Designing email campaigns can feel like an adventure–and not always the fun kind.

No, sometimes you’re Gandalf fighting the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm (Tolkien references end here, I promise).

The good news is that you're not alone, and have a number of paths you can choose. Your options?

  • Drag-and-drop email builders.
  • Tweaking existing HTML templates.
  • Coding HTML templates from scratch (and let’s face it, ain’t nobody got time for that).

To get you started on the road from the Shire (I lied), I’ve compiled some of the best templates and resources out there so you can quickly start building high converting emails that don’t leave your readers lost in the woods.

But first, you’re going to need...

Marketing email checklist

No two emails are the same, but a few guidelines apply to almost all of them:

  • Crisp, persuasive copy
  • Clear and well-defined CTA
  • Consistent design

Want more detail about writing effective email copy? Check out our guide to writing great copy.


Email copy starts with your subject line and ends with the footer.

The subject line is your biggest driver of open rates–and your conversions will track your opens. Given their importance, most marketers we've talked to have spent as much time crafting the perfect subject line as they do on the rest of the copy.

A good subject line starts a conversation the reader wants to finish. Make sure your body copy follows through on the promise of your subject line; failing to provide readers with the carrot dangled in front of them can leave them salty. Copy should be concise, persuasive, and set the stage for the...


The Call to Action (CTA) is the heart of a marketing email–without it, your reader will just move on to the next email and you’ve wasted the time you spent painstakingly aligning images and making sure the email looks right on your boss’ Zune phone (why did they even make that?).


  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Use persuasive, action-oriented text
  • Make CTAs highly visible


  • Misrepresent your pitch
  • Use vague language (i.e. "Learn more..")
  • Have competing CTAs


Emails have limited design capacity. With so many unknowns (Mobile or desktop? How will it render? How long will the reader even look at the email?) keeping it simple is usually the best plan. Make sure your logo and branding is consistent for immediate recognizability, and get straight to the point. We usually recommend a simple, single-column layout with a stack of hero image, body copy, and CTA.

Don’t Forget: The majority of email opens are on mobile devices! Be mobile friendly or perish.

Building blocks: Choose Wisely

There are a plethora of services looking to aid marketers in their quest for email dominance, but figuring out how they work–and how they're different–can be confusing.

You’ve got basically got two options: a builder or code it yourself.

Drag and Drop

Email builders like MailChimp and Constant Contact are the best friend of the one-person marketing team. They allow you to create, test, send, and track your email campaigns in one package.

Actually creating the email is just a part of the email marketing lifecycle–you need to build your list, monitor performance, and remove unsubscribes–and most email builders are bundled inside of an Email Service Provider (ESP) that will help you with the entire lifecycle.

Not sure where to start? No worries, MailChimp found that their most commonly used template is their simplest one-column design (which works great for mobile users).


Email builders are designed to be simple to use. By just choosing the right layout and tweaking a couple of colors, you can design an email that's mobile friendly and follows design best practices.

MailChimp and Constant Contact also allow you to send test emails, view desktop and mobile previews, provide colorful visualizations of campaign engagement, and will store your entire email list as long as...


You’re willing to pay. You can only get so far with a "free" email builder before you need to pay up.

Email builders are designed to be simple to use, and that makes them, well, simple. These builders provide one-size-fits-all emails that don’t allow for detailed customization.

Everyone is using them. If you want your emails to stand out in the crowd–or demonstrate a level of sophistication and polish for your brand, that free template from Mailchimp might not be the right look for you.

Get started with drag and drop builders:

HTML Templates

Using an HTML template provides you with more precise control over the design of your marketing emails.

The catch: You need to know–or be willing to pay someone who knows–HTML to design and edit them.

With HTML templates, you have two options–finding existing code and tweaking it (there are a ton of free templates you can download) or basing your template off of a coding framework like Foundation from Zurb. If you're familiar with Bootstrap for building websites, you'll feel right at home with Foundation.


The sky is the limit. By designing your own email templates you can use any layout that best fits your brand and content–and creating something that stands out from the crowd.

Writing your own template also frees you to integrate your marketing emails with the rest of your software application–meaning you could use the same infrastructure you use to send your transactional emails. That means every email your customers receive will look the same and you won't need to worry about synchronizing your customers' email preferences (and bounces) across multiple providers.


Just because you can design with HTML doesn’t mean you should. I've seen seasoned developers reduced to tears trying to figure out why a two-column layout doesn't work in Outlook 2007.

Developing HTML emails is a specialized skill with very difficult technical constraints, and writing your own means more work–and more things to go wrong in your template. With email builders, you can rely on the experience of the millions of emails that have already been sent with the template.

Get started with HTML templates

Pushing Send

The perfect email solution is the one that best fits your needs.

If you need ease of use, check out a builder like MailChimp. If you’re looking for more customization and control–and the technical hurdle isn't a problem–write the HTML yourself.

And if you’re worried about going alone to Mount Doom, start an email template with Lightboard - we’d love to be your Samwise.