Is It Ever OK To Break Best Practices?

Stuck in Customs NewsletterThis blog talks a lot about the “best practices” involved in effective email marketing: relevance, design, expectations

…but are best practices always the way to go?

I recently saw an email newsletter that made me wonder how far we should follow best practices. While the newsletter and website follow a lot of best email marketing practices, they definitely break at least one (and maybe more). Normally I’d chastise them for it, but… I just don’t know here.

Have a look and tell me what you think.

Stuck In Customs’ Email Newsletter

Stuck in Customs is a travel photography site (and email newsletter) by Trey Ratcliff with some really impressive, eye-catching work on it. According to the about page, it’s visited by about 350,000 people per month.

In the sidebar of the site, you’ll find an email signup form:

Stuck In Customs Sidebar Form

You can also sign up for the newsletter from a dedicated newsletter signup page. It’s helpfully linked from the sidebar form in case you want to learn more about the newsletter before joining.

Best Practices Watch

A few good things about this form:

  • They keep the form relatively short (I’m not sure how necessary/useful it is to use 2 fields for “name” but it’s not the end of the world) and easy to fill out (the text inside the boxes clears out when you click inside it).
  • All of the text above the form is clickable to the newsletter signup page. (Does this make up for not being able to see it’s a link until I hover my mouse over it?)

And a few things I question:

  • It’s not clear from the copy here what is in the newsletter! Presumably it’s related to the site, but what’s the draw of the newsletter? Why should I sign up?
  • I can’t tell right away that there’s a link to the newsletter signup page. (It’s all of the text above the form, but none of it looks like a link until you move your mouse over it.)
  • This website is really wide – so much so that on a 1024 x 768 monitor, the newsletter signup form doesn’t even appear – you’d have to scroll sideways to see/find it! (More on side scrolling later on…)

The newsletter signup page itself is really impressive:

Stuck In Customs Newsletter Signup Page (Small)
Click image above for full-size version.
  • It clearly conveys the benefits of subscribing.
  • It tells you how to subscribe.
  • It promises that you won’t get spammed.
  • It shows an example of what the newsletter looks like.
  • It even includes some social proof via the map of subscribers included at the bottom.

Really cool all around. So no complaints about best practices here.

But then I subscribed. This is when I started to get conflicted…

Holy Gigantic Newsletter, Batman!

I can confidently say that Stuck in Customs has the largest emails I have ever seen in my life. Nobody else even comes close.

And they start you off with them from the get-go. Here’s what I saw when I opened their welcome email in Gmail:

Stuck In Customs Gmail View (Small)
Click image above for full-size version.

Yeah, it side-scrolls. Even on a 1280×1024 monitor. Heck, it’s even wider than Gmail’s built to accommodate (look at the upper right-hand corner of that image). I simply cannot view the whole email all at once, and unless Stuck In Customs’ subscribers have huge monitors, neither can they.

And we’re just talking width here… what about the length?

For the record, on my monitor it takes 17 presses of the “Page Down” key to get from the top to the bottom of that email. That’s one big message.1

Best Practices Watch

What I like about this email:

  • The content is awesome, and exactly like what’s on the website. If you’re into travel and/or HDR photography, I see no reason to think you wouldn’t love this content.
  • The design of the email pairs beautifully with the website, and it renders well in Gmail (I didn’t test elsewhere), which is impressive, given how poorly Gmail tends to render email.
  • While it’s an image-heavy email, there is some text. Not a ton relative to the size of the email, but some. The email isn’t one big image.

What I don’t like so much? The sheer size. Whether you look at file size, dimensions, side scrolling, how many times you have to hit “Page Down,” whatever… this is a gigantic email.

Let’s break it down in more detail:

  • How is someone supposed to load this on a mobile device? What about slower internet connections?
  • Doesn’t having to scroll side-to-side make the email less usable and a poorer subscriber experience?
  • Will subscribers realize they have to side scroll? In 1024 x 768 you can’t really see the note on the right-hand side of the newsletter.
  • Do the images have to be shown in their full size within the email? Why not link smaller, low-res versions (none of those images are clickable, by the way) to hi-res versions on the Stuck in Customs website?

My Thoughts on This Email & Best Practices

Stuck in Customs breaks a number of best practices, mostly related to size (of the emails) and location (of the sidebar signup form – it’s off the screen on a number of monitor sizes).

But in spite of that, and my years of exposure to best practices, studies, etc… I can’t say they’re not doing what’s right for their audience.

Starting from scratch, I would never have made the newsletter like this. I would have made it no more than 600px wide. I would have put low-res versions of the images in the email, and linked them to high-res versions online.

But Trey did it the way he did it, and he has a lot of subscribers, none of whom (from what I can see) are complaining to him about the size.

Part of this may be his audience, but I’d bet it also has something to do with his newsletter signup page, which sets expectations so well.

Questions For You To Think About

  • What do you think of Stuck in Customs’ email?
  • What best practices matter most to you?
  • Do you think there are some best practices that can/should be ignored at times? Which ones?
  • Which best practices are sacred and inviolable?

I’m curious to get your thoughts on this… share them below!

No, the irony that I wrote a really long blog post about a really long email is not lost on me. :)