You Got the Right Stuff: Email Design Best Practices Checklist


Email goals are set, and testing strategy is in place? Check.
Subscriber growth plan is solid? Check.
Timing and frequency are being rigorously tested? Check.
Content is relevant and personalized to each audience segment? Check.

Great! Now how do your messages look and function?

Use the following checklist of email design best practices to deliver messages that are not only tailored to your audience, but also look professional, function properly, and capture the attention of increasingly-busy and multi-device-connected constituents to invite opens, attract clicks, and inspire action.

Before the “Open”

  • The “from” name aligns with your brand. Test whether using a real person’s name or the organization/campaign name works better with each of your audience segments.
  • The “from” email address is identifiable and does not contain an off-putting “donotreply@….”
  • The subject line gives a compelling reason to open the email. Remember, 64% of email users cite the subject line as the reason they open (Source: Unbounce). Consider testing the use of relevant movie titles or song lyrics, which have been shown to perform better than subject lines without these elements (Source: Retention Science).
  • The subject line is between six and 10 words. This range typically performs best, with five or fewer words performing second-best, and 11-15 words performing third-best (Source: Retention Science). When in doubt, always be testing!
  • The most important words in the subject line are in the first 20-30 characters. Case in point: iPhones truncate subject lines at 32 characters (Source: Harland Clarke Digital).
  • The subject line uses special characters and symbols sparingly, if at all.


  • The “preheader” section (the top 2-4 inches of the message) is visually appealing and contains copy that reinforces — but does not repeat — the subject line. Keep in mind that the first line of message text is often displayed in the inbox, after the “from” information and subject line. Take advantage of this space, and use it wisely!
  • There is a benefit-oriented headline that demonstrates value for the recipient.
  • There is a greeting with the subscriber’s first name. Caution: use the word “Dear” sparingly; surprisingly, this word can trigger spam filters.
  • The headline text font is at least 22 pixels.


  • The layout maintains a balance between copy and images.
  • The layout uses plenty of whitespace, which improves comprehension by 20% (Source: Crazy Egg).
  • The images reinforce the message. The human brain processes images 600,000 times faster than text (Source: 3M Corporation).
  • The copy uses subheadings and lists to make scanning easy. Eighty percent of email users only scan their messages (Source: Nielson Norman Group).
  • The copy uses plain language, is age-appropriate for the target audience segment, and tells a story.
  • The body text fonts are at least 14 pixels.
  • There is only one call-to-action, and it is clearly presented at a “tappable” 46×46 pixels. Be mindful that the average human fingertip is approximately 46 pixels squared, so links and buttons should be as well (Source: Apple).


  • The footer includes links to your other online properties, like your website and social media sites.
  • The footer offers sharing options, such as links to forward the message to a friend/colleague and to share it with the reader’s social network. Consider that 94% of people contemplate how what they share will be useful to others (Source: New York Times).
  • The footer provides a link to the online version of the message.
  • The footer contains the organization’s physical postal address, in compliance with U.S. CAN-SPAM Act regulations and Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation.
  • The footer includes a reminder of why subscribers are receiving the message and provides clear ways to unsubscribe and manage subscription preferences to reduce the chance of spam complaints.

Behind the Scenes

  • The template is coded in tables with inline CSS (many email clients do not render external or header style sheets), and each element’s specifics are completely defined.
  • The template width does not exceed 600 pixels.
  • The template does not rely on background images, as some email clients — especially Outlook — do not support these.
  • The template is coded to be responsive because 51% of emails are opened on mobile devices (Source: Litmus).
  • The template and message layouts are tested across all browsers, email clients, and devices to ensure they render correctly and consistently.
  • The template and message layouts are Section 508-compliant.
  • The images have alt text, are hyperlinked, and are coded with a “0” border.
  • The videos are not embedded, but rather a thumbnail image that links to the location where the video is hosted online is used. Including video can increase click rates by 300% (Source: Wistia).
  • The message has been spell-checked and link-checked by the author.
  • The message has been reviewed by at least one additional person for typos and broken/misdirected links.
  • The message uses web-safe standard fonts, rather than special ones. If a special font must be used, employ a web-safe font as a backup.
  • The message links utilize custom campaign parameter tags to inform your organization’s analytics and demonstrate the email’s value to referral sites.
  • The message includes an alternate, plain-text version.

What best practices have you discovered in your email work? Share in the comments!

Amber V Hammond is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Very cool Amber. You probably get GovLoop emails, right? Can you take one and send me your notes on how we do to your checklist? steve at govloop dot com

Amber V Hammond

Thanks, Steve! I do get GovLoop emails. I would be glad to take a look at them, compare them against the checklist, and send you my feedback this weekend.