that would look the same in all clients and on all devices.

I also put great expectations on AMP for email, especially on the AMP form. This element allows to create forms that can be completed by a user straight in the email without going to other pages. It has unlimited potential for feedback collection, all types of booking and order comments.

Email design of 2021 will aim to provide a comprehensive user experience within each message. It will be the main source of information about the brand’s activities and the main tool to interact with the brand. The more advanced the tool, the more satisfying (and resultative) the interaction.

Customer experiece incorporated in emails

Overlay

One of the key 2021 email design trends, overlay brings any content up over the other element. Such design is easier to create when working in a drag-and-drop editor. You add a color or image background, drag the corresponding structure or block on top, and edit margins and alignment.

Overlay gives emails volume and 3D effect when applied with neat shadowing. It’s kind of the evolution of the off-grid layout that was trending the previous years. As with any other visual tendencies, the main goal of the overlay is to create unique layouts and make emails stand out within crowded inboxes.

Email design with overlay

Collage

I believe that in terms of email design, scrapbooking style in emails is as hard to create as overlay and 3D. To achieve the effect, you need to use flat paper-based images, transparent background, vintage frames, multilayerness, shadow editing, school-styled fonts, and scribbles. This collage realization takes a lot of editing effort. The clipping should be really neat otherwise your emails would look messy and heavy.

Nonetheless, email collages are great to use in messages with minimum text where they serve as the main attention-concentrating feature. You can make them one photo-centric (that is focusing on one big image) or more abstract.

The main advantage of collages is that they offer endless possibilities for creativity without strict rules set. You can mix photos, drawings, visualized numbers with classic fonts, brush strokes and handwriting to reach the texture you need.

Email design with collage

Clean Design

Clean design typically means a minimalistic style that is easy to parse into structures and columns. It features a basic layout, 1 to 3 prevailing colors, clear division between blocks, short text, and enough white space. Focus on the content rather than on design is also its key characteristic.

In contrast to overlay or collage, it’s hard to get extra creative with a simple design. Quality images and smart text are the only elements you can experiment with to enhance your copy. However, visual clarity makes simple layouts more user-friendly and easier to navigate. Readers aren’t distracted by elements that have little relevance to the offer. The short text contains only the information that is most valuable and relevant at the current moment.

Yet, when sent without any changes, such emails can be boring. So the task of the designer is to achieve excitement even with basic templates, playing with fonts, color palette, banners and, of course, appealing offers.

Emails with clean design

Last post

Geometry

Geometric concepts in email design are going to create competition and abstract shapes and flowing lines dominating 2020. That’s probably good for designers as geometrical shapes are easier to build. Plus, rigid forms give visuals order, making a copy more structured. Images inconsistent in style can look more structured when applied to similar geometric shapes.

Hard-shaped edges don’t mean the imagery has to be plain and boring. Geometry allows room for artistic aesthetic and enables to turn emails into masterpieces.

Email design with deometry

Flat Icons

Email design trends are rather cyclical. About 5 years ago flat icons were the main finding of designers. Then, a 3D effect stepped up, and now flat illustrations are going back to being trendy again.

The best thing about flat icons is that they can be optimized for emails, social media, infographics, slides, etc. Such optimization is quick as icons are easy to edit, which makes them perfect graphics for non-designers. Using the same graphics on different platforms makes the content look like it belongs to one brand, promoting recognition and uniqueness. And even when with stock images, they still make them kind of unique.

What’s more, icons are really fast to digest by readers. Even with no text or context around, you can still understand the meaning behind it.

Email design with flat icons

Nostalgia

COVID-19 made us all feel sentimental about the good old days when the grass was greener, the skies were bluer and life was better. This nostalgia has been embodied in an old school-styled design inspired by old technologies, vintage books, retro photos, and 70’s aesthetics.

Nostalgia in emails appeals to emotions, having psychological power over our behavior. It creates a sense of belonging to something good and transfers this perception to the promoted product.

Recalling childhood memories, iconic cinema characters, flashbacks to old days without sophisticated technologies, then vs. now, vintage frames and historic photographs are only some strategies to implement nostalgia in email marketing design. Your only task is to find out how your brand can reinterpret events of the past and apply them to own marketing strategies.

Email design with nostalgia

Retro Posters

A spin-off of nostalgia, retro posters are going to reintroduce the designs of the past. What differs them from the previous trend is that the whole email doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the retro style. Most often, poster-inspired designs are applied to banners while the rest of the template is optional.

Anything can be a plot from reminiscence, from comic books to aged movie posters, recreating nostalgic styles and promoting a sense of social connection. This approach lets you sell more as people are more likely to spend on something they feel nostalgic about.

Emails with retro posters

Animation

Animated GIFs have been the email design trend for a while. Animation serves numerous purposes that aren’t limited to selling alone:

  • Demonstrate multiple products within one block;
  • Adds dynamic vibes and movement;
  • Triggers interest;
  • Explains how to use a product;
  • Contributes to storytelling;
  • Provides entertaining;
  • Creates an appealing visual effect.

I don’t think any of this is going to change in 2021. Aside from Microsoft Outlook 2007, 2010, 2013, animation is supported by all email clients on both desktop and mobile which makes it the most preferable format to create interactive designs.

Animation in emails


2020 was a difficult and strange year. At some point, it made many marketers change or totally rethink their marketing strategies. We’ll be experiencing the results of this change through 2021 as well. Brands are expected to market with more empathy and eco consciousness, paying attention to customer experience. Nostalgia will be the main email marketing design trend in 2021, taking us back to the pre-Covid era that will be considered as the new golden age.

More Resources

  1. The secret power of nostalgia: How you can use it to fuel your creativity and enrich your design.
  2. HOW TO STAY AUTHENTIC WHILST TALKING ABOUT WIDER SOCIAL ISSUES [Podcast].
  3. 7 Graphic Design Trends That Will Dominate 2021.
  4. 10 ways to use icons and images in digital design.
  5. 20+ Typography Trends for 2021.
  6. Research: Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products.
  7. Here are the top tech trends of 2021, according to 30+ experts.

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Iuliia Nesterenko

Technical Writer

A technical (but still very creative) writer at eSputnik with a strong focus on design, current digital marketing trends, and new solutions for email automation.

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