Learn From a Great Email Newsletter Example: Kayak

After ripping apart some poor email examples, I think it’s high time we point out someone who’s doing an email newsletter right.

I’ve been getting emails from travel planning site Kayak.com for a couple weeks. In each issue I’m impressed by their email savvy, from content to design to the little extras that make me so likely to use them to plan my trips.

Why do I like Kayak’s emails — both as an email marketing guy and as a subscriber — so much?

Examples of Kayak’s emails

Before we go any further, take a look at 2 issues of their email newsletter that I’ve received:

(Click the above images for full-size versions.)

What do you think of them? Here’s my take:

They build a relationship, rather than going for the hard sell

As a member of several frequent flyer programs, I get emails from a number of airlines. I also get emails from time to time from other travel sites where I’m a member.

Rather than pushing for a sale right away, Kayak keeps my attention with great content.

I’ve never received an email campaign from any of them that tries to connect with me. They’re just so… all-sell, all-the-time, all about price.

Kayak, on the other hand, doesn’t scream at me about the latest deals.

Their emails sell the idea of traveling. Each section gets me excited about a destination, as if the emails were made up of postcards from friends who were visiting each place.

And even though I’m not usually looking to go anywhere, I often click through just to see what it might cost to take a trip. Just for fun (when was the last time your email campaign had subscribers going to your website just for fun? Try it.).

They’re well-designed and easy to read

This is exactly the kind of email that comes to mind (for me) when someone asks for an example of a “Light HTML” email message.

  • They cleverly separate each section with a header (the destination name).
  • They provide navigation at the top of the email to each section/destination, and each section has a link back to the top.
  • Navigation is text, not images, so it’s even useful with images disabled.
  • They distinguish their own content from sponsored content/ads by using lightly shaded backgrounds. Interspersing shaded sections with the main content also makes the email seem shorter than it actually is.
  • They put their logo in the upper left-hand corner of the email, so it appears in the preview pane, and they keep it small enough that it doesn’t get in the way of other content at the top of the email.

They’re targeted to me

And oh boy, is it easy to see what a trip might cost.

Did you see what they did in the sidebar? They put links to “cheap flights from Philadelphia.

When I signed up they asked me what my home airport was, and they’re using that to get me from reading their email to making a purchase. The links even go to a flight search page that’s pre-filled with Philadelphia as the departing airport.

With what is really just basic segmentation and personalization — nothing difficult or complex — Kayak makes a smooth transition from inbox to web.

They encourage communication

Look at the footer of the email.

Rather than hiding behind a “do not reply” type of address and using email as a way to talk at me, they tell me they want to hear from me!

What’s especially great about this is they give me multiple ways to contact them:

  • The link in their email goes to a feedback form on their site.
  • Unlike the company in our email footer example a while back, they send from an email address that forwards to their help desk, so even if I reply instead of using their feedback form, I can still get in touch with them.

Anything else?

I feel like I’m rambling a bit here, so I’ll turn it over to you.

What did you like about these emails?

Or didn’t you like them (and if so, why not)?

How do you feel you can apply these tactics to your own email marketing campaigns?


  1. John Reiling

    4/2/2008 12:45 pm

    Pretty good. This made me realize that when I only put the deal in the email – I recently did this in order to not make the recipients read too much info – I am actually limiting myself. Valuable content would make the email more welcome and more likely to be opened.

  2. Mitch Tarr

    4/2/2008 12:52 pm

    I don’t think marketers appreciate the value of ‘build the relationship’ as much as they should.
    It’s the relationship that allows for the sell-sell-sell to work.
    Good example of a smart email campaign.

  3. Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.

    4/2/2008 1:00 pm

    I also like Kayak’s newsletter because they spotlight the most appealing reasons for visiting the places they feature, encourage comments and target their email to the receiver.

    Their email has motivated me to implement better navigation and aim for light HTML.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Miroslav

    4/2/2008 1:31 pm

    I am impressed with the clear message in the sample.A lot to think about..

  5. Brad Isaac

    4/2/2008 2:26 pm

    I like their newsletter example. But I’m still torn on the plain text vs. html/lighthtml arguments. The best click through rate I ever had (90%) was on a plain text email written in a conversational tone.

    So I still agonize about which is better plain or flashy… I can see that Kayak would have to do more HTML because of their subject matter. But for a self-development newsletter? I’m still on the fence.

  6. Justin Premick

    4/2/2008 2:53 pm


    I see where you’re coming from. There are definitely still people who have found plain text to work just fine, and you may ultimately never elect to go with HTML.

    I don’t know that I’d distinguish HTML from text based on "flashiness." Kayak’s emails, while HTML, certainly aren’t flashy – they just use a few of HTML’s advantages (navigation links, color, limited imagery) to be more usable and engaging. Very different from the kind of email you’d get from say, Adobe or Apple.

    It’s also nice to be able to track opens and compare opens-to-clicks (to see if people aren’t clicking because they’re not opening/reading, or because they’re not compelled by the copy in the email.

    Of course, that’s just my $.02. You still may find text to be better for you.

  7. Connie Sanders

    4/2/2008 3:33 pm

    I really liked it. It looked very friendly, and professional. It looked very professional. I don’t know if I can make one look that good. Text email I can do. I wouldn’t want to send an email in html that looked yucky.

  8. john

    4/3/2008 4:56 am

    Relationship building and continued relationship building is a great disciine, even in the smaller details we can communicate details.

    How the customer interprets these details is shown in the point of purchase!

  9. Bill

    4/3/2008 8:35 am

    My only hesitation with this is getting emails through with images and html formatting. I haven’t had much luck in the past with it.

    I do however, offer the same sort of value putting out a monthly pdf full color magazine with 8-10 articles and it works much the same in building a relationship. Also, by hitting reply to any email my customers contact me directly and I strive to reply to most within 2-3 hours. Many people have commented on the quality of the magazine and the quick reply from me directly.

    All the best!

  10. Dorothy

    4/3/2008 11:41 am

    I too have been working on building relationships with my potential customers. Networking – either in person or over the Internet has been the driving force in my business. Relationships is where the business is at.

  11. David

    4/3/2008 3:27 pm

    Thank you for sharing this superb example.

    As a novice, it looks to me like a full blog page sent via email. I should imagine that what you express as "nothing difficult or complex" techniques would require extensive customization and linkage to function properly with external sources from within the email… but I am no expert in that area.

    It is inspirational. Now that we have seen the model, perhaps you could send us a brief explanation of HOW this model was constructed and linked (location specific to the reader).

  12. Kathleen

    4/3/2008 5:34 pm

    I really enjoyed seeing this example. There are a lot of very good points and thanks for beaking them down.

    Lots of different ideas to think about!


  13. Graham

    4/3/2008 11:51 pm

    We should remember that Western Civilization has a typographic tradition. Granted, the Web has invented new ways of exploiting that tradition.

    But let us not forget that the basics of type–the paragraph, the indent, the initial cap, bold, italic and underscore, etc.–are there to guide the eye through the content of the message. They make it easier to read, even inviting.

    When we see a gray block of copy (as with Kayak) with little or no formatting, the eye gets turned off. It can’t see where thoughts start and where they end: "Hey, gimme me a break. Give it to me in thin slices…please!"

    Bottom line: If html allows me to do only that, then I’m in. But with one caveat: As with crack cocaine, the seductive high of html lures us into graphic overdose.

    As a result, the minds of both the sender and the receiver become blurred; they fail to get to the core of the real message…if, indeed, there ever was one.

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  15. yves

    4/7/2008 9:44 am

    thanks for sharing!

  16. Levon

    4/8/2008 12:33 am

    Great reverse engineer job!

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  18. Mireille

    4/12/2008 3:37 am

    Great ! It’s not only a newsletter for sell and sell only. one of the best point is sharing informations of a place and completing by everything can be done around the city you’re visited. It’s a new way of informing and <i think it’s the best approach right now to convince people to plan a trip.

  19. paul

    4/14/2008 5:26 am

    Great lookiing email i would take the time to read and visit the site always great to get an email that grabs you when so many are just interested in getting you to spend.

  20. Ian Cowley

    4/14/2008 10:37 am

    Building relationships is powerful. If you throw in a little brand personality it’s unbeatable.

  21. peter hobday

    4/15/2008 12:09 pm

    Justin – unless I have missed it, you give no data on how successful Kayak is compared to other similar sits. Even some Profit / Loss figures for the company and how that relates to their email activity would be useful.

    Subscriptions Strategy trades in this kind of information, and Aweber would be doing its clients a great service if it would get permission to at least tell us what is working and what is not.

    We all see promotions we like, and those we don’t like. They come across our screens and in the mail every day. But what works and what doesn’t? Those are the real questions. Personal opinion is of little use as neither you nor I can put our minds into the small percentage of people who respond to these promotions. That is why comment should be results-based.

    I am not being negative here. Just asking for facts. Aweber has plenty to share.

  22. Justin Premick

    4/15/2008 12:29 pm

    Hi Peter,

    I don’t have any data on how Kayak’s email campaigns tie into overall revenue/profit. However, on the whole they seem to be doing well (see this TechCrunch post regarding their acquisition of competitor SideStep).

    I definitely agree that it would be useful to have some stats available, and we do offer them when we are able (see this post on split testing calls to action, for example).

    If I’m able to get any more details on Kayak’s email program I’ll comment/update this post with them.

  23. peter hobday

    4/15/2008 1:48 pm

    Justin – many thanks for your prompt reply.

    Kayak should be happy to tell you how well their emails do! They will probably tell you if you ask.

    I have already seen your split test on buttons vs text and commented on it.

    It’s highly useful information, although some of the commentators don’t seem to realize it!

    That is the kind of data that we can all use to make more profit. Clearly, the lesson is use buttons to increase response, but then change back to text.

    Valuable info – thanks!

  24. Justin Premick

    4/22/2008 8:58 am

    Hi Luke,

    Images are back – sorry about the hiccup.

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  26. Paul Seales

    4/30/2008 12:57 am

    April 29th, 2008 @1:38am

    Hi Justin,

    I find Kayak emails to be very welcoming, easy and enjoyably appetizing.
    It’s like reading a post card from a friend on a great vacation.
    They exert no sales pressure at all but somehow I’m there vicariously.

    Thank you for sharing. A picture is worth a thousand words and these pictures are enhanced with friendly words enticing you to travel to inviting places.

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  29. Bob Grove

    1/8/2010 11:27 am

    Great article. I am also in the travel industry and have been looking at Rick Steve’s newsletters. They also avoid the hard sell and consequently get my attention. You are right, all the airlines try to do is sell the steak, not the sizzle.

  30. Wanderlert

    1/21/2011 12:44 am

    Thank you for breaking down the example, it’s really useful and help me a lot.

  31. JK

    12/19/2011 3:10 pm

    Their emails are WAY too wordy for modern email marketing. They would greatly benefit from having summary lines that entice and link back to full content for each on website. Reading through emails like this takes a lot of work for the consumer–who has the time and attention span to read through all of this content at once?