Common Design and Copy Pitfalls in eCommerce Newsletters

by Shane Paul Neil

There are factors that influence effectiveness of email campaigns including template design, copy, and content. Mistakes in any of these areas can result in poor sales and poor subscriber engagement (typically measured with open and click-to-open rates). Many retailers, regardless of size or prestige, make critical errors with their email newsletters. Let’s take a look at some actual examples of email newsletters from major retailers analyzing some of the mistakes and discussing how they could be improved.


The oversized banner image is one of the biggest design mistakes we see in eCommerce newsletters. The black banner in this case is 1500px long, spread over multiple screens. While you may disagree on whether the idea of “above the fold” actually exists in web and email design, we believe it’s important to utilize the screen space efficiently (especially in the mobile era). In this case, a whole screen communicates what was already in the subject line. If the body of the email is just a pretty version of the subject line, you’re effectively training your subscribers not to open your emails in the future. If you want your subscribers to stay engaged, you need to delight them with something fresh and inspiring in the body of each email.

While the email is visually impactful, the text boxes with the names of their merchandise categories is a bit of a design miss. We have already explained the importance of merchandising in email, so the most logical and impactful decision would be to place algorithmically personalized merchandise right after the banner. Instead, there are text boxes with the names of Macy’s product categories at the heart of the email. Appropriately merchandising that section would have had a much bigger visual impact.

Sport's Authority

The subject line of Sports Authority’s email sounds really inviting: “Weekly Deals Hand-Picked Just for You”. Unfortunately, the email does not deliver on the promise. When you open the email, it looks like a direct mail brochure: nothing that resembles a curated selection of merchandise. Men’s and women’s sportswear, treadmills, sneakers, are “one-size-fits-all” coupons, not tailored to any of the prior purchases (and gender).

It seems that the creators of this newsletter realize the importance of merchandising email campaigns and put effort into it. However, it is not enough to manually hand-pick a set of coupons: they lack the personal touch modern consumers expect.


This email is a strong example of what happens when you don’t maximize email marketing effectiveness and instead replicate print marketing. For starters, the subject line reads “Here is your Weekly Ad”. This is a missed opportunity to drive users to open the email right from the start. While there are a number of studies on the subject line efficacy, there are also simple sales techniques that should be considered. Notably the need to create time based urgency. There is no value or urgency presented which is ironic because the email is promoting a “buy two get one free” deal. This is clearly a value proposition that would make recipients inclined to open the email. “This Week Only: Buy 2 Get 1 Free” would most assuredly drive a higher open rate than “Here is your Weekly Ad”.

More than the subject line, Target’s decision to use a picture of their print ad as a centerpiece of the email may not be the most effective utilization of space. Isn’t an email newsletter a digital replacement of the print ad? By placing a picture of the print ad inside of the email newsletter, there are awkward redundancy issues with the dolls in the flyer and the ones just below as well as video games in the flyer and the video game deal to the right. This is a big missed opportunity in terms of email design and space utilization.

eBay (An email we love)

So as to not appear to be all doom and gloom, we bring you an email campaign that we love across the board. The functioning countdown clock in the header is the definition of presenting time based urgency, an often discussed sales tactic. The layout of the entire email is clean and well merchandised based on the user’s previous eBay interactions. Every item links directly to it’s corresponding product page and in turn maximizes conversion chances.

There is no denying the power of a strong email campaign. Email drives over 20% of the 300 billion dollar American online retail industry. Unfortunately, emails like those of Target and Macy’s leave a lot of that money on the table and results in suboptimal user experience. It’s especially unfortunate considering that with a little design work and automation there is an opportunity for a hefty ROI (Request a free demo to see how algorithmically merchandised emails can have a great impact on email sales).

In one of the future posts, we will take one of these emails and show how to create a beautifully optimized ecommerce newsletter.


Image courtesy Andreas Levers

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