Getting a work email is the equivalent of seeing a bill int he mail: you just know it’s a bill without even having to open it because the design communicates that. Close your eyes and imagine a bill in the mail: the thinness of the envelope, the weak security paper, the simple and plain colors and fonts, the glassine address window. Bills can be identified by touch and sight alone without even having to open them.

And the experience of a bill? Bad.

Work emails are similar: the from address, the styling of the message, the time of day you receive it, the way it’s written, the apologetic workplace tone that is both friendly and distant. We all know how work emails read and what they look like.

And the experience of a work email? Well, work. And that’s not fun.

And now marketing companies and experience and design experts are telling us that these emails convert better when your outbound emails look “normal.” Their reasoning is simple: because these emails look like everyday, personal emails, we’re more likely to open them and trust them because they match the style of real emails from friends and colleagues.

There are a few issues there:

  1. It’s even more misleading: you’re co-opting an authentic design (a hand-written email from a real person) and using the same visual cues for an automated, impersonal message. You’re blurring the user’s expectations. It’s an anti-pattern, and the opposite of authentic.
  2. It’s a design issue: if marketing emails give everyone hives, we need to understand why. Somewhere in this phase of discovery, we lost track of what makes marketing good and that is precisely good design and writing. Design that excites, motivates, cajoles, and smiles. We need to fix design patterns, not discard them completely.
  3. It’s less work: non-technical and non-design marketing teams convinced themselves that simpler emails are always better because they are somehow more authentic. This was a convenient truth because these teams often don’t have the expertise to create strong marketing emails.

A good marketing email is beautiful and convincing. It has clear visual cues in it and clear calls to action. Just like you wouldn’t design a web page or magazine ad with just plain text (in most cases), so too, should your emails embody the experience of your brand and use the full world of visual design. That takes work. But your users will enjoy your emails with actual pleasure and won’t think to themselves, “great, more work.” Don’t send users bills, send them love letters.