A custom email template design or a pre-made email template, what’s best?

When to use a custom email template design versus a pre-made email template for your email marketing campaigns? This is an important decision. Both custom email template designs and pre-made email templates can be beneficial for your email marketing. The trick is to know how and when to use them.

To throw some light on the subject, we will unravel when you need a custom email design and when standard email templates are the way to go. Let’s begin!

Custom email design versus email templates: The dilemma.

Custom email designs and templates may look like two equal choices on the surface. In terms of achieving your marketing goals, both options are quite different. Let’s compare them point by point to help you fully understand when to use a template and when – a custom design.

Functionality of your ESP

Your email marketing software (ESP) influences your choice between a custom email design and a standard template.

First of all, there is the availability of standard email templates provided by your ESP. The good news is these pre-built templates usually come with your subscription plan. In terms of diversity and attractiveness, ESP made templates may not really match the design and functionality you have in mind.

This means you will need to look for a template store to buy a standard template that corresponds to your design vision better. Or order a fully custom template to create the email you wanted.

Another functionality factor to consider is your ESP’s support for custom HTML. Not every platform offers a visual editor for custom templates. Some platforms support HTML paste only. Make sure your ESP has the right type of email editor. But for now, this might mean that you will have limited opportunities to edit your designs. Obviously you can use an external responsive email template builder, if your own email platform doesn’t live up to the task.

Personalization and brand recognition

Some basic email templates are limited in personalization and brand recognition options. Such templates are the ones pre-built in your ESP.

Personalization of standard templates depends on the ESP’s functionalities and the template’s characteristics. It’s easy to change the colors and the fonts but not the complete layout, nor the specific design details.

Well those limitations are something that custom email designs never have. (because they are custom).

Judging from our practice, people go for custom email design mostly when they want to achieve a full personalization. When you are in the web design business, you will recognize a customer saying: “I want the email template to look like my website.”

The standard designs may be too limited to achieve that look. Custom email design provides higher brand consistency across different marketing channels. This is one of its main advantages.

Here is an example of a custom email design made according to the brand’s website design.

custom email branding

Experience in email marketing

It doesn’t matter if you are a startup or have been on the market for quite some time now. If email marketing is new to you, your first task would be to figure out if it is right for you. Before investing too much time and money into it, you need to figure out a few things first. What types of email work for your business. What delivery times perform the best. What kind of content your audience engages with the most, etc.

If you are making your first steps into email marketing, the wise decision is to go with email templates.

You already have an experience in email marketing and know what works for you? Great! Now may be the perfect time to step up your game with custom email designs. Custom email designs provide a wider array of opportunities to engage your recipients. In addition, you will boost your email marketing results.

A/B testing

Both custom email designs and email templates can be used to perform A/B testing. But the extent to which you can experiment with different email looks varies greatly.

If you want to perform a simple A/B testing, you will be perfectly fine using your ESP’s pre-built templates. You can change the text of the header or the call-to-action button, or test different header photos.

If you want to go a little further and change the background colors or the colors of the design elements, some ESPs allow it, others – not. For more complex changes, you will need to use a custom email template.

When you use custom email design, you have a complete freedom to test and experiment with different email template looks. You can change layouts, size of design elements, colors, pretty much, anything.


Reusability is a priority for many businesses. Especially when it comes to choosing between an email template and a custom design. When you are low on budget or time, you most certainly need to consider reusability as a factor.

A custom email design can be made for a specific email campaign. It has unique sections and a layout designed to meet the particular campaign needs. This means that adapting it to another campaign in the future would be difficult since it will need significant code or design changes.

But you already have a custom email design made for a given campaign? Altering it to meet another campaign’s needs could be more budget-friendly than starting from scratch. Ask your agency to discuss the possibilities and choose the best option for you if this is your case.

If you want to maximize reusability, investing in a email master template is the wiser decision. Master email templates come with a variety of sections. The idea is to combine your desired sections and create differently purposed marketing emails. Master email templates can also be custom made to fit your branding. This is the golden mean to maximize reusability. And still provide recipients with a personalized experience with your brand.

email master template

Interactivity and special effects

Tabs, drop-down menus, carousels, rollovers, other interactive features in emails are still very rare. Not all email clients support interactivity. A fallback will make sure that the email still looks good if the interactive part doesn’t work.

Try to establish if your recipients mainly use email clients that support the type of interactive email you want to do. If so, your email templates with interactive features can make your campaigns more successful… and cool.

Most interactive email techniques, like the carousel in the example aren’t found in pre-built standard email templates. So if you have decided on using interactive email, 9 out of 10 times you will have to go for custom email design and coding.

A simpler way to surprise subscribers can be to use an animated GIF instead of a static picture. It can do the trick and you don’t even have to spend a fortune. Most of the email clients support GIF animation in email.

When used in custom email design, GIFs can really help you achieve impressive email looks. You can also use this image format in pre-built email templates if the template fits your design idea. Here is a great inspirational example of a custom email design with a GIF image.

gif email example


Budget is still one of the main factors determining the outcome of the “custom email design versus template” battle.

Using pre-built standard templates doesn’t really impact your budget much. The reason is, they are usually included in the subscription plan you have with your ESP.

If you are looking for a budget-friendly option to do email marketing, go for standard email templates. Even if your ESP doesn’t provide pre-built standard email templates, buying one won’t be a burden to your budget. They usually cost about $30-50 each depending on where you purchase from.

Custom email template design, can be a bit more costly. Custom design + coding costs about $250-300 depending on the studio you work with. However, if done right, custom email designs have the potential to generate a quite high ROI. In the short term – to reach the goals of the specific campaign. And in the long term – to strengthen the customer-brand relationship.

Time for preparation

Imagine that it’s Thanksgiving and you are calmly enjoying your meal. Then, it suddenly hits you. Tomorrow is Black Friday and you haven’t prepared your Black Friday email campaign, yet!

When it comes to choosing between a template or a custom design, time isn’t always a factor. Not unless you find yourself in a situation like the one described above. In such a case time becomes a priority.

From our practice, creating a custom email template design can take from 2 to 10 business days. Sometimes even more, depending on the complexity of the project.

If you need to send a campaign ASAP, go for a pre-made email template to save the most time. It is the faster option even if you need to make a few customizations. Ordering a custom email design from scratch will take much more time.

Let’s sum it up!

Deciding between a custom email template design versus template for your next email campaign is not really a dilemma. Not if you arrange your priorities right. Here is a quick summary of the factors that can determine your choice in favor of the one option over the other.

Standard email template if:
Custom email template design:
You are making your first steps in email marketing;
You are short on time;
You are looking for a budget-friendly option;
You are experienced in email marketing and ready to level up your game;
You are looking for high personalization and visual consistency with your brand;
You need to perform advanced A/B testing;
You want to include interactive elements;
You can’t find an email template to realize your design vision and email campaign goals.

What are your own reasons for choosing an email template for your email campaign over a custom design or vice versa? Expecting your thoughts in the comments below.

About Iveta Pavlova

Iveta Pavlova is a marketing specialist and content writer at MailBakery - a studio for email design and coding. She loves writing on topics like email marketing strategies, the psychology of email design, the users’ behavior, and pretty much, everything that will help you the most of this powerful marketing channel.

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