Cream of the Inbox: Small Businesses Doing Email Marketing Right / Marketing Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Companies large and small struggle with email marketing, but some small businesses have figured out the secret. Here are some of our faves.

The cream rises to the top...of the inbox.

Email marketing is still a channel that many companies struggle with, but there are a few that have it figured out. While emails never look perfect in every client, app, and browser, there are ways to make the inbox experience more consistent.

Email clients and apps are constantly changing what features and code they support, so what works today might not work tomorrow; however, there are some design elements that are less affected by these challenging conditions.

Related Article: Lessons from the Trenches on Responsive Email Design

Email Marketing - Not Just For Enterprises Anymore

Just because you aren’t an enterprise level business with thousands of employees doesn’t mean you can’t have awesome marketing emails. In honor of Small Business Week, I’d like to share some of my favorite small businesses, companies with fewer than 200 employees, that have risen to the top and proven themselves by creating excellent emails.

Most, if not all, of the companies below favor a single column design, often with colorblocked background colors, full width images, and bulletproof buttons, that lends itself well to mobile, multiple email clients, and web browsers. There are 3 reasons why everyone is loving this layout:

  1. It looks nice in all clients, browsers, and apps
  2. It’s scalable and saves a lot of time in editing (using a combination of CSS and HTML)
  3. And finally, because it performs.

B2B Companies

Campaign Monitor and

If you need an example of perfect email marketing, look no further. Litmus and Campaign Monitor emails are the best I’ve seen. They both feature a single column, colorblocked design that is not only responsive but also looks pretty good in every email client I’ve viewed them in. The reason single-column design translates so well is that every email client reads it similarly, so it doesn’t look terrible in apps that don’t support responsive design (like the Gmail app).

The content is also always highly relevant to their subscribers and really well written, which leads to increased brand trust and future engagement. There’s a key to email marketing success that Litmus and Campaign Monitor have both figured it out: give people valuable content, and they will keep engaging with your emails.

Litmus Email

Related Article:  Warm It Up: How to Craft an Effective Cold Email

Emma, Inc.

Emma is an ESP and another B2B company in the email marketing space, which explains why their emails are praise-worthy. Like Campaign Monitor and Litmus, Emma favors the single column responsive design. However, Emma’s emails more frequently include very high quality content (e.g. E-Books, whitepapers, infographics, and webinar invites) and attractive product offers and discounts.

Although Emma is not as well known as some of the other ESPs out there, such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, and VerticalResponse, it is walking the walk better than its competitors. And when it comes to choosing an ESP or Marketing Automation tool, one of your top considerations should be whether or not that company’s own marketing emails are best in class.

Emma Email Update

B2C Companies

Cards Against Humanity, LLC

Cards Against Humanity has an interesting email send frequency - almost never. The guys and gals at CAH have decided that in order to increase engagement, they would send emails so infrequently that it would be a treat to actually hear from them. In 2014 CAH sent a total of 5 marketing emails, and only 1 so far in 2015.

They start out each email with, “Dear horrible friends,” which obviously makes you feel like you’re part of some sort of exclusive club. They use images of the product and usually feature 1-3 new product releases in each email. CAH understands its audience and caters directly to them through well-branded subject lines, content, and simple imagery. They also double opt-in every user, and make sure to tell you in the welcome email that you will not be bothered by countless marketing emails.

CardsAgainstHumanity Promo Email

Bark & Co.

The BarkPost newsletter is a Monday, Wednesday, Friday email that is sent to BarkBox subscribers and others who have signed up to receive these emails. The design is responsive, and they smartly use their content to their advantage - who doesn’t LOVE adorable puppy pics?!

The BarkPost emails strike a perfect balance between content and promotion, for people not subscribed to the service. There is a featured story at the top, followed by 2 other content articles, a prompt to subscribe to the monthly BarkBox product, and ending with social CTAs. The best part about the mobile design however, is the Multipart MIME, which enables mobile users to view the main story with the option to read the entire email. This may not seem like the best idea, but it allows the email to load faster, and if the mobile user isn’t connected to Wi-Fi, this increases the likelihood that at least some of the content will be visible quickly.

BarkPost Newsletter


Fast Company

Fast Company is one publisher that has email on par with its printed content. But unlike so many other publishers, the email content is free. Fast Company has 4 different newsletters that vary based on interest/ job function. These newsletters are primarily single column with two columns used at the top and bottom to accommodate ad inventory. Most of the examples above do not have standard ad units, so they have more flexibility with design, but Fast Company proves that you can still have great mobile email and monetize with ads.

Content in Fast Company newsletters always has really interesting graphics and images, which are also full width, so you can actually see the image on mobile devices. Because Fast Company offers multiple newsletters, it ensures the content is more relevant, and they have a reputation for writing quality articles.

FastCompany Newsletter

What's an Email Marketer To Do?

If you’re thinking about switching your emails to layouts like these, there are really helpful resources from email leaders:

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the lists and newsletters of the companies featured above and get inspiration to grow your own email efforts.

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