An argument against “email navigation bars”

An argument against “email navigation bars”

By 16 September 2015 Articles 14 Comments

The “email navigation bar” has been a mainstay of email design for a long time. Take a random dive into your inbox and check out any promotional/marketing emails you’ve received. (Especially from online retailers.) How many of them have the eponymous navigation bar? I’m pretty sure the answer’s going to be the majority of them.

I’m here to make a stand against the conventional “email navigation bar”. I have my reasons. And while I don’t expect everyone to agree to them, I hope you’ll come away with a new viewpoint.

The Email navigation bar caught in the wild

Here’s just a few of emails with a “navigation bar” in them.

Argos have made the decided that they need the entire website navigation in their emails. This could be the most in-elegant implementation possible. With all these links crammed into a small area, this is not thumb-friendly on mobile devices.

screenshot-argos-small

Boden have all but two of their website navigation links in the “email navigation bar”. I can see that this is appealing and it was a smart move to not include all website navigation links in the email. But yet, for smaller devices not only is this top “email navigation bar” in the email, they’ve duplicated their efforts after the main content – see here.

screenshot-boden

Here Net-A-Porter have gone one step further than Boden. A selection of eight of their website navigation links are on the “email navigation bar”. Presumably, these are either click-throughs that perform well or categories that they would like to have more exposure for. For smaller devices Net-A-Porter have gone full-on hamburger.

screenshot-nap

I’d even say these are “so-called” email navigation bars, they aren’t navigation bars. Clicking on any one of these links will not navigate you through the email. They are click-throughs. Click-throughs to the site or company the email is from. So why is it called a “navigation bar”?

Email design ≠ Web design

Back in the day, it was thought that emails should look like the website/online organisation/company they’re being sent on behalf of. Use the same structure. And we’ve sort of stuck to the same design patterns. But I find this to be a bit problematic. Emails aren’t websites, so why are we trying to design them as such?

Your campaigns are lying to you

Well one thing the “email navigation bars” have going for them is that they generate a high volume of clicks. And this is usually the argument for having them in your email design. But think about this for a second. If you send a campaign and the majority of your clicks have come from your “email navigation bar” rather than the body of your campaign – has your campaign been a success? Sure you’ve sent an email and your customers are reminded that you exist, shown interest and clicked. But not because of the content of your campaign.

Take it or leave it, you can’t have it both ways

The problems keep on coming with “email navigation bars” with the sheer number of devices that need to be supported by email these days. There are some incredible elegant solutions to handle email navigation bars.
One solution is the hamburger menu, to accommodate smaller devices. But again, this is using web design solutions to email problems. Reducing the number of links in the navigation bar for smaller devices. Or take the “navigation bar” out altogether for smaller devices, which is an easy solution. But considering the growing numbers of email opens occurring on mobile devices, you’re taking away this prized click through area away from the customers who open on mobile. So why was it on the email in the first place?

Learn from your “email navigation bars”

“Email navigation bars” aren’t going anywhere. They generate too much interest from the users. They’re an easy win for marketers in terms of click-throughs. Would I be so harsh to say a lazy win? Capitalise on the items that are in your navigation bar that generate the most clicks. Incorporate them into your campaign. Make a bigger feature out of them. Who knows, it might just work.

The future of the “email navigation bar”

Perhaps we can give the “email navigation bar” another name? Priority click-throughs. In-email website navigation bar. The “please-please-please click through our email” area. Or just say what they are – website navigation bars. Plopped into an email.

And maybe we need to be brave and trust that the campaigns we’ve crafted will generate the click-throughs we need so much. It’s refreshing to see emails from the likes of Mr Porter, Finery London and Howies with fantastic designs and engaging content and no “email navigation bar”.

Jaina Mistry

Author

Jaina is an email marketing specialist with nearly 10 years experience, currently working at Padawan Group where she spends her days in the trenches of email marketing from design and build to strategy, testing and analysis.


  • Niven Ranchhod

    Brilliant write up. I’ve always been a proponent for navigation in emails.

    I’m still a fan but now I’m questioning to what point do we include it.
    > Anchor links for the content in the email
    > Important or favourite links to the site
    > Grouped links. E.g. Men’s & Women’s clothing sections grouped into a ‘Clothing’ link in the navigation which takes us to a landing page where the user can choose their appropriate gender.
    > Move it to the footer

    I would have to say, minimal, all out but only in the footer or not at all…

    • http://time-wellspent.com Jaina

      Thanks Niven!

      Great points re what to include in the navigation if you were to keep it in. I’m a fan of having the navigation at the bottom as I’m also a big believer that customers scroll when they see emails, especially on mobile.

      Grouping links is a good idea too, to reduce the number of links in the navigation, as long as there’s a good follow through for the customer after the click.

      Really happy that I managed to get you thinking about navigation bars in email 😀

      • Sweet CRM Design

        As an email designer and coder I often find that clients are very keen to have a site nav at the top, but I always question why they want to put links in above the content which forms the whole point of the email, It’s as if they feel obliged to do it, as if they’ll take any click they can get.

        I much prefer a nav on the footer if anywhere- keep the focus on the main messages of the email and don’t interrupt the narrative flow with a gratuitous nav bar.

        Good article BTW!

        • http://time-wellspent.com Jaina

          Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!

          I’m a big believer in thinking that we, as the email marketing professionals, need to educate our clients when they have requests. Or make suggestions based on tests and results. After all, it’s why they hired us, right? Educate them as to if it’s a good idea to put it at the top, test positions and tests links on navigation bars to see what actually works.

          The nav in the footer is a better idea – like you’ve said, it keeps the focus of the message on the message itself. And if by the end of the content of the message, the campaign hasn’t got the customer clicking, perhaps that bottom nav will get the customer to take action.

  • http://www.tedgoas.com/ Ted Goas

    Email design ≠ Web design – Absolutely agree! We shouldn’t include the kitchen sink in every email. But even if we *must* include navigation bars, I agree we should be doing them as responsibility as possible. Trying a number of designs (http://responsiveemailpatterns.com/) and tracking the results.

    Though take my comment with a grain of salt: I don’t work in retail and am fortunate enough to design emails that don’t require website navigation.

    • http://time-wellspent.com Jaina

      And that’s what your opinion is just as important – you’ve worked on email in other sectors and so have seen another side of email design. Which is just as valid even if it’s not in the same industry. Well, that’s how I see it!

      Designing email responsibly is exactly the point – love those responsive email patterns – great ideas that make a good starting point to really test and tailor your email designs or your subscribers.

    • http://www.emailvendorselection.com Jordie van Rijn

      Love to hear what the results are from your test Ted!

      Have a look at this article, it also goes into responsive email patterns, but specifically for navigation: https://www.displayblock.com/2015/08/19/responsive-design-options-for-navigation-in-emails/

      • http://www.tedgoas.com/ Ted Goas

        Oh yes, I read your article. A few times, in fact. There are some great patterns in there, and nice to see them in production emails.

  • Niraj Ranjan Rout

    Excellent article, Jaina. It is certainly important to keep evolving rather than sticking on to the tried and tested ‘nav bar’ designs. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at hiverhq.com)

    • http://time-wellspent.com Jaina

      Thanks Niraj. Yes, all about evolution, keep trying, testing, and moving forward. Think right now email design is moving a mile a minute compared to where it has been in the last 5 years. There have been so many changes and developments coupled with new rendering capabilities in different email clients and browsers. It’s a good time to be in email!

  • http://www.emailinsider.co.uk Dan

    Couldn’t agree more. For me, nav bar is a must. On the other hand, everyone has to test it within their email programmes. Also, if you do “one fits all” type of email, nav bar will work, but with accurate targeting it becomes redundant (well, ish) because content of the email will be more engaging.

  • Paul

    Good article. I would be interested to know if anyone has tested hamburger style vs traditional “navigation bar” style on mobile devices. Which variant created a great click through?

  • Ankita Goyal
  • Pingback: PINT Blog 3 Ways to Improve Email Marketing | PINT Blog()