One column or two columns? That’s one of the questions you need to ask yourself when designing an email newsletter. Should you present your information in one column of stacked content or two columns with the second column usually being a narrower sidebar.
There’s no easy answer. Both formats have their advantages so your choice will depend on content, platform and audience preferences.
Easy to scan
You may not want to hear this but people don’t have a lot of time to spend looking at your email. The easier you can make it for them to scroll through and scan what you’re offering them the better. One column of stacked paragraphs or blocks of content is very easy to look through and pick out what you want from it.
If you step back from your computer about ten feet, that’s about what your email will look like at first glance on a mobile device. Simple layouts are very in vogue now thanks to how well they work on mobile devices like iPhones and Blackberrys. A second column makes the rest of the content much smaller proportionally since everything gets scaled to a fixed width.
With the difficulties in general of getting your email to look right in every email reader, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. A sidebar can present issues from a coding and design standpoint. If one column is a lot longer than the other and your design doesn’t take this into account you could end up with an unbalanced design. Plus, keeping in mind that background images don’t display properly in Microsoft Outlook, you are limited with how you can delineate your columns visually.
You’ll see later that this can be done in a two column approach too, but with a stacked one column layout you can devote the first section of the entire newsletter to a clear and very clickable set of links.
If you’re making a choice about email layout based on your table of contents anchor links, then it might depend on the format of your links as to how you wish to display them. Shorter links (rather than lengthy article titles) might be better suited in a narrow sidebar. Also, if you want to have different types of links (links within the email plus links outside to your website) you might want to stack them in separate areas in a sidebar.
Let’s say your newsletter has a series of articles but there are one or two pieces of content that either need to be separated from the rest or don’t require the same amount of space as other articles. It could be a bio, a special offer, a pull quote from an article or a featured link. If these items are structurally different from your core content then a second column can help make them stand out.
Maybe the most obvious use for a second column is to designate a clearly defined area for placing ad banners in your email.
Of all these items, the most important to consider might be whether your email newsletter is mobile-friendly for those devices that display HTML messages (like the iPhone). If you’re a mobile-user yourself you know how much you check email on your phone or PDA. Making a good impression on those devices is an important aspect of designing your email.