Shannon Crabill

Email Developer at T. Rowe Price

Shannon Crabill

Email Developer at T. Rowe Price Episode 34

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode Thirty-four of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In this episode we will be discussing the design of emails for a global investment management firm. We go in-depth on on the purpose of sending emails, calls to actions, and how to code and develop them.

Today’s guest is Shannon Crabill. Shannon is an Email Developer at T. Rowe Price. Previously working as an Email Designer, she has been working with brands to design, test and code HTML emails since 2011. In 2016 she spoke at The Email Design Conference on the topic of maintaining a brand and high-quality emails in a high-volume work environment. Outside of being an #emailgeek, she can be found deepening her knowledge of front-end and Wordpress development and volunteering as a Blog Editor for AIGA Baltimore.

Welcome, Shannon.

Shannon:
Hi, nice to be here.
Gary:
Great; it’s great to have you. So, the reason I invited you here is, well, quite frankly, I don’t know anything about email design and I don’t know any of fellow Faculty who know anything about email design. Maybe they are but they’re closeted and I can’t find them! So, you self-identify as an email geek at T. Rowe Price. Can you explain exactly what you do?
Shannon:
Sure. So, what me and my team do, there’s about twelve of us, we send all of the email for the entire firm, so that doesn’t mean like back and forth emails about meetings, it means like the emails that are actually going to people who have accounts with us, people who have money with us, so I think in the last year our total email ??? were something like sixty million so it’s going up every year and that’s the bulk of what we do.
Gary:
Wait, so you…sixty million users that you’re sending it to, is that what you said?
Shannon:
It’s roughly sixty million individual emails if that makes sense.
Gary:
Yeah. No, no. I read a statistic somewhere that like almost four billion are sent daily so I was actually kind of…I thought that number was kinda low, but interesting. OK, so…how did you end up doing that kind of work?
Shannon:
That is…it was quite a weird journey. So I actually majored in Graphic Design, primarily print. I had…I remember taking, I think, one web class and like one Flash class around college, so coding web stuff was sort of foreign to me anyway, but when I graduated, a lot of people were saying like, oh, you do websites don’t you and I’m like, well sure, I guess I do. And from there I started doing a little bit of coding, I started working sort of secretary admin work at a small video production company in Maryland and somehow that evolved into my boss wanting to start sending emails to previous clients and I’m like, well Mail Chimp is the thing, so from there I got a little into email, from there I got my first full time job doing email design and then a couple of years later that evolved to where I am now where I’m doing design and development and deployment, essentially.
Gary:
And so, just for the audience to know, I’m assuming that’s your dog, right?
Shannon:
Yes!
Gary:
Awesome! And it’s completely fine, don’t worry about it. I just wanted to mention it, to what people it is, because I don’t feel like editing it out! They can listen to it! All right. So, how much, and we’re going to get into like what specific type of emails are there that, you know, comes out of your company or in general, but before we get to that question, is there a lot of work out there for email designers?
Shannon:
I think there is. I wasn’t able to pull any specific numbers, but email marketing is a pretty big industry. Email marketing, email development, email design; I think a lot of companies are being told, like, send more emails because the return on investment is so high compared to maybe print or social media so at least, especially with us, we’re being told to send more email and we need more manpower to do that, so yeah, I think it’s a very in-demand skill to have.
Gary:
Have you…where it’s…I’ve heard the same anecdotes too where email is a higher return, like you said, a higher return on investment or it gets more people to…it’s a better call to action than like you said, social media and definitely direct mail. But do you have any specific evidence of that or can you remember any…where you read that at because I just want to be able to find it and put it in these show notes.
Shannon:
Sure. I think Litmus.com, they’re really big on email analytics and they publish a lot of reports every year about that and I think one they published for 2016 using data from 2015 was that generally, email gets three times as much ROI than social media and I think like depending on where you pull it from, the numbers compared to print could be like hundreds to thousands of per cent more. I could find specific numbers if you want me to.
Gary:
No, that’s good enough. I can…I’ll just look at Litmus and I’m sure I’ll be able to find it, but that’s…that’s just amazing that again, like I said, I read that stat that there’s like four billion emails sent daily; there’s a three times return on investment that somebody actually painstakingly went through and tried to figure out and yet this form of communication is something that I feel is like off every designer’s radar except for yours and that team of twelve you have.
Shannon:
Yeah!
Gary:
So, what is that…how many…with that team of twelve, what does it consist of? Designers, developers or…marketing?
Shannon:
Sure. We’re all developers on the team but as far as backgrounds before we came to T. Rowe or before we started doing email, they’re all pretty varied. I think I was …I’m one of the hybrid like designer, front end developer types; we have a couple of people who actually never worked with email before but maybe worked in like ebook publication so yeah, we do have a good range of people, like I said, most coming from, like, you know, front end web development, maybe content management side of things that come into what we do and actually do really well and there’s some people with more like user experience background or interests that tend to do well with what we do.
Gary:
Interesting. So, as a design educator, I’m going to fully admit that I never taught any of my students how to design an email, so I’m not even sure I would even know where to start, so I’m going to ask you, and the primary reason why you’re here. What are some of the different types of goals of sending an email; and this could be generic or this could be specific to T. Rowe Price.
Shannon:
Sure. I was thinking generically speaking, the goal…I think the number one goal is to get the email into your recipient’s inbox or email box. There’s…I won’t go into it too much but there’s some to think about like deliverability, just making sure the email gets past spam filters, any ISP block, that sort of thing, like there’s like a sub-set of the industry just for that.
Gary:
Wow!
Shannon:
But yeah, it’s insane, and as far as like the actual goals that actually might vary depending on maybe the audience, the segment, like if you’re B to B or B to C; usually for us the goal is to have someone take an action, like click this link and update your beneficiary or it could even be informational as in like, hey, your password’s been reset, that sort of thing, so it does vary. I think that’s a key thing with email in general, it’s just knowing like, what is your goal and designing for that and like optimizing your email to get the best result out of that.
Gary:
So, are there some like best practices for email design, based on what you’re saying and research and…so when somebody opens it up, they have a small, depending on what kind of device they have, they’ve got a really small window that they’re looking at, so…how do you leverage that?
Shannon:
Yeah, best practices, it could be its own three-hour long topic. I would say for best practices is, if you know what your users are using as far as like, are they on mobile or are they on Blackberries, are they on desktops, that sort of thing; cater to that. Responsive, of course, is the big thing but not all devices or email clients support responsive in the same way so it’s something to keep in mind. As far as best practices, I would say that the key thing is sort of keeping it simple. The weird thing about email design and development, actually the challenge of it is that there’s really no standard across email clients or devices; how it looks in Gmail could look totally different than how it looks on the Gmail app of my phone and then add an Outlook add-in things like Lotus Notes, we actually have a small sub-set of people open emails on like PlayStations and that sort of thing so you have to think about that a little bit. It’s different from regular web coding where you’re using divs and style sheets and that sort of thing whereas with email you’re mostly coding like it’s 1999, that’s the ongoing joke is that you’re using tables and in-line styles and you’re sort of very, very limited with what you can do, so just knowing that I think gets you ahead of probably most people that are asked to hey, design an email.
Gary:
So, now I have kind of two follow-up questions; I should probably write this down. So, the first one has to do with the design. Is there…who sits there and figures out what content should be at the top of the email and how much space should be taken up? Should it be like a big field of color with a bold headline or, you know, just like how do you…who thinks that up?
Shannon:
Sure, do you mean with T. Rowe specifically or just in general?
Gary:
Both.
Shannon:
Both. So, the way it works for us is we don’t write the content. We have a whole team of copy-writers and designers that handle that. Usually what we’re doing is we’re taking the supplied content and that could be from a…we call essentially master templates where like, hey this is the email about updating your beneficiary or this is your email about your enrolment window is closing; small changes and we’re kind of moving it through. Other times it’s a specific thing like hey, check out this webinar series and we’re taking that content, adding it to our template and moving it through, so the template system that we have is actually something we developed along with the creative team a couple of years ago. T. Rowe were kind of brand refresh and during that we go the opportunity to kind of get with them and say like, hey, these are the email considerations we should be striving for; we worked with them to come up with a pretty solid template system, I think, that sort of takes some of that like, well, should it be here, should it be there; we have best practices, we have guidance on what we should be doing and not be doing. Generally kind of the more concise, shorter an email the better: you don’t want three pages of stuff you have to scroll through, especially if you’re on like a mobile phone, so all that stuff that we keep in mind. Sometimes we have to do whatever the client wants, and that’s OK, but we do advise like hey, if you want someone to click on a button, maybe put that towards the top of the email. You might year the term like, above the fold, or below the fold, that kind of thing applies.
Gary:
You know, OK, so that’s another question. I’m glad I’m writing these all down! So, the term, above the fold, I mean there’s enough studies done with design in traditional web browsers that people are going to scroll.
Shannon:
Yes.
Gary:
Is that same…is that true with email?
Shannon:
Yeah, I think that’s the same thing with email. I think actually Litmus, like I said, they do a lot of…have a lot of data just that they just tweeted out about, hey, above the fold doesn’t really exist any more so far as email is concerned so yeah, I think most people, and I’m speaking generally, know that they should scroll, like what you see in that first bit of your iPhone or your Android phone is not the whole thing and to scroll. I mean, I think we know that for desktops too; it’s not like anyone sees the bottom of a page of a website and thinks, oh, that must be it. I think people know to scroll by now.
Gary:
So…and I probably shouldn’t admit this out loud, but my…trying to collect myself here for a minute…what determines if I open an email right away or kinda, you know, save it for later is the subject line.
Shannon:
Yes.
Gary:
So, is that like a whole other department that’s figuring out what’s a good call to action in the subject line?
Shannon:
For us it usually comes through copy or just how the, like I said, the template about that specific topic is done. We do like to make suggestions about subject lines, as far as like what the industry says, usually shorter is better. You don’t want to have spammy words in there like, you know, free, all caps, dollar sign, that sort of thing, yeah, that could trigger spam filters and I think the main thing is just that it has to be relevant. You could also do testing to see if a personalized subject line gets you to open the email better than an unpersonalized subject line and sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing what works for your audience. Like, I notice, I think in 2016, emojis in subject lines are a really popular thing. Personally, I don’t like them, but it’s very popular and it gets people to open them so…
Gary:
Interesting!
Shannon:
Yeah.
Gary:
OK, so a couple of other off the beaten path questions that came into my mind was, you’ve mentioned the fact that trying to make responsive emails and so, we have web standards for the browsers and there are some pioneers who kind of like beat that industry into submission to agree to web standards. Is that ever going to happen for emails?
Shannon:
I think we all wish it would and I think it could happen some day, just maybe not right now. It’s actually interesting; one of the biggest offenders, technically speaking, about responsive emails, actually Gmail on the desktop, yeah, they don’t…before very recently, they didn’t support any media queries or external style sheets, so responsive was a little bit of a tricky thing with them, but I think actually a month ago they said, hey, we support media queries now, or we’re working to support that, so that’s a big deal. I think in August, Outlook which is also sort of tricky when it comes to responsive and media queries, that sort of thing, they actually partnered with Litmus to say like, hey we want to help fix this, we know your community is sort of upset about this: let’s try to collaborate to work together so I think with us seeing those two big changes in the past six months, I think some day, knock on wood, we could have an email like a rendering standard or the start of something like that.
Gary:
You’d think they adopt browser standards and just move on with life!
Shannon:
Yeah, you would think, but I guess everything’s proprietary and just…I don’t know, I’m sure there’s a lot behind it but I don’t know, it’s a weird thing.
Gary:
Yeah, I have no idea either but I did get an email that somebody said, it was using Flexbox, and it was actually like, if you see these squares at the bottom, with the letters centered in each one, your client supports Flexbox and I could not find a single email client, I was like, oh, this is a challenge, now I’m going to find one that has it and I couldn’t find one.
Shannon:
Yeah, if you find it, let me know!
Gary:
So that was really wishful thinking then, huh?
Shannon:
Yeah.
Gary:
OK. And so…one other thing…what about…are you familiar with, I think it’s called Ink by ZURB, they make those…they make the foundation which is HTML,…which is a CSS framework?
Shannon:
Yes, I’m familiar with them.
Gary:
Do you use that, is that a viable…is it something worthwhile investigating for at least students maybe?
Shannon:
Oh yeah, I think it’s worth investigating. I haven’t used it personally but it is one of the, let’s say, the top five that come to mind if you’re looking for like an email framework or something to kind of look at or start from. Like I said, I haven’t used it myself but I guess with the changes with Gmail and Outlook, I would be curious to see whether they’re planning to update that any time soon and I think there is a responsive version but I’m not entirely sure.
Gary:
Yeah, there is but I don’t…I felt like the last time I had a conversation with somebody, I could be wrong, but I feel almost like JavaScript was involved.
Shannon:
Yeah.
Gary:
And I was like….oooh…no, that’s not a good…this is not good.
Shannon:
Yeah, as far as I know, JavaScript is not supported in any email clients. It probably would trigger something as spam, but don’t quote me on that.
Gary:
Yeah, and that’s what I can’t remember if…that’s why I felt like, really? Are you sure they’re trying to use JavaScript? I’ll have to go back and look. OK. So, with the benefit of hindsight, having gone to design school, so I’m going to talk about this from the design side and not the development side just yet, what type of email projects would have been helpful for you to have in school to better prepare you for this type of work?
Shannon:
Sure. That’s a great question. I think I…at least for me, I wish I knew that web design itself or web development itself was more of an option when I was at college. Admittedly, I thought I’d be doing print forever, you know, I’d have a letterpress studio, that sort of thing and that’s still the dream in some way, but had I known that web was more of an option and that in turn, email marketing design development was an option, I would think projects that kind of go through the strategy of thinking like, hey, you have to think…you have these considerations, you have to think about just kind of technical limitations and the lack of standards across email clients and think about what are you trying to do? What are you trying to accomplish in this email? I think kind of the thinking behind it maybe more so than like the literal design part of it.
Gary:
OK. So, with that one, should I have my students use something like Mail Chimp or Constant Contact to design the layout? Or do they need to code these things in good old HMTL tables?
Shannon:
I think nothing beats being able to code from scratch but I think there’s an advantage to knowing a specific email service provider like Mail Chimp or Constant Contact. Both of those make it very easy for pretty much anyone to essentially get set up properly in like, fifteen or twenty minutes, pending having a list to email to and sort of that side of it, it’s pretty straightforward. I think they have a lot of pre-built templates where you can throw in a logo, customize the colors and there you go. And I think…I know Mail Chimp for sure, I don’t know about Constant Contact, has a sort of a maybe more advanced template language where you can sort of download their snippets in a way and build your own template that you could then upload into the system that you can do the same things with like, OK, maybe this is my section for a logo and I’ll just swap it out within the WYSIWYG or something like that, so I think it’s a blend of both, knowing how to code by hand if you are able to dabble in Mail Chimp I think that definitely puts you at an advantage, or just being familiar enough to be able to sort of dig in and like, well maybe I don’t know it a hundred per cent but I know enough to get started or to trouble-shoot a little bit.
Gary:
OK, so that’s…yeah, and so this one I’m kinda like stuck with then, so with Mail Chimp, you’re kind of, unless you kind of learn some advanced templating, you’re stuck basically with their basic templates. So, you’re just basically re-arranging the deckchairs.
Shannon:
Yeah!
Gary:
And the same thing with WordPress; I just feel like as an educator, I don’t want to go down that rabbit-hole of teaching students how to use…how to manipulate somebody else’s design, so I think I would rather go, struggle through and show them; HTML tables are not that hard!
Shannon:
Yeah, they’re not hard but I wouldn’t know…I learned with tables, which is kinda weird considering I went to college in 2007 but I wouldn’t know if any students that are in college now would learn with tables, to be honest. I mean, the fundamentals are the same as coding CSS, that sort of thing, but it takes little bit of a backwards thinking, a little bit. And email is a little interesting in that you have CSS, Cascading Style Sheets, you have to be a little more specific: if you want this particular cell to have font size fourteen, align left, you have to specify that every single time.
Gary:
Yep.
Shannon:
Because some of your clients will honor that, even if you don’t have it specified, others will not, so you might open up your email and like i.e. and it’ll be center aligned and whatever and it’s weird!
Gary:
OK, so, do everything in inline CSS.
Shannon:
Yes.
Gary:
I’m just baffled that we’ve got media queries on watches and we…we’re still doing with email…sorry about that. I’m going to have fun editing this one!
Shannon:
Sorry about that! My dog’s excited!
Gary:
No, no, that’s quite all right, like I said, with me coughing, it makes no difference! All right. so let’s see….so are there any other projects that you could think of that you might be wanted to learn? I don’t know if I gave you enough chance to expound on that question?
Shannon:
The very last question?
Gary:
Yeah.
Shannon:
As far as like what I’m working on?
Gary:
Or no, just like…yeah, I just…
Shannon:
Like student projects, essentially?
Gary:
Yeah, yeah.
Shannon:
Yeah, like I said, I’d be curious, like the whole kind of thought process; maybe, it’s this weird thing because I think it’s almost more marketing thinking, like, who are people…who are we trying to target, what are we trying to get them to do, how do we best do that within this medium, but from the design side, there are some considerations too which make it a little bit tricky; you are working with tables, you have to think a little more square, if that makes sense? Think a little more static. I’ve seen some cool things with some CSS3 I guess, like animations, keyframes but those are kind of like the outliers. Yeah, it’s very interesting. A kind of cool project I think might be to go through the process of hey, this is what we want to do, we’ve designed this thing and then run it through a rendering engine like something like Litmus has or I think Return Path has one where you can get screenshots of how it’ll look in almost every email client or browser you could think of and you’d be surprised what the results are sometimes.
Gary:
So, that’s Return Path?
Shannon:
Return Path has one, Litmus, that’s the bulk of what they do, has that. And I’m trying to think of another one. I think Email on Acid has one as well.
Gary:
Oh that’s perfect, because I didn’t know how that was done, so when I ever tried to do an HTML email, I literally just emailed it to myself.
Shannon:
Oh, I’ve done that too, it’s a lot of fun!
Gary:
Oh God yes: it’s painful, it’s like I wouldn’t…OK, so that makes sense. This is really more of…I mean not more of, but it is a marketing exercise, thinking through the user experience, what’s going to get them to click and things like that and how does the design match that, so they either need to be…students either need to be handed that kind of as a brief or they need to instructed on how to determine those things for themselves.
Shannon:
Right, or just how to do the research too, I think is a big part of it.
Gary:
OK. Do you have any other things that you think are good resources for email design that you haven’t mentioned?
Shannon:
Sure, yeah, I’ll reiterate Litmus is great, most of the major ESPs like Mail Chimp, Emma, Constant Contact, I think HubSpot have a lot of good resources and I think even Team Treehouse has a short course on email design, I think taught by one of the designers at Mail Chimp, that’s a really cool one, and I’m pretty sure Lynda.com has some stuff but as far as for a beginner, where to start, there’s a lot out there which could probably be overwhelming, but those might be my first few places to start. I’m sure Stack Overflow has some stuff too but at that point you might be getting really, really granular.
Gary:
Yeah, that’s when you’re…that’s where you get the testing on…this thing isn’t working in this browser, what am I doing…or this email client, what am I doing wrong?
Shannon:
Yeah.
Gary:
OK. So, I’ve seen from your Twitter feed that you’re also involved with Skillcrush. Can you let the listeners know what Skillcrush is?
Shannon:
Sure. Skillcrush is essentially an online tech school, if that makes sense, similar to like Treehouse where there are shorter courses, they’re meant for working professionals, people who are looking trying to build their tech skills; it’s primarily aimed towards women but everyone’s welcome. They don’t have an email course but I’ve taken the WordPress Developer course which I enjoyed; the community is really great. I’m not directly involved with them but they’re probably my favorite Twitter account right now to follow and they have a lot of good stuff, if you’re an alumni, that sort of thing, and they’re all online based, it’s pretty cool.
Gary:
And so that’s why I wanted to, since I saw that your name was at least…you’re following it or something, I just wanted to get an insider’s perspective on it.
Shannon:
Sure, yeah, I feel like they’re really good at sort of blending the hey, I’m working and I’ve got life but I want to learn front end development or I want to learn visual design; I think they’re really good at content-wise, they’re just great: I can’t stop singing their praises, to be honest!
Gary:
Yeah, and that is something I’ve kind of just come to terms with, that idea of for the longest time I was trying to teach my designers to be front end developers because they needed those front end development skills to test their designs. Now, with things like InVision and Adobe XD and Craft plugin for Sketch, it’s not there yet, but it’s getting close enough where I feel as like an educator it’s like, OK, they can at least test to see if their ideas are…is the font the right size? And they can easily test it on a device and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Affinity’s line of products but Affinity Designer’s kinda like an Illustrator clone.
Shannon:
Oh, nice!
Gary:
But they just came out with something that I think’s going to be pretty amazing is that you could draw your box and put your content in it, but then you could tell it to…you can make it a percentage so if you draw two boxes and tell them the constraint, so they always remain fifty per cent, you can change the artboard size and then the content, those boxes will narrow, like responsive, and the content won’t shrink: it will re-flow.
Shannon:
That’s pretty cool.
Gary:
Yeah, and I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet but I saw the gifs of it and I was like, Holy Cow! So, that said, I’ve kinda come to the conclusion that I think I should…students that show an affinity for front end development, that I should be sending them off to things like Skillcrush or Lynda.com.
Shannon:
Yes and Team Treehouse as well, that’s a good one.
Gary:
OK. And so you like them for the most part?
Shannon:
Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve done Team Treehouse; I think I was learning, this was like four years ago, I was doing some of their front end development stuff, sort of different maybe for different learning types, so I think a big part of it’s like knowing just how you learn. I’m a very learning by doing person, so Skillcrush has the, hey, we’ll have a video to show you how to do it and then here, you’re going to actually do it now. That works for me, but it may not work for everyone.
Gary:
OK. So, finally Shannon, before I let you go, is there anything that you are working on personally that you want to promote or share?
Shannon:
Not at the moment, but this conversation’s got me thinking a lot about, hey, I’m being asked to design an email, what do I do, sort of question that comes up. I’d like to see more resources for that so, you know, nothing in the works but stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, I think I mentioned…

Yeah, I think I’ve mentioned that, I’ve had friends that, mainly print designers, that maybe are getting a new job and one of the plusses or requirements is knowing email design, development or HTML and they’re like, Shannon, where do I start? I’m like, well here’s three links; hopefully this works for you and I think if there was a better path from out of Design School to the sort of web based job that involves email, I’d like to see more content in that realm.

Gary:
So it’s time for you to make a Skillcrush class!
Shannon:
Maybe, we’ll see!
Gary:
Yeah. Well, it’s not as…if you know how to do this stuff, it would be pretty easy for you; you’ll just start spewing all this information that you’ve got in your head out, and it’ll be there!
Gary:
All right, so again, that’s all we have time for today on Episode 34 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Shannon Crabill, for being so generous with her time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the DesignEDU Today hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, and CDN sponsor Fastly, for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

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