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. 🙂


  1. Kevin Hillstrom

    11/5/2009 3:08 pm

    I appreciate it when people like you are open minded enough to think that something that is outside the mainstream could potentially work — good job!

  2. Dave Doolin

    11/5/2009 3:24 pm

    I go with 45-60 characters of plain text.

    However, I *have* been mulling over some
    fairly radical notions on web page navigation.
    Some of which are employed in this newsletter.
    (I signed up btw, looking at the first autoresponse
    right now.)

    I used to tell people I taught rock climbing and
    vertical caving to *memorize and practice the
    rule book* until you know it COLD. Until it’s
    wired into your bones. Then throw it
    away and never, ever think of it again. Breaking
    rules is dangerous… but at a high level of game,
    so is blind adherence to rules.

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time.

  3. Kimball

    11/5/2009 3:36 pm

    The absolute worse website I have ever seen, and I have seen many, looked horrible. Then I found out it was doing better than $200,000 per month in sales. Point being: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It all comes down to the numbers, and the above mentioned must be doing well.

  4. Joshua U

    11/5/2009 5:21 pm

    I imagine the size of their email and website could be okay with their audience because it’s a photography market who may have large screens and appreciate the size.

    A friend of mine released her book called ‘Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst "Best" Practices of Business Today’ one and half months ago ( ) I find it interesting how accepted practices one day can change the next – especially in today’s marketplace.

  5. g

    11/5/2009 6:06 pm

    You need to get a wide screen. The site looks fine, the newsletter looks fine, and web stats show that no one uses 1024×768 anymore. And if they do, screw them. Should I optimize my sites for Netscape too?

    Their site works because it is exceptional and not boring.

  6. Matt

    11/5/2009 6:06 pm

    I see a lot of veterans using just plain text. Is this just for deliverability? As of now I have an attachment newsletter and my spam assassin is always a 4 or higher. It makes me wonder how many of my newsletter emails are actually making it into subscriber’s in boxes.

    btw- the above newsletter is very nice. So is 200k per month, but I can’t help if I’m not being seen (or rather read) and I sure can’t form a relationship with someone.

  7. Yee Shun Jian

    11/5/2009 11:46 pm

    Wow the sheer size of the image caused my laptop to lag… time to get a new one? Lol…

    But yeah, love those pics… just proves that content is more important than formatting? Of course ideally, we would love to have everything in place such that it’s more user-friendly but yeah like Kimball said… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

    Maybe the site owner can do some testing though… to see if a more user-friendly format will increase sales?

  8. CJ

    11/6/2009 4:31 am

    I use a large banner pic at the top of my newsletter so it reflects the look of the website.

    I’ve tried rendering it with CSS and smaller images (which is how I do it on the website) but on testing it doesn’t seem to work in some webmail apps. I don’t know enough to employ workarounds for all eventualities, so have to go with the big image.

    As for other images, I just use small pics to take the bare look off the newsletter, and only include teaser straps to link to the site so apart from the banner the newsletter isn’t text or pic heavy.

    My newsletter sign up form explains what subscribers can expect when they do – I’ve found it’s never wise to assume they will understand what they’re doing.

  9. Paul Lackey

    11/6/2009 6:24 am

    Such a beautiful newsletter to be so cumbersome to view. Just think, if it is developing more than $200,000. per month, how much more might it be if viewers like me subscribed.

    My Dad always said, "make it easy for them to do business with you". That message has stood me in good stead throughout life.

  10. Sean Breslin

    11/6/2009 7:24 am

    I go with Kimball on this one! The email was a work of art, I respect the level of skill that went into creating it.

  11. Justin Premick

    11/6/2009 8:13 am

    Thanks everyone for your perspectives on this! Interesting discussion… keep it coming!

    A quick note: a couple of you have mentioned the $200K figure that Kimball mentioned — that wasn’t made in reference to this website. Kimball is referencing another, separate, example. I don’t have any revenue data for this site, nor do I claim to be able to so much as guess what it earns.

  12. Jim Smith

    11/6/2009 11:39 am

    I think this points to the relevance of knowing your market and not worrying about the other 95% of the world. I’ve been told my emails are ‘too long’, but I average close to 100% on open rate. Clearly, my audience gets my message. I believe that good content trumps the presentation any time, any how. I’ll read an ugly ezine if I get value from it. I’ll unsubscribe from a pretty one that sends me crap or irrelevancy.

  13. Ron

    11/6/2009 1:18 pm

    Personally I think it is a load of crap. I would unsubscribe in a minute and I am usually too lazy to do that.

    I don’t care how much it makes them but I bet it would make a lot more if they would optimize it a bit better and add links so you could read it on their site instead of blasting your inbox with a monster.

    To the guy who says no one uses 1024 x 768 anymore , I bet you don’t make much money with that attitude. You would never read that on a laptop or notebook, let alone an iphone

  14. Daniel Foster

    11/6/2009 2:43 pm

    Looks like that newsletter broke the internet. When I click your link to see the full email I just get this:

  15. Gail Ruth

    11/6/2009 3:40 pm

    After reading your blog, I went to their website and loved it. Liking what I saw, I subscribed to their newsletter and it blew me away. I’ve already passed it onto friends who are totally engaged by it as well. I just want to say to Stuck in Customs is that your stuff rocks, and it’s for people like me. I’m now quite a fan. Don’t change a thing. You are truly one of the jewels of the web. I will certainly become a customer as well.

    Thanks, Justin, for the heads-up.

  16. Angela Wills

    11/6/2009 8:39 pm

    Very interesting example! I love the newsletter signup page and it could be applied to many different niches I believe.

    I’ve also heard that the first email out to your subscribers is probably when they are the most attentive so good for them for taking advantage of that. I guess is people decide to stick around after all that content then they are going to be loyal subscribers hooked on great info.

  17. Jon Coleman

    11/7/2009 1:53 pm

    Beautiful stuff.

    I really dislilke having to sidescroll.

    I usually tailor my monitor to accomodate my slight vision issues, so about 1280×1024. I tried it on my other computer with a wide screen to fit, but had to go get my glasses. Re g’s comment…um What web stats, and how do I get them for myself?

  18. Max Miller

    11/8/2009 7:08 pm

    I have to agree with Yee and Paul. If it were user friendly might they see an increase in traffic? Forcing people to go the long way will not make long term customers out of your members. Sooner or later the novelty wears off.

  19. Zipping Through Tokyo, and a Live Video Chat with you on Thursday!

    11/17/2009 12:44 am

    […] someone sent me this full “analysis” of our newsletter! Hehe. It is entitled “Is it Ever OK to Break Best Practices?” I know that most users here have a high screen resolution, good bandwidth, and enjoy seeing […]

  20. Stephen

    11/17/2009 1:00 am

    This is an absolutely lovely web site and I for one have subscribed to the email and haven’t really had an issue with anything so far. I don’t think the few of you that commented negatively really has an appreications for what Trey is prouducing here. Of course its not for everyone so hey just don’t sign up. From the stats I don’t think the size has really hurt him and he seems pretty business savy so I’m sure he’s always looking to improve if we’er to improve his bottom line.

  21. Joost van der Leij

    11/17/2009 3:42 pm

    I never follow best practises and it works for me. Better to just test everything and keep what works.

  22. Russ

    11/17/2009 5:35 pm

    I am a subscriber to the letter and a daily visitor to the site.

    Trey’s photography and processing techniques are outstanding and that is why we subscribe and visit. The formatting itself is irrelevant. When you are expecting to see big amazing works of art then you are willing to accept a little unconventional scrolling, or an extra moment to let a page load.

    And for the record, I have even visited the site from my blackberry pearl with success.

  23. Charlie Brown

    11/17/2009 9:58 pm

    "WAY too much color." – Ansel Adams

    "Where’s the hope?" – the big BO

    "More cowbell." – Will Farrell

  24. Justin Premick

    11/18/2009 10:16 am

    Great comments all around here, guys & gals. I love seeing the different perspectives, and it’s been especially cool to see a few readers stop by and share their thoughts as subscribers to this newsletter.

  25. G

    11/30/2009 11:17 am

    I’d be very glad if everyone mentions what’s in the newsletter in a comparison with what’s on the site/rss. I subscribe RSS and don’t really want to miss anything but newsletters usually are taken as alternative to RSS with pretty the same information or just the links to the new entries. However, if there is a difference, nobody bothers to mention it.