7 Best Practices for Delivering the Best E-mail Experience
Nathaniel Hawthorne introduced us to the Puritan New England concept of
visually identifying “impure” citizens with the mark of a scarlet
letter. More than 150 years later, the marketing industry is dealing
with a scarlet letter of its own: the Big Red X.
The Big Red X is what many people see in an e-mail where an image,
Flash or plug-in, is supposed to be shown. This happens most often
because the setting on the e-mail management software that would allow
images to be displayed is turned off.
In the wake of increasing computer bugs and viruses, the trend in
e-mail management software is to place default settings for images to
off. This practice is now pervasive in free consumer e-mail services
such as Google and large corporate e-mail systems using Microsoft
Outlook. The result is a Big Red X that appears in place of an image.
Since most HTML e-mail relies on images for enhanced messaging, as well
as tracking, the effectiveness of both is greatly reduced. In fact, the
more images used in an HTML e-mail, the more Big Red Xs are generated,
further degrading the experience. In other words, the better an HTML
e-mail looks when images are turned on, the worse it looks when they
are turned off.
The challenge for e-mail marketers is providing a high-engagement
experience for subscribers with minimal Big Red Xs and maximum results.
Short of knowing specific e-mail subscriber software clients, following a few best practices can provide good results.
- Understand the shift. Understand that HTML
e-mail has changed in a way that reduces previous barriers to using
multimedia. Knowing that most rich media studies support the use of
multimedia for improved response, it may be time to perform a pilot and
test the results for your list. After all, it's the results that matter
- Manage visual assets. When building an
HTML e-mail with images or multimedia, combine as many objects in one
to reduce the total number of Big Red Xs seen by a viewer with images
off. Always use “Alt” tags to describe the missing asset. Further,
don't rely on images or multimedia for your primary messaging. Many
e-mails use images for the important copy because fonts can be
controlled in images, but this is a bad practice for which “Alt” tags
don't easily compensate.
- Trim down tables.
Try not to use tables for large header images or media, as
pre-allocated table space will be maintained, which could cause the
text to fall “below the fold.” Additionally, nested tables often break
when e-mails are forwarded. Many organizations use background images in
tables to promote multimedia when a viewer has images on but multimedia
off. Even though multimedia should not be in a table, the preferred
practice is to adjust the height and width settings for the object, as
scaling to 100 percent may reduce the actual size too much to view in a
- Keep the code simple.
are not supported. Instead, use inline styling, multimedia or standard
HTML to achieve the desired affect. Similarly, forms used for data
capture and workflows are not supported by Outlook 2007 and could
render inconsistently in other e-mail clients. Using a secured Flash
form can help increase results.
- Don't hide the URL. Always
present the URL to which a link will go, rather than hiding it behind a
“click here” statement. Not only is it good form for viewers who print
e-mails, but links often break when an e-mail is forwarded.
Additionally, as most e-mail service providers change links for
tracking purposes, the replacement links become a permanent part of the
delivered e-mail and will expire over time. It makes sense to maintain
a corporate or vanity domain for all URLs as a sign of legitimacy and
search indexing. This is good advice for the “sender” and “reply to”
- Remember fundamentals. Make certain to place a link to “view as Web page” and “add to Address Book” within the copy.
- Cut down on animation. When using multimedia, remember
to de-emphasize the animation and re-emphasize the action. Rich media
for the sake of rich media is not a good practice. Since file size is
of the essence, reduce your HTML source code, optimize embedded objects
and stay away from attachments.
Scott Madlener is executive vice president of interactive strategies at Performance Communications Group, a Chicago-based interactive agency. Reach Scott at email@example.com.