The Better Email Blog

The Better Email Interview with Ted Goas

ted goas

Ted Goas plans, prototypes, and publishes for the web and email. Design @StackOverflow. +1 hockey, snowboarding, soccer, skepticism, Newcastle, and Troy McClure quotes.

How were you first introduced to email marketing and design?

I started my career in 2001 as a web designer focused mostly on websites. Everywhere I worked, there was always a great need for email. I started with “I’ll take a crack at email” and progressed to, “I have experience with email” and eventually got to “I’m pretty good at email.” Since 2007, email has been a part of every job I’ve had.

You worked for a long time in the medical industry. What challenges do you see as inherent to medical industry emails and web work?

I worked at Canfield Scientific, a biotech company specializing in medical photography and clinical trials. One of my main challenges was getting useful feedback on my work. Doctors were our main customers, but their schedule is often hectic and their time is worth a lot. It was hard to schedule time to do research or get feedback.

I also had a hard time explaining my work to designers in other industries. The medical industry is so specialized that outsiders had difficulty understanding the problems and workflows. I rarely received helpful feedback from folks outside my team. At times, I didn’t feel like part of the design community. I wrote more about this experience for anyone interested.

How did you end up transitioning from the medical field to your current role at Stack Overflow?

I saw Stack Overflow advertise an open design position and messaged a friend on their team who helped get my foot in the door. I officially applied by sending an HTML email to Stack Overflow. (I would totally recommend this, BTW!)

The transition itself was pretty rough. Information at Canfield was need-to-know, so for better or worse, I was sheltered and able to focus on design. Stack Overflow is by default open with information and I got access to everyone on my first day. It was overwhelming. I saw people in multiple chatrooms, jumping in and out of Hangouts, posting designs, commenting in docs, and committing code. It took a month before I got both feet on the ground and my imposter syndrome started to fade away. I wrote about my first few weeks at Stack Overflow.

What’s been your biggest challenge at Stack Overflow and how are you overcoming it?

Designing at scale. Stack Overflow racks up almost 8 million visits daily. That’s a lot of different people with different motivations and different goals. It can be risky to change even the smallest things on a site like that without disrupting someone’s workflow.

Last year, Stack Overflow adopted a double-diamond product development process to help remove some of that risk. We place a lot of emphasis on design discovery, research, and prototyping to validate each new design. By the time we start writing code, we’re pretty confident we’re building the right thing.

What’s your current process look like when working on emails?

Everything starts with a functional spec. I’ve been using a modified version of a template that Jay Jhun shared at The Email Design Conference in 2014. This allows everyone to contribute early and build a shared understanding of what we’re doing.

I design in Sketch, which has great tools for exporting optimized images. I share my progress early and often by dropping a design in chat, linking to an Invision project from Google Docs, or posting a PNG in Trello.

After a design is validated, I jump into Sublime and use Cerberus as my starting point. When the rough draft is coded, I move to Litmus Builder and push it across the finish line. Lastly, I integrate it into SendGrid, Iterable, Campaign Monitor, our codebase, or whatever ESP it needs to be in and support the team in QA and reporting.

You’ve been involved in the open source world for a while. How have you seen open source, especially open source email, change over the years?

It’s gotten really complicated! A few years ago, open source email was mostly basic templates and simple fixes to common email gotchas. Now there are build systems using custom syntax to generate responsive emails without media queries. It’s tough to keep up. And just when I start to feel good about myself, Mark Robbins does something new…

And just when I start to feel good about myself, Mark Robbins does something new…

What’s you opinion on the growing trend of interactive emails?

When I hear someone say “code emails like it’s 1999,” or “just make everything a table,” I tell them about things like interactive email or using CSS Grid in email. Their eyes usually perk right up. I love how interactive email pushes what’s possible in email design. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked on one yet. My teams are focused on sending the right email to the right person at the right time, so that’s where most of our effort goes.

What is the one thing you constantly see people getting wrong in their email campaigns?

Sending the same poorly-targeted emails over and over again. I have accounts at a few online retailers. I search, browse, and occasionally buy on their websites. Even though these retailers have my data and track my behavior, the emails I receive seem generic and are sent when I’m not looking to buy. I’ve unsubscribed from a bunch of these emails even though I continue to buy from these retailers.

Wayfair, however, gets this right. One day I was looking at daybeds on Wayfair’s site. I searched, clicked on a few products, and ultimately got pulled away but left the browser tab open. A day later, I got an email with photos of the exact beds I looked at, asking me if I was still interested (yeah I was!). I was looking at these beds, recently, and Wayfair used that to strike while the iron was still hot. I own a daybed now 😀.

What are some opportunities you’ve seen in email that you don’t think enough people are exploring?

I see an opportunity to use email to onboard folks into a new experience and keep them coming back. Email is everywhere, it seems like an obvious channel to go after.

I recently researched ~20 products on how they onboard and hook new users after signup. Half of them sent me a single welcome email and the other half didn’t send any email at all. I was really surprised! I had just just signed up. The product wasn’t part of my world yet, but the interest was clearly there. I was amazed how many products let me walk away so easily.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into email marketing?

I favor being a generalist over a specialist, or being T-shaped as Jacqueline recommends. I’d recommend working on websites and apps, too. It makes one more versatile and able to work on more aspects of a project. There’s also a ton of overlap. Grid systems, typography, responsive design, performance, copywriting, progressive enhancement, A/B testing are all part of both my email and web projects. I use the same tools to work on both email and web projects.

How do you stay sane outside of the email world?

My wife and I have two young children, so I come back to the email world to regain my sanity :) In all seriousness, I enjoy spending time with my family and taking weekend trips. This past summer, we moved to a new town in northern New Jersey. We’re having fun putting our house together and exploring a new part of NJ.

hockey sticks

Published on November 14, 2017

The Better Email on Design is Now Available


The wait is over! The Better Email on Design is now available.

The Better Email on Design is the ultimate guide to understanding HTML email design and development. It teaches you how to build robust, responsive, and interactive HTML email campaigns that your subscribers will devour. Both the book and videos dive into topics like email structure, typography and accessibility, using images, responsive design, and even adding animation and interactivity to your email campaigns.

If you want a handbook to quickly reference when you’re building your own emails, the 225-page PDF book will be your best friend. If you want your own, personal email development workshop, there are over 6 hours of step-by-step video tutorials available, too. Combined, they create the only email design and development course you’ll ever need.

Published on October 31, 2017

The Better Email Interview with Jacqueline Boltik

I had the pleasure of meeting Jacqueline Boltik at this year’s Litmus Live in Boston. She gave a wonderful talk on using Python to improve your email marketing data. I was so intrigued by her work and history that I cajoled her into being the inaugural interviewee for The Better Email. Enjoy!

jacqueline boltik

Jacque Boltik is a consultant, speaker, and educator at the forefront of new digital strategies. She’s been scraping the web since 2009, and is the founder of Kingrail Consulting—a boutique firm specializing in data science and email. She also teaches a course on email marketing at General Assembly and volunteers as an instructor with Girls Who Code. Jacque graduated from Harvard College with honors and in another life was a figure skater.

How were you first introduced to email marketing and design?

I was first introduced to email marketing while working in brand marketing at PepsiCo. The use of email was part of a larger product marketing strategy I was overseeing. I remember being pleasantly surprised by how cost effective it was.

Tell me about your work at the LA Times.

As Director of Strategy and Business Development my role was to conduct due diligence on new ideas, form partnerships, and launch and staff new initiatives. On the surface the initiatives under my purview seemed fairly diverse - launching a joint venture in China vs. email newsletters - but at their core it was the same concept: finding new ways to package and make money from existing work. The use of email was proven to be a very effective way to promote a wide range of initiatives.

How does working in a newsroom compare to working in other email marketing roles?

Prior to working on the business side of journalism, my experience had mostly been in traditional brand management, marketing, and product development at PepsiCo and Starbucks. I worked in sports marketing on NFL player, team, and league sponsorship at Pepsi (Super Bowl XLVI!) and launched a new line of Starbucks branded coffee products (that you can find in the chilled aisle of your local grocery store). My role focused more on developing 360 marketing campaigns, of which email had a role but was not the main focus.

The biggest difference between working in consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing and the business side of journalism was the hands on nature of working in journalism. In CPG there were an army of agencies standing by on retainer to help, and your physical product takes years to develop. In journalism, budgets are smaller and your product is created every day by people in a very direct way. Working in business development in journalism requires a different level of flexibility, and also allows you to create and test products in a very nimble way. Whereas in CPG we would develop new products 3 + years out from launch, in journalism we were able to test ideas and new products in a matter of months, not years.

In journalism, budgets are smaller and your product is created every day by people in a very direct way.

What challenges are unique to email for journalism?

Digital media in the past has largely been driven by chasing traffic; although that’s starting to change… In journalism, it’s fairly easy to grow a large email list. However, the focus on having a large list size is a challenge. Over half of internet traffic is from bots, and email is not immune. While most media companies clean their email lists, there’s a pressure in general to have the largest lists rather than the cleanest lists. I think this is an industry wide challenge in email, but is probably worse for journalism and industries that rely on the ability to attract outside advertising revenue.

What do you think the future holds for digital media?

There’s a huge opportunity for data science powered by email to strengthen online media revenue models. For paid subscriptions - having someone’s email allows you to combine previously siloed databases and use data science to build more sophisticated models to reduce churn and improve acquisition. For digital ad revenue - I think email holds the key to changing the losing digital CPM game. When doing online digital ad buys, it often costs the same to reach a bot and high level executive. This doesn’t make any sense, and I think we can do better - although some of this involves advertiser education away from CPM quantity and toward CPM quality.

You’ve worked with some big newsletters like Lenny, The Ann Friedman Weekly, and Clover Letter. How did you get involved with those projects?

I became involved with these projects due to my work at the LA Times which was relatively early to launch high quality editorial newsletters. I oversaw the launch of over 10 LA Times newsletters and was able to bring my skills and newsletter expertise to these projects.

What lessons did you learn working on such high profile projects?

I think it’s really important to have some level of technical understanding of email—even if you are on the business or editorial side. I learned Ruby on Rails about 6 years ago (shout out to Michael Hartl and ended up learning the technical side of email out of necessity to get the LA Times newsletters off the ground quickly. Through that process I learned email is very nuanced and it’s easy to run into issues that seem mysterious and hard to crack if you don’t have a technical understanding of, say, how spam filters work or how HTML email is rendered by different email clients. For higher profile projects it’s important to get these details right. I think it’s surprisingly hard to find people who have this knowledge.

I think it’s really important to have some level of technical understanding of email—even if you are on the business or editorial side.

How important do you think design is in email marketing?

I’m a fan of the one arm, one eye, one thumb rule for email design—where you hold your phone one arms length away, close one eye, and try to use one thumb to navigate the email. I think I first heard about this technique from Fabio Carneiro at MailChimp. I’m delighted when I see emails that are well designed and push the envelope from a technical perspective, but there’s still so much work that needs to be done even to get to this basic level of mobile readability. I tell this rule to pretty much everyone I meet :)

some of jacque's clients

Some of Jacqueline's clients.

You gave a great talk at Litmus Live about data mining in email with Python. When did you first start combining programming with your email work?

Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. I think it helps to solve a common challenge. Most companies have a lot of data, it’s just not in an easy format to analyze, or it’s in different databases. I began using Python and pandas at the LA Times because the out of the box reports and KPIs did not answer all the questions I wanted to ask. Sometimes data I wanted to include in a report was in another database. Using python and pandas allows you to combine various data sources and answer pretty much any question you can dream up.

What are some ways people can get started with using Python (or any other language) in their own email programs?

In the past I’ve used STATA, R and Excel for data analysis. In my opinion Python / pandas is easier to use and faster. It’s continued to grow in popularity in the data science community. Beyond analysis, you can build a full-scale application. Or spin up a server. There’s a lot you can do to improve email data by combining your data sources using Python. If you want to learn more, I recommend Wes McKinney’s new book Python for Data Analysis, 2nd Edition. You can order it on amazon here. I read a pre-release version and can’t speak highly enough about the book (not a paid endorsement, I’m just a HUGE fan of pandas and Wes is the creator of pandas).

How did you get involved with Girls Who Code?

I was looking for a volunteer opportunity and think learning a technical skill is extremely valuable, no matter what career you want to pursue. Girls Who Code had a good reputation so I applied to teach at a local chapter.

What does it mean to you to teach at Girls Who Code?

I’m self taught, so learning to code was a real struggle at times. I try to be the resource I wish I had for the girls. They teach me so much and it’s amazing to see how quickly true digital natives pick up new skills.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had at Girls Who Code?

It’s not one moment in particular, but overall what’s made the biggest impression on me is how supportive the girls are of each other. They are a joy to work with!

You also teach at General Assembly. What are the most common questions you get there about email marketing?

Common questions related to how to develop a strong email strategy, how email relates to other marketing efforts, how to assess the success of your email program—or a given campaign—what good design looks like, general best practices, how to clean your list, there are many questions… The audience is usually a mix of B2B and B2C so I try to cover as much as possible and provide links to resources for topics we don’t have time to go in depth on.

What is the one thing you constantly see people getting wrong in their email campaigns?

There are a surprising number of emails that are not mobile responsive. So that one probably bothers me the most since it’s just such a lost opportunity. This is something people in the industry are well aware of but for marketers who are being asked to wear more and more hats it’s sometimes overlooked.

The one thing I’m most passionate about helping to fix is the issue of poor data integration. As a consumer I receive emails and ads on social that are not relevant to me from companies I know have my data. For example, I get ads asking me to subscribe to services via email and online from companies where I already pay for the exact service they are advertising. This happens because their databases are not well-integrated. Using Python and pandas, it’s possible to build powerful but lightweight solutions that can help to address this issue.

What are some opportunities you’ve seen in email that you don’t think enough people are exploring?

I think there’s a huge opportunity on the data side. Beyond opens and clicks, by collecting email addresses companies can use related data to better understand their target audience across the board. One of the challenges many companies face is that data often lives in silos. You can use email data to combine various data sources, to build a richer data set, then data science to build models to analyze your richer data set. It’s hard to understate how valuable this is—there’s a famous example in the data science world with Netflix. Netflix had a Kaggle challenge where the team who could write the best algorithm to predict user ratings for films would win $1,000,000. Later Netflix released a new feature when you login that asks if you or your child is watching. A basic model with the field that indicates you or your child was ultimately better than the fancy Kaggle model (which lacked this information). Once you have someone’s email address you can find out a lot about them and use that information to build a richer data set.

Beyond opens and clicks, by collecting email addresses companies can use related data to better understand their target audience across the board.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into email marketing?

My best career advice is to become a T-shaped person: learn a little about a lot of disciplines, and develop a deep expertise in an area you find interesting. If you’re looking to get into email marketing, start by learning about the different areas email marketing touches, then research the areas of expertise within email marketing that excite you. I also recommend building technical competencies. Even if you are not in a technical role, having a basic understanding of how things you touch work will help you to be successful and stand out.

Even if you are not in a technical role, having a basic understanding of how things you touch work will help you to be successful and stand out.

How do you stay sane outside of the email world?

I enjoy a good cocktail. Each season I try to explore new go-to drinks in order to discover new favorites. My go-to cocktail this summer was the classic Daiquiri: 1 ½ ounces light rum, ¾ ounce fresh lime juice, and ¼ ounce simple syrup. Best with Havana Club White Rum and fresh lime juice. Right now I’m sampling fall cocktails, so far the Mount Pelee is my favorite… Labor of love cocktail is the Ramos Gin Fizz but it takes so much work I feel bad ordering it out, so mostly make it at home when I want a good arm workout - you have to shake it for about ten minutes!

a cocktail

Published on September 28, 2017

Announcing The Better Email


In 2013, I self-published my first book on HTML email marketing, Modern HTML Email. Then, in 2015, I released my second book, Professional Email Design, a practical handbook and reference for learning how to design and code HTML email marketing campaigns. Combined, they have sold thousands of copies and helped more people than I would ever have expected learn HTML email design and grow their careers.

When Professional Email Design came out, I promised every customer that they would receive free updates for life. My intention was to release updates on a regular basis as new techniques were developed. Fast forward two years and I’m finally keeping that promise, with a little name change.

Starting on November 1st, when it’s released, Professional Email Design will now be known as The Better Email on Design. Available to everyone who’s purchased a copy of the first edition of Professional Email Design, The Better Email on Design is a massive update that includes not only improved content from the first book, but five new chapters on everything from different responsive email approaches to troubleshooting, workflows, accessibility, and even interactive and dynamic emails.

Here’s a chapter listing to give you an idea of what’s in The Better Email on Design:

  1. Why email?
  2. Basic Email Development Tools
  3. The Building Blocks of Email
  4. Typography in Email
  5. Taking People Places
  6. Images in Email
  7. Understanding Mobile
  8. Responsive Email Design
  9. New: Different Layout Approaches
  10. New: Animation, Effects, and Interactivity
  11. New: Different Development Workflows
  12. New: Troubleshooting Emails
  13. New: Questioning Best Practices

But, The Better Email on Design is more than just an update to a book.

For the first time, I’m going to release dozens of video tutorials, too. While the book will still be the perfect guide and reference for anyone designing and coding email campaigns, the videos will walk you through, step-by-step, how to implement everything in the book. You’ll see exactly how the pros build, test, troubleshoot, and ship HTML email campaigns.

The updated book and videos will be sold separately or as part of a discounted package, and all existing Professional Email Design customers will receive a discount on the videos. You can find out more about pricing right here.

However, my goal for The Better Email is to be greater than everything laid out here.

On top of The Better Email on Design, I’ll be releasing The Better Email on Marketing, another book + video course, in mid-2018. It will focus on the strategy behind email marketing—permissions, list growth, planning, process, analytics… all the good stuff outside of the code.

I’ve also migrated all of my resources (formerly Email Toolbox) right here to The Better Email. I’m planning on expanding those, too. If you have any suggestions for resources, email me.

Finally, keep an eye on this blog. I’ll be posting more articles, links to industry news, and interviews with email industry professionals soon. If you want to keep up with everything, why not sign up for the newsletter? You’ll even get a free six-page PDF for the trouble.

I’m looking forward to November 1st and the release of The Better Email on Design. I hope you are, too. Cheers!

Published on September 12, 2017