Email marketing, Social Media, Trends

A Look at Email Ten Years From Now

You'd need a crystal ball.
Have you ever wondered what email marketing will be like ten years from now? Will it still exist? What devices will people be using to read their email? We do wonder sometimes, and it can be fun to try and make some predictions about where the field is headed.

Predicting the future is always a tricky matter, and things you feel so sure about can turn out to be so wrong. A popular prediction in the fifties was that by 1970, we’d all be flying to work in our own personal airplanes, and in 1989’s Back to the Future II, predicted that in 2015, kids would be skateboarding on wheel-less hoverboards. Ten years ago, Runt of the Web made this prediction about the newly released iPhone:

“This stupid ‘iPhone’ that Apple is pedaling is never going to catch on…expect cellphones to just keep getting smaller and smaller until they reach the size of a postage stamp sometime around 2017.”

We’re not sure you could make this prediction anymore inaccurate if you tried.

In 1997, email was still a relatively new tool for most people. Back then, direct mail marketing and telemarketing were the most popular (and annoying) methods of pitching products. Email marketing was catching on, but so was its evil twin: spam. Any predictions in 1997 about where email marketing would be in 2007 undoubtedly would’ve been wrong. Between 1997 and 2007, the world of email marketing changed dramatically. HTML in email became more common, and spam got so bad that governments started passing legislation to prohibit the sending of excessive and unwanted email.

The next decade was far less eventful. By the early 2000s, the catchphrase that you should format your email “like it’s 1999” was catching on. Mailbox providers were loath to add the latest features to their email readers, fearing potential hacks and viruses. By 2007, nearly every email client restricted their email formatting capabilities to basic HTML, with no CSS options. Styles needed to be embedded within the content, and divs were out of the question; tables were preferred. During the past two years, we’ve started to see this policy loosen up, and some email apps, such as Apple’s Mail app, allow nearly every feature of HTML5, even when the individual iPhone client apps do not.

With all of this in mind, we’re going to make our own predictions about where email marketing is going, and what it might look like in 2027. Some of these predictions are already well on the way to coming true, while others are educated guesses.

Technological Convergence

Text messaging is a relatively new technology that has been quickly adopted and widely used by a broad spectrum of the population. Many of the messages that are sent via text messages could also be sent as emails, and if text messaging had not come around, email probably would have been the mechanism used. Will one of these technologies “win” and the other fade away? It doesn’t seem likely. Each of these seems to have developed its own niche. Text messages lack formatting options such fonts, tables, and colors; and a message is required to be short. Would text messages be more usable if you could send longer messages with formatted text and layout elements like HTML provides? Text messages are casual, often with spelling errors and the heavy use of abbreviations and acronyms, but that is the environment we’ve come to expect. Text messages are different enough from email messages to make them a useful tool for daily communication.

While technology could advance to allow text messages to share many of the features of email, it seems that would destroy its value, so we do not predict that will happen. In ten years people will still send short messages for nearly instantaneous communication, and will still expect little or no advertising via this method. Meanwhile, look for richer, more informative communications to come via email.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things

More of our modern devices can communicate with us in non-verbal ways. Refrigerators, thermostats, vacuums, cars, etc., all have information to push to us in ways that aren’t accomplished via simple screen displays. How will these devices push their messages in the future? Will it by via email, text messages, or some new technology that hasn’t been invented yet? Part of the challenge is the same one we face today. I would be okay with my car texting me that someone is attempting to break in, but I don’t want text messages that there is a carwash nearby offering a discount. So perhaps the Internet of Things will need to use both text messaging and email. Finding the dividing line between useful messages I want to receive from my refrigerator and annoying messages that irritate me will certainly still be an issue in ten years.

New Email Authentication Protocols

This is a safe guess. New methods of validating emails are suggested all the time. Most of these, most notably DMARC, are built on SPF and DKIM, the two current standards for email validation. We don’t see any changes in this, but we don’t think DMARC is the last word in authentication either. We can foresee new methods that would make issues such as phishing and spoofing in their current forms extinct. That’s not to say there won’t always be scammers, but anything that makes it harder on them is okay by us.

CSS Animations

Until recently, any animation in an email was limited to gifs. Now we’re starting to see some clever use of CSS animation, such as Eddie Lin’s spectacular CSS-only fireworks display that Litmus used in an email this year. Right now, their use is still a novelty, but as more email clients ease up on CSS restrictions, and folks like Justin Khoo at FreshInbox, and Anna Yeaman at StyleCampaign continue to push the envelope of what’s possible in email design, we’re bound to see more of these types of kinetic displays crop up in emails.

More Videos in Email

No big surprise here. Some email clients already allow it. Since it’s HTML5 only, it’s just a matter of time before videos become common in emails. As to how people will react to this remains to be seen, but as long as most marketers don’t start using autoplay on these them, everything should be okay. Autoplay is the wild card, nobody likes videos to start playing when they reach a web page, and they’ll hate it even more if it happens upon opening an email. How email clients react to this will depends on how their users react. It’s a double-edged sword. People like videos and respond well to them, but when poorly executed, there are few things more annoying (for more on this subject, see Using HTML5 in Email: Video).

Simpler Responsive Design Techniques

Let’s face it. Short of sending unformatted text, it is difficult to come up with a design that works as well on an iPhone as it does on a desktop monitor. That was the whole reason for responsive email design. But as we reported in our four-part series on the subject, responsive email design can be a pain the neck to implement. We can foresee a day when this won’t be such a hassle. When responsive set-ups will be so standardized that implementing will only take a couple additional properties or classes. We’re already starting to see this with CSS frameworks such as W3.CSS, Milligram, and Spectre, which don’t use any JavaScript. Expect more to come that will be specific to email. And while we’re on the topic of JavaScript…

HTML Scripting

JavaScript is a big no-no in email, and it’s easy to see why. As a programming language, it is not far removed from running an app. You’d never run an executable file that came attached to an email from someone you didn’t know (at least, we hope you wouldn’t), but opening an email that can run JavaScript is almost the same thing. Early on, some email clients tried offering JavaScript, but scam artists were quick to pounce on this.1

But we can see a day when JavaScript is abandoned in favor of newer features in HTML. HTML5 already has some of these features, but they can’t be used in email because none of the email clients recognize them yet. Eventually, most, if not all of HTML5’s features will be acceptable in email. We see this development arriving around the time that HTML8 is released. Of course, by then, email marketers will be telling us to format “like it’s 2017.”

Forms in email

Forms in Email

Right now, forms are taboo in emails. This is primarily a security issue. Forms require interactions that can include personal data, so email clients are understandably loathe to grant any email that much control. But as HTML5 achieves wider adoption in email, and designers start to really crank up what you can do with it, we can imagine a day when the email clients will find a way to make HTML-based forms acceptable without sacrificing security. If that happens, forms will start appearing in emails on a regular basis. It is the one feature we regular hear email marketers lament the absence of. If email safe scripting is ever developed, we predict this will be the first thing people will start including in their mailings.

“The Death of Email” Articles

We pretty safe on this next prediction. One thing that won’t have changed in ten years is that there will be articles predicting the death of email. In 2007, Slate magazine published an article titled “The Death of Email” in which they predicted that email would soon be eclipsed by other online services, such as “Facebook or MySpace.” Every year since then, online magazines and websites continued to predict the same thing—at least until the end of 2012, when Monetate’s quarterly report showed that email was crushing social media when it came to conversion rates. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, at least once a year, somebody writes an article declaring that email is on its way out, about to be replaced by the latest thing. Our prediction is that email will still be around in ten years, and still going strong, and so will the articles predicting its demise.

Incorrect Predictions

For our final prediction, we predict that some of the things we listed above will be wrong. We don’t think so, but looking at the predictions of others from ten years ago, we know better than to get too cocky. The future has a way of throwing curve balls. We realize some of these things are probably pipe dreams, but so was Dick Tracy’s wrist radio2, which led inventor Martin Cooper to create the first mobile telephone. It will be interesting to come back to this post in ten years and see how we did. What do you think? Are we on target or way off?


1. Microsoft tried to take this idea one step further by allowing Visual Basic to be used in email, a move that proved to be disastrous.

2. According to the inventor, although the communicator in Star Trek is usually cited as his inspiration.

CRM, Email marketing, Hosted, On-premise, Symphonie

Cloud-based Infrastructure and Your Email Marketing Solution

Azure and AWS
Traditionally, companies ran their own data centers, or they paid other vendors to manage racks of servers in a colocation facility that served as their computer infrastructure. A recent trend in business is the shift away from on-premise servers and infrastructures to off-site, cloud-based systems that handle all or most of a company’s computer infrastructure needs. These services can be purchased from vendors who take care of all aspects of hardware purchasing and provisioning, load balancing, firewall protection, and more.

They go by acronyms such as “PaaS” (Platform as a Service) and “IaaS” (Infrastructure as a Service), and offer small businesses a way to scale up a business without the usual IT and hardware overhead. Amazon Web Service (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure are two of the largest players in the cloud space. Email marketing software that is designed to work with external databases, such as Goolara Symphonie, can run on these platforms, but an Email Service Provider (ESP) that keep its data separate from other input data is going to encounter problems. The PaaS/IaaS providers companies don’t want email marketing mail sent from their networks. This is understandable. To do so would provide too many opportunities for unscrupulous spammers to hide their tracks and potentially block their ability to send any emails. That doesn’t mean you can’t use Azure or AWS with your email marketing software, but you need to understand how it works, and then decide which solution is best for you.

On-Premise Meets the Cloud

Traditionally, if a company wanted to keep its data safe, it meant keeping everything in-house. This meant servers, RAIDs, and constantly monitoring for load balancing, software updates, and redundancy issues. It’s a lot to take care of, so it came as no surprise that, when afforded the opportunity, some businesses preferred to hand off these duties to third-party services. This approach really took off when Amazon introduced their Amazon Web Service (AWS). Suddenly, it was possible to forgo the high cost of a computer infrastructure and concentrate on the business’s core products and services. Enough companies joined the shift to AWS that, soon, a new acronym was born: “IaaS” (Infrastructure as a Service).

With the success of Amazon Web Services, other companies, such as Google, IBM, HP, and Rackspace soon entered the market, but the first real competition to AWS came from Microsoft with its Azure service. As of this writing, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure are neck-and-neck as the two top providers of cloud-based Infrastructures and Platforms by a wide margin. With its Microsoft pedigree, Azure has gained ground on Amazon, especially with companies that already use Microsoft products.

Email Marketing and Cloud-Computing

So can AWS and Azure integrate with email marketing software? Well, maybe. It will depend on your email marketing solution. Goolara Symphonie can do it because it allows you to use subscriber data from your own database. Many companies—especially those that offer “free” services—send their email marketing from within their own system, and this can be a problem when you try and shift your infrastructure to the cloud. Azure won’t let you send mass emails directly from within it, and AWS wants to funnel everything through its SES (Simple Email System). So what are these companies to do with their email marketing when they migrate their computer infrastructure to the cloud? Suddenly, you are playing on someone else’s field, and you’ll have to play by their rules.

ESP and IaaS

If you are already using an ESP that doesn’t offer data integration, this might not matter to you, but if you use any type of CRM integration, you’ll find things get more complicated when you move your infrastructure to the cloud. This isn’t a problem if your ESP (such as Goolara) is designed for data integration, but it could result in problems with those ESPs that like to keep all the subscriber data local to their own records.

On-Premise and Cloud Computing

So what about using an on-premise email marketing solution with Azure or AWS? On first glance, this may sound like a contradiction in terms, but we’re starting to see IaaS/PaaS used with on-premise systems as part of a hybrid solution. Properly configured, this approach combines the advantages of a cloud-based infrastructure, while maintaining the data security and integrity you’ve come to expect from an on-premise system. The email system can pull the data from the servers in the cloud and send the mailings outside of Azure. Setting up this hybrid infrastructure is quite easy, and gives the advantage of all data being hosted in the customer’s cloud, with the sending actions handled by the ESP’s infrastructure. The customer remains in control of the data, and can directly read or modify the data in their database, which are some of the key advantages of an on-premise deployment.

International Issues

One area that has not received much discussion is the thorny problem of national boundaries. With the advent of cloud-based infrastructures, the question of where your data resides might become critical. This won’t matter much if you are located in America, but recent European legislation could have an impact on your choice to move to a cloud-based platform. On the plus side, we doubt that even the people who drafted the legislation are aware of the potential issues of borders with a cloud-based system. Right now, there are no signs that any court cases are planning to deal with the question.

Moving your Infrastructure to the cloud is not a task to take on lightly. Whether you choose AWS, Azure, or some other Infrastructure/Platform as a Service, you’ll still need to set up your email marketing software to work with it. This means working closely with your ESP to ensure that everything is compatible. Already, we’re seeing companies spring up for the express purpose of helping other companies make their transition to the cloud. Every situation is bound to be slightly different. There is no simple plug-and-play solution that will work for everyone. If you are a Goolara Symphonie user, or you are interested in moving your company’s infrastructure to an IaaS, feel free to contact us to learn more about how you can integrate your cloud-based database directly with Symphonie for a great hybrid approach of cloud infrastructures.

CAN-SPAM, Email marketing, Legislation, Personalization, Trends

To IP or Not IP, That is the Question

IP graphic
Internet Protocol (IP) addresses are how the Internet keeps track of who is where. They aren’t necessarily attached to specific email addresses, but they do contain potentially valuable information about a person’s geographic location (although, as we’ll see, this is an imperfect science). It stands to reason that the more information you know about your subscribers, the easier it is to tailor your content to fit their interests, so there is some value in attaching IP information to each email address, but be careful: Where you and your customers reside can affect the legality of this practice.

Using the IP Address

Your computer’s IP address is like a landline telephone. If everyone in a household is using that telephone, then everyone will show up under the same number. Like a telephone number, an IP address can give you a good idea as to where someone is located without showing you the exact address. A search on our own IP, for instance, turns in different results, but they are all in the Bay Area, which is where our headquarters are located. Even with this limitation, an IP address will narrow down the possible location of the subscriber, which can, in turn, help greatly with certain types of marketing.

Dynamic vs. Static

There are two kinds of IP addresses—dynamic and static. Their names suggest exactly what they are. A static IP address is one that never changes. Companies, for instance, will often be use a static IP address to help them send and receive data and allow others to easily log onto their servers. A static IP address is mandatory for certain activities such as VoIP and VPN to ensure stable connections. Individuals might also opt for static addresses if they plan to host a website on a server, or are highly active in the online gaming community.

Dynamic IP addresses are often used for home connections. They are considerably cheaper and the end user doesn’t have to worry about network configuration since this is handled automatically. As one might expect, geolocation is a little more reliable with a static address than a dynamic one, although both have some value here.

Linking IP addresses to the email addresses gives you ability to provide information as to when and where a person opted to receive email from you, eliminating potential claims that your mailings were unsolicited. Some ISPs ask for this information when investigating spam complaints. But there is a big caveat to using this approach: It might be against the law.

IP Addresses and the Law

The legality of linking IP addresses to email addresses changes from country to to country. In some countries, it is perfectly legal, while others see it as a violation of privacy, allowing it only after the subscriber has agreed to let the ESP use that information. In the US, for instance, there is no single, comprehensive federal law regulating the collection and use of personal data. Even if there were, the odds of it being enforced are slim considering that the FTC only brings a handful of cases against emailers to court every year, and most of those are because the products these companies are selling don’t work, rather than privacy breaches or CAN-SPAM violation.

In Canada, which has some of the strictest spam laws on the books, a record of an opt-in is required. Canada has strict rules about what information the government can gather about a person, but the laws concerning the private sector appear less well defined. If businesses aren’t allowed to attach IP information to email addresses, then the verification of subscription becomes a lot harder. This summer, a second aspect of CASL takes effect that lets individuals challenge a company’s email programs, meaning anyone can bring any company to court. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but only time will tell.

In Great Britain, you can collect IP addresses, but you start treading into the danger zone once you connect those IP addresses to individual email accounts. An IP address by itself isn’t considered personal data, but when it’s combined with other information to build a profile of an individual, it suddenly becomes personal data—even if that individual’s name is unknown. You’ll need to get permission from the recipients to do so. This isn’t a big deal., although most British companies use these additional requests for more specific information, such as the location of the recipient’s preferred store.

In most of the rest of Europe, things get even even trickier. In Europe, static IP addresses have been considered personal data for some time now, but on October 19, 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that dynamic IP addresses can also qualify as personal data under EU privacy law. Additionally, the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that collecting and storing IP addresses is in violation of the Personal Data Act.

These laws have been further enforced with the approval of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The regulation was passed by the EU Parliament in April of 2016. Although not specific to email, the regulation does require businesses to keep tight controls on their private data and gives your subscribers the “right to be forgotten.” Any data you have on them needs their approval and they can nix it at any point. This includes their name, photos, email addresses, bank details, posts on social networking websites, medical information, and computer IP addresses. The regulation has a two year grace period before they start cracking down on violators, and applies to any business doing business in the European Union.

The irony here is that by not allowing the ESPs to use this information, it makes it harder to verify when someone not associated with that email address is pranking the actual addressee, making it far more likely for that person to receive spam than they otherwise would.

Over in China they have a completely different take on the matter. As far as they’re concerned, an IP address in isolation isn’t personal data because it’s focused on a computer and not an individual. This reasoning was applied by the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner in a complaint about Yahoo!’s disclosure of information about a journalist to Chinese authorities.

Approach With Caution

So what is the best technique? If your company does no business outside of the United States, and never plans to expand past that country’s borders, IP collection isn’t an issue. If, on the other hand, your clientele is international and you need to stay compliant in several countries, you’re better off either forgetting about collecting IP information, or adding a check box to the sign-in process to verify that the recipient has approved your use of their IP address information. Given the constantly shifting landscapes or laws on this subject. Some type of verification from the users that it’s okay to note their IP addresses is the safest route.

CAN-SPAM, Deliverability, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Live Mail, Personalization, spam, Subject Lines

The Year in Email: A Look Back At 2016

By all accounts, 2016 was an extraordinarily eventful year. It saw the deaths of Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Leon Russell, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Wilder, and a whole host of others. Politically, it was the year of Brexit and a presidential election that caused the New York Times to take a hard look at their polling methodology. In sports, it was the year that the Chicago Cubs, after 108 years of losing, finally won a world series in a final game that played out like a movie script.

It was an eventful year in email too, but not necessarily in a good way. Some might argue that email—or, at least, email that wasn’t meant to be seen by the general public—helped lose the election for Hillary Clinton. August saw an organized subscription bomb attack of suspicious origin that temporarily landed several respectable news organizations on spam lists and caused Spamhaus to update their opt-in verification recommendations. In one respect, 2016 was a better than previous years. We saw fewer of the kind of clumsy design errors that we’ve seen in the past. Most of the really terrible errors came from sources that were questionable to begin with.

The Importance of Testing Across Platforms

It should go without saying that whenever you send out a message you should test it. If you are using Goolara Symphonie, or another ESP that has a preview feature built in, I’d start there. If you want to be extra careful, you can also send test mailings to several different addresses, or use the email previews available from Litmus and Email on Acid. Sometimes, a message looks fine in one email reader, but not so good in another. Here are some examples.

Aw Gee-Mail

misaligned iamges

If you’re going to have a problem displaying your email design in one provider, the provider should never be Gmail. After all, it is the most popular email reader out there, and it doesn’t cost anything to get an address, so what’s the problem? The folks at Orchard apparently didn’t learn this lesson, though. This particular email looked fine everywhere else, including the always problematic Live Mail, but completely fell apart in Gmail.

Dynamic Content Mishap

Bad dymamic content

One time when you absolutely must test before sending is when you are using mail merge or dynamic content.1 The example above is an actual email, sent to us with the subject line: “Your email.” A blank space between “Hello” and the comma would have been better than this. Well constructed dynamic content instructions would have prevented this from happening.

Hide and Seek

images covering type

A picture’s worth a thousand words, but this is email is pushing it. At first glance, it looks like Wired expects these images to do all the work, but look closely at the right edge of the top photo, just below the horizon. There’s a series of small dots there. A closer investigation reveals that those dots are the text hidden under each photo. This particular problem occurs in Microsoft’s recently abandoned Live Mail, and if Live Mail was the only email reader that had trouble with this mailing, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning it. But Thunderbird also has trouble with the file, pushing the text and social links out to the right of the main table. Live Mail, at least, brings the text and social links back into the area where they belong, but then plops the photo down on top of everything. This wouldn’t matter if Wired bothered to provide meaningful alt tags, but the alt tags read: “Image for story 1,” “Image for story 2,” etc. Not exactly helpful.

A close inspection of the source code reveals the problem. Whoever put this email together did go to the trouble of using tables, but then they inserted divs into the mix. The code is also littered with ids and class tags that have no corresponding style instructions. It’s worth noting that all of the other mailings from the magazine look fine, and the ones for subscription offers include highly descriptive alt tags.

Honestly Missing Logo

Missing logo

That “Honest Mail Email Marketing” logo, looks suspiciously like nothing at all. A quick check of the HTML code reveals the problem:

<img src=”” alt=”Honest Mail Email Marketing Logo” width=”160″ height=”50″ border=”0″ style=”width:160px; height:50px;” />

They remembered to include the height, width, and border information. They even added alt text There’s only one thing missing: the actual source location for the image. Honestly, one test preview would have revealed this problem. There’s no excuse for it.

Code Fails

Some problems are simply the result of bad HTML. Sometimes it’s an out-and-out typo, but sometimes the problem is something subtle like including the DOCTYPE and HTML tags when you paste the email into the ESP app. Test previews and test send should catch most of these problems.

It’s Important, Procrustes

Bad image sizing

This email from Keurig suffers from a few problems. The image of the people chatting over coffee and the “Shop Today” button are obviously stretched. The designer put the correct size information in the properties for each of these images, but they forgot to add !important, so the sizing information was overridden in favor of the master table, stretching the images to match the master table’s 100% width requirement.

Knowing When to Link

button design

Having linking buttons is always a good idea, but knowing where to put the link is important. In this example from Camper, only the words “Women,” “Men,” and “Kids” are links. Since this text is placed in its own table, and that table has a bordered cell, it would make more sense to add the link to either the table or the cell. As it stands now, clicking anywhere inside the black border does nothing unless you click directly on the words. It’s a minor thing, but one worth remembering. Judging from the number of div tags in this email, I suspect that the author of this email is new to the form.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

fake button

Providing buttons that link to web content is never a bad idea. What is a bad idea is providing a button that is not a button at all. This email from Template Monster makes that mistake. Clicking on “Learn Now” simply brings up the image. To make matters worse, they’ve given it a blue border, further enforcing the perception that this is a link and not just an image.

Oops, I Did It Again!

Not to rag on Template Monster, but they don’t seem to have anyone checking the email before they send it. Here is the top of one of their emails:

Missing code

And here is the code for the logo at the top:

<a href=”#” style=”border:none;” target=”_blank”><img alt=”TemplateMonster” border=”0″ height=”40″…

Look at the href at the beginning of the line of code. This should link to their website, but it doesn’t. The pound sign (#) is a placer that indicates that although there is a link, it’s not going anywhere. Hover over it and it appears active, but clicking on it accomplishes nothing.

A little further down the page in the same email we get this:

Typo

The text in the orange button reads “Download You Gift.” I confess, I am always typing “you” instead of “your” so I can relate to this one, but a second pair of qualified eyes would have caught this immediately.

In the same email, every headline and image has a different link, even when they go to the same place. The headline about 20 free writing tools goes to the same page as the image next to it. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, and say that they did this to find out whether the images or the headlines are responsible for the most clickthroughs, but in the long run, isn’t that less important than the fact that they did click through?

That’s Code for …Code!

badly coded spam

I love it when spammers screw up. This was already obviously a spam message without having to even open it, but upon opening you’re presented with the HTML code for the message. When putting together a mailing in your ESPs visual editor, always make sure you are in the right tab (usually marked HTML) before pasting HTML code. Otherwise this might happen to you. Of course, any decent email marketer would have previewed the mailing, but these people tend to work fast. I’m surprise this doesn’t happen more often, actually.

Shopping Links

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with an email, until you click on one of the links. Then you suddenly find yourself staring at a page that has nothing to do with anything. Retail stores appear to be the worst offenders, which is odd since so much of their business is contingent on people getting to the right page and ordering the product they want.

I Know It’s Here Somewhere

missing products

Fab has, in the past, shown products in their mailings that aren’t on the landing page. In most cases, the products shown are available, but buried on the second or third page of the sale listings. That’s fine. Lots of companies do this, so the public is used to it. But in the email shown above, the “Cosmo Complete Set” and Captain America print don’t even show up in any of the lists. Clicking on them takes you to the a sale page, but neither product is on any of the sales pages. If you want to buy either of these items, you’ll need to enter them as search queries on the web site.

Now Go and Find Me

not on site

Normally, Bed, Bath & Beyond is one of the better companies when it comes to email marketing, they always provided meaningful alt tags, their design is easy to read on both a desktop computer and a mobile phone, and their links, in most cases, go directly to the products shown. Here is one of their rare missteps. Clicking on this product does not take you to the products, or even anywhere near the product. A clue lies in the button labeled “Find a Store”—only it’s not a button. Clicking anywhere in the image will take you to BB&B’s Find a Store page. I suppose they justify this by pointing out that the product isn’t available online, but that’s no reason that this couldn’t be included on a page with more information on the product.

Alt, Right?

I bring it up every year, but every year there are plenty of examples of companies forgetting to add alt information to the img tags. While it’s true that services such as Gmail and the iPhone display images as the default, some people still prefer to keep the images turned off. Alt tags not only impart information on what they are missing, they also can provide incentive to display images as well. Here’s an example from Warby Parker that demonstrates the worst case scenario:

no alt tags

Now here’s a company that knows how to do it right, Bed, Bath & Beyond:

Good alt tags

Quite a difference. Perhaps the guys at Warby Parker assume that people will always want to display their images, a questionable assumption.

Unsubscribe Catastrophes

Unsubscribing should never be a hassle. Nobody is happy when a recipient unsubscribes, but it’s better than having that person mark your mailings as spam because they can’t figure out how else to get you to stop sending them things. Some marketers go to extraordinary lengths to making unsubscribing difficult, treading very close to the legal requirements of CAN-SPAM. A few cross over to the dark side. Here are this year’s worst offenders.

Unsubscribe? fUGGedaboutit!

No unsub link

CAN-SPAM has a few hard and fast rules. One of them is that you have to have an unsubscribe link. You also have to have a physical address. This email has neither. The supposed unsubscribe link takes you to the home page for the company. Not surprisingly, this email is not from an official UGG site at all, but a spammer that is trying to make their site look as legitimate as possible.

Email Purgatory

Missing unsub link

Unlike the previous email, this one is from a legitimate company (T-Mobile). This part of the email—which is commented in the HTML as “legal footer”—contains the physical address, privacy policy information, links to their various plan options, and instructions for how to ensure that email from them does not wind up in the spam folder. What it doesn’t include, however, is an unsubscribe link—an unequivocal violation of CAN-SPAM.

Go Ahead and Try to Unsubscribe! I Dare You!

bad unsub link

When it comes to anti-spam laws, the USA is about the most lax, but they still require two things: A physical address and an unsubscribe link. So when I get an email like this, it makes my blood boil. Here’s what you get when you click the unsubscribe link:

unsub fail

As one might imagine, this one went straight to the spam folder.

Crouching Promo and Hidden Unsub

unsub in image off

A nearly as devious method of hiding the unsubscribe was used by Lids, a company that specializes in sports caps. Here’s the bottom of their email with the images turned off:

You can see there’s a physical address, but where’s the unsubscribe link? Now here’s the same section of the email with the images displayed:

unsub in image on

Ah, there it is! They’ve made unsubscribe part of an image. To make matters worse, they used an image map to separate the various categories shown. I’m not sure what the thinking was here. Attempts to reach them went unanswered. Just to add insult to injury, I never signed up for this email, it was someone entering the wrong address either accidentally or on purpose.

Sure, There’s an Unsub. It’s Just Not Yours.

Another highly questionable approach to handling unsubscribes came from, of all companies, Salesforce:

Salesforce CAN-SPAM violation

I’ve blurred the names to save some embarrassment, but I can verify that the author of this email comes from Salesforce, promoting a webinar Salesforce has co-sponsored. Yes, there’s an unsubscribe link, but only in the forwarded content. Presumably that will only work for the original recipient, not for the person to whom the email was forwarded. This means that Salesforce, the largest SaaS-based, customer relationship management (CRM) provider on the planet, a company with its own email marketing solution, just sent me a promotional email without an unsubscribe link. It is a tactic worthy of a Viagra spammer. It doesn’t help that there’s a typo in the very first sentence. I dearly hope the author of this email is new to Salesforce.

Subject Line Fun

The subject line is the most important part of your mailing. If a subject line doesn’t provoke the recipient to open the email, then all your hard work providing good content and responsive design is for naught. Here area few subject lines that either failed miserably or worked brilliantly, or, in the case of the first example, simply overdid things.

Hello, It’s Me Again

Too many emails

Some email marketing experts are big fans of the practice of sending high quantities of email to your recipient list. It is a topic hotly discussed on email marketing forums, and each side can back up their position with plenty of facts and figures. But even the most ardent fan of high-volume sending would agree that Travelocity is pushing it here, sending an email every hour or so from two in the morning to five. It doesn’t help that all of these were sent at times when no others were sending out email, leading to all four messages being bunched together. Perhaps that was the idea, to create a sort of billboard for Travelocity residing in the inbox.

Did I mention…?

same email

It’s not usual for companies to offer multiple newsletters. Nor is it unusual to send these newsletters out on the same day. What is unusual is the use exactly the same subject line and content on both mailings, right down to the “You are subscribed to PCMag Tech Deals as…” at the bottom of each page. Given that a normal announcement from PCMag reads “You are subscribed to PCMag Announcements as…” and is usually some sort of deal on a PCMag subscription, I’d chalk this one up to either a mistake or laziness.

I’m Either a Realtor or a Marketer

email goof

Even we email marketers make boneheaded mistakes. To their credit, the folks at EEC caught this and quickly followed up with an apology.

A Special Odaer, Ordrre, Ordeorr…Oh Forget It!

typo in subject line

“Order” is a hard word to screw up, but whoever put this email together seems to have had a terrible time with it. They misspelled it in the subject line, and then again in the content.

Okay, I’m not REALLY Out of the Office

Out of Office trick subject line

I think I know what Sephora was trying to do here. This was an attempt to equate being out of the office with their summertime contest. Sending a fake out-of-office autoreply isn’t the worst misuse of a subject line, but it’s pretty sneaky and isn’t likely to endear you to anyone.

You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Game sof Throne subject line

As a fan of Game of Thrones, I enjoyed the use of GoT references in the subject line and “friendly” from, but I’m not sure that a company that specializes in predictive marketing is the right place for this approach. This link leads to a series of videos in which they try to show the marketing lessons available in the HBO series. That is more a testament to the ability of the human brain to find patterns where none exist than any marketing subplots lurking in George R.R. Martin’s on-going saga. This kind of subject is better served on a site such as ThinkGeek, which specializes in products attached to all aspects of geekdom, from TV shows or computer games. For them, even this is acceptable:

Konami Code subject line

A combination of keystrokes known as the Konami Code, a cheat that gives gamers additional powers while playing. If you’re in the real estate business, this probably isn’t a good subject line, but it works quite well for a company whose primary audience resembles the cast from The Big Bang Theory.

Location, Location, Location!

Deliverability fail

Sometimes, a subject line, by itself isn’t anything special, but where you find it makes all the differences. I found this one in my spam folder. I could say “Physician heal thyself,” but this just demonstrates what a complicated subject deliverability is.

That’s it for this year! We can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring. We predict more email address providers will follow Gmail’s lead in allowing CSS in email. On one hand, this means we can get more creative in our email designs, but on the other hand, it means more places for things to go wrong. If there is a moral to this blog post, it should be obvious by now: test, test, test. For more on the subject of how to deal with email mistakes, check out our white paper on the subject: Oops! – Handling and resolving email marketing mistakes.


1. If you’re not using dynamic content, you’re missing a real opportunity to improve your email engagement results. Jordie van Rijn explains how and why in his article, Making the most out of Dynamic Email Marketing. For more on Goolara Symphonie’s powerful dynamic content visits, visit our dynamic content page.

Deliverability, Email marketing, spam

CAPTCHA and Release

captchas drive me crazy
[Note: This is the second in a two-part series on subscription bombing and how to defuse it. Last time, we looked at the techniques used to create recent attacks. The time we look at the technique Spamhaus recommends as the best way to avoid ending up the victim of a subscription bombing: the CAPTCHA.]

As we discussed in our last blog article, the best way to prevent subscription attacks, according to spam listing companies such as Spamhaus, is to use a verification test in your email signup form. The best known of these, and the one that Spamhaus recommends by name is the CAPTCHA. CAPTCHAs can be a pain in the neck sometimes, and when they are not easy to solve they can cause people to just give up trying and leave your site. But newsletter signups that don’t require CAPTCHAs are just what subscription bombers look for. If you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these attacks, you’ll have a lot more work to do to recover your reputation score, and will, after that, have to use a CAPTCHA anyway. Having accepted, however unhappily, that CAPTCHAs are a necessity, we’ll look at different CAPTCHA technologies that are available today.

The best known form of CAPTCHA is the reCAPTCHA, version 1, which consists of a small box displaying two distorted words (usually consisting of one real word and one that is gibberish). You are asked to enter the words you see, and if your answers are incorrect, you are presented with two new words and asked to try again.

sample captcha

ReCAPTCHA was developed by a group of computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University who recognized that CAPTCHA technology offered a great crowd-sourced way to achieve better OCR. If the OCR software couldn’t identify a word, sometimes humans could, which meant you could feed words to people that computers couldn’t recognize. That’s why in 2009, the ReCAPTCHA technology was acquired by Google for their Books project, and was used by the New York Times to digitized their archives. This seemed like a good way to block fake signups, but they didn’t factor in either advances in OCR software, or the low costs of doing business in third world countries.

Capturing CAPTCHAs

Almost as soon as they appeared, people started working on ways to crack the CAPTCHA codes. One company we found in India offers workers around 90¢ and hour to solve as many CAPTCHA codes as humanly possible. Those who can’t do it quickly or who make too many mistakes are kicked off the service. This is a time-consuming way to crack CAPTCHA codes, but by offering wages far below anything most people could live on the authors presumably make it worth the effort. Just to pour salt in the wound, anyone interested in doing this thankless work is expected to pay a fee to join.

Meanwhile, OCR software kept getting better, so it wasn’t long before someone had the bright idea of creating a bot that used OCR to identify the words in a CAPTCHA. It doesn’t always get it right. In fact, it often gets it wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Unlike a human, who is going to give up in frustration after a few tries, a bot can keep trying and trying until it gets it right. Since their advent, bots have become a major problem for word identification types of verification. To counter this, word-based CAPTCHAs became more distorted and harder to decipher for humans and bots alike. We’ve all seen the results of this battle over decipherability. We’ve all encountered CAPTCHAs so hard to identify that it takes us a few tries to get them right, and we all have better things to do with our time than enter meaningless words in an attempt to receive more email.

captcha collection
An assortment of actual CAPTCHAs collected from various sites.

To solve this problem, a new kind of ReCAPTCHA was created that relies on the natural differences between software and the human brain. This made it easier for humans to recognize the words, while keeping it hard for the bots the do the same. In recent variations, a reCAPTCHA might ask users to identify images instead of scrambled type relying on human intuition to solve. Take this example:

image captcha

At the top of CAPTCHA we are presented with an image (in this case, a cat) and asked to find all the images with matching content. This is a mixed bag. It will certainly block bots from finding a solution, but it also presents us with instructions that those of us who skew towards the Asperger‘s end of the spectrum and tend to take things too literally might also find perplexing. The picture at the top is an adult gray tabby, but the pictures below are all of kittens and only two are gray tabbies. We realize most people won’t get this granular with the data, and that’s what Google is counting on. The top picture is a cat, so humans will click on all the pictures of the same animal, even when every other aspect of the picture is different.

I’m Not a Robot

No Captcha

Two years ago, Google introduced a version of the ReCAPTCHA they call a “No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA.” With this type of CAPTCHA, there’s no need to try and decipher heavily distorted words, or squint to make out blurry photographs of street numbers, or identify various animals. You check the box labeled “I’m not a robot” and you’re done. The No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA uses Google’s Javascript API and a form, and appears, for now at least, to be an excellent choice for verification. Spamhaus likes it, and it produces the least amount of hassle in the signup process.

Gamifying the Process

A variation on the CAPTCHA that is designed to alleviate the annoyance of typing in meaningless words is the addition of gaming elements to the verification process. With this technique, you are asked to complete some simple task to verify that you are a human being. The task is always simple and resembles a children’s game in its approach. You might, for example, be asked to “put the carrots in the shopping cart.” The picture will show an image of an empty shopping cart with images of various groceries floating next to it. By clicking and dragging the image of the carrots to the image of the shopping cart, you verify that you are a human.

gamify

gamify2

These gamified verification techniques are effective approaches to the problem, although we haven’t seen that many instances of their use. They appear to be acceptable to Spamhaus as well. According to them, “…any mechanism that successfully keeps bots from abusing signup forms is good and absolutely necessary nowadays. Captcha is currently the best mechanism, and whatever the captcha test does (task, game, whatever) is also fine as long as bots can not easily defeat it.”

Alternatives to CAPTCHA

CAPTCHA is, by no means, the only way to verify a signup. Programmers continue to invent new ways to foil the bad guys. A couple alternatives are the Honeypot and the Social signup. Before choosing either of these, you should note that Spamhaus prefers a CAPTCHA verification that requires the user to perform a task. That’s not to say these are not effective in blocking bots, only that implementing them might not help you get off the SBL. As of right now, a CAPTCHA-type mechanism is the safest way to go.

Honeypot Verification

One of the earliest attempts to simplify the process of signing up and restrict it to real people is the use of a honeypot. The idea is simple: A form is hidden in the HTML for a page, but it isn’t visible on the page, so no human visitor to the site should ever know about it. Since bots don’t visit pages this way, but, instead, look at each page’s code for forms, they will see the form and attempt to fill it out, thus identifying them as bots and not humans. It is a wickedly clever technique for fooling the bots, although, as we’ve already discussed, bots have gotten much more sophisticated over the years and are seldom fooled by this technique anymore. It can also cause problems with browsers that have CSS turned off, and with ones such as Safari that autofill forms. It is still in use, but is often combined with a more interactive signup.

The Social Approach

facebook signup

As social sites become more and more important to people’s daily lives, we’ve seen a corresponding growth in sites that require social signups. Instead of entering words or playing games, you are offered a button that says “Sign Up With Facebook.” This approach lays everything on the line, but it also stands a significantly higher chance of losing the audience. Several studies have shown that people just don’t like using their Facebook accounts for promotional purposes, still preferring email as the main source for sales announcements. We don’t recommend using this approach except for those rare cases where your Facebook profile is your main sales mechanism.

At this time, we recommend the “No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA” for your verification purposes. It satisfies Spamhaus’s requirements, and it makes the signup process as easy as possible for your subscribers. Of course, if history is any indication (and it usually is), it’s just a matter of time before this approach is compromised, and we’ll have to find a new way to verify newsletter signups. It is important to remember that nothing in the field of email marketing remains static. There’s no set-it-and-forget-it solution. You’ll still want to keep track of your email data to see if there are any anomalies occurring.

Deliverability, Email marketing

Defusing Subscription Bombs

subscription bombs
On Monday, August 15, people all over the world woke up to find their email inboxes stuffed with unwanted email, victims of an organized and relentless “subscription bombing” attack. This attack used a bot designed to find sign-up forms and enter thousands of email addresses on a site before moving on to the next one, where the process was repeated. Before the bot was through, each address ended up subscribed to hundreds of newsletters. The owners of the email addresses remained unaware of what had happened until they started receiving the emails. Faced with what appeared to be unsolicited emails, they did what many people would do in this situation: they flagged the mailings as spam, which sent the reputation scores for the attacked companies spiraling down.1

Most of the companies that were victims of this attack were respectable, legitimate companies whose only crime was that they made their newsletter sign-up processes too easy, also making it easy for attackers to enter false information. Many well-respected email senders suddenly were having trouble landing in the inbox and were getting relegated to junk status. Even the New York Times felt the effects of this attack.

The attacks started over the weekend, but because not everyone checks their mail services on Saturdays and Sundays, by Monday morning some accounts were packed with new, unwanted emails. In many cases, the amount of emails was massive enough to make it impossible to identify and separate the legitimate mailings from the junk. More diligent people took the time to try and unsubscribe from these emails, but as security expert Brian Krebs noted, “By the time I’d finished deleting and unsubscribing from the first page of requests, there would be another page or two of new newsletter-related emails.” For most people, the easiest solution was to select all the new email and either delete it or mark it as spam, which sent reputation scores spiraling. Suddenly, hundreds of a company’s mailings were being identified as spam, landing several legitimate companies on blacklists.

High-profile companies that use a single opt-in method without a verification test appeared to be the most at risk, but were, by no means, the only ones affected. Many of the sign-up email addresses ended in “.gov,” suggesting that the attack might have had a political motive behind it. A belief strengthened by the recent Russian hacker reports. Some people have speculated that it was simply the work of bored computer geeks out for kicks. Whatever the reason, it caused many legitimate companies to wind up being blacklisted.

No Easy Unsubscribe

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, by its very structure, there’s no quick way to mass unsubscribe from several email subscriptions. It’s easy to select a dozen emails and either delete them or send them to the spam folder, because both of these actions occur within the mail reader. Unsubscribing is a little trickier. Each piece of email must be unsubscribed from separately. There’s no way to select a batch of emails and unsubscribe from them en masse because the unsubscribe information for each piece of email is going to a different place and is handled in a different fashion. Some require verification, others present a display of settings that need to be unchecked.

Some services, such as Gmail, Outlook.com, and the latest update to the iPhone’s Mail app feature an unsubscribe button, but only when the unsubscribe link in the email leads to automatic unsubscribe. Links with multiple choices, or multiple step unsubscribes don’t show up. So when hundreds of emails arrive in the inbox at the same time, nobody (Brian Krebs notwithstanding) is going to go to the trouble of trying to unsubscribe separately from all those mailings. It is far easier to accomplish the same effect by selecting everything and deleting it, but since none of these emails were actually solicited, it is even more likely for people to use the spam button to show their dissatisfaction. When enough people do this, blacklisting services, such as SpamCop, Junk Email FIlter, Barracuda, and especially Spamhaus, sit up and take notice.

Blacklists

How each of these blacklist services handles junk mail varies, with equally varied results in terms of effectiveness. The most well-known and commonly used blacklisting service is Spamhaus. When Spamhaus decides to put you on their “Spamhaus Block List” (SBL), you’ve got a serious problem. Everyone from Yahoo to McAfee, and Gmail (to some extent) use the SBL data, so staying off this list is mandatory of you ever want your mailings to be read.

After this latest subscription attack, we saw several obviously legitimate news organizations end up on blacklists after this attack. Getting on this list is relatively easy. Getting off it often takes a concerted effort by your ESP or deliverability team. How difficult that process is will depend on several factors, such as past transgressions as well as subjective considerations, such as the general impression of your site by the people at the blacklist service (and not just Spamhaus either).

The Double Opt-In

Spamhaus has always maintained that the double opt-in (DOI—also known as the confirmed opt-in) will help prevent surreptitious sign-ups. Some services, such as MailChimp, now use double opt-ins exclusively (much to the dismay of their subscribers if the questions Quora and Reddit are any indication). But a DOI doesn’t solve the initial problem of bot sign-ups. Even Spamhaus acknowledges that a DOI does not automatically prevent your company from landing on their blacklist. The recipients will still receive that annoying first deluge of DOI verification mail, which, when thousands have been entered, is enough of a problem by itself. The double opt-in might keep the problem from compounding though, which is certainly preferable than continuing to send emails to increasingly more annoyed recipients.

For Canadian and European emails, where adequate verifications of acknowledged sign-ups are required, the double opt-in is already the safest option. While most ESPs (Goolara included) let you decide what sort of opt-in procedure you want to implement, you should be aware that a single opt-in puts you in greater danger of a malicious and erroneous sign-ups. If your site is popular enough to experience more than one or two sign-ups a day, you should consider switching to a double opt-in.

CAPTCHAs

Currently, Spamhaus recommends the use of a CAPTCHA as part of your sign-up process. A CAPTCHA requires an action by the user, such as solving an equation or identifying two words that are either distorted or partially obscured by a pattern. They are easy to implement and may be the only way to get your company off the SBL. The most common one is ReCAPTCHA, which is provided by Google, but there are others on the market. We also recommend using a CAPTCHA, but this technology brings its own set of issues, which we’ll take a look in more detail in our next blog post.

Worst Case Scenario

So what do you do if you’ve already fallen prey to an attack? Preventative maintenance is always the best course of action. Besides double opt-ins and the use of a CAPTCHA, a regular practice of looking at your report metrics and subscription sign-ups can alert you to potential problems before they get out of hand. Noticeable increases in the amount of email being greylisted or sent to the junk folders might be a warning sign of worse things to come. Sudden increases in sign-ups from “gov” sources can also indicate potential bot attacks, so you may want to segment out these mailings for closer examination. In most cases, though, these attacks are sudden and unexpected, and nothing you do once the attack starts will stop the problem from escalating.

If you do end up on a blacklist, you should notify your ESP immediately and see what steps they can take to solve the problem. Some ESPs, such as Goolara, also offer deliverability services, and they can help you get your IP removed from the blacklist. Otherwise, you might want to seek the services of a professional deliverability expert. As long as you don’t have a history of sending to spam traps (which will normally only occur if you don’t keep your list up to date, or have a nasty habit of buying questionable lists), you should be okay.

Next time we’ll take a closer look at CAPTCHAs and other methods of sign-up verification.


1. The reputation score is how email services identify whether a mailing has any value. The higher your reputation score, the better your chances of ending up in the inbox. For more information on this, see our white paper Deliverability Enhanced.

Design, Email marketing, Subject Lines, Trends

A Guide to Using Emojis in Subject Lines

emojis
We all get them, especially around the holidays: those emails with little pictographs in the subject line. At Halloween, they are jack-o-lanterns and ghosts (🎃, 👻), further into winter they might be snowmen or Christmas trees (☃, 🎄). Sometimes they relate to the sender’s industry. Guitar Center, for instance, regularly uses the guitar pictograph (🎸), while Webdesigner News starts every subject line with the image of a pencil (✏). These are emojis, and have become popular tools for spicing up subject lines to make them more appealing. In this article we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of using emojis, and things to look out for when using them.

Emoji or Emoticon?

First let’s get the out of the way the inevitable question, “What is the difference between an emoji and an emoticon?” An emoticon is a facial expression created using the limited assortment of punctuation that is available in basic English text. The most well-known example is the colon and right parenthesis indicating a smiling face: 🙂 . The alternative to basic text is Unicode, a character coding system designed to include every character in every language. In Unicode, there is an emoji for a smiling face (☺), along with a large assortment of other tiny pictographs. Unlike a smiling face created with a colon and a right parenthesis, the emoji is one character, not two. There are several emojis you can choose from to indicate various levels of mirth (😄😃😀😊😁), along with characters for nearly every other human emotion (😯😨😭😡😳).

Emojis got their start on Japanese mobile phones, where they were used to replace emoticons. Although the names sound similar, the word emoji has nothing to do with emotions. It is a combination of the Japanese words for “picture” (e – 絵) and “character” (mo-ji – 文字).Their worldwide acceptance began when Apple decided to include emojis as a feature on its iPhones in 2009. Then in 2010, hundreds of emojis were encoded and introduced in the Unicode Standard, and more are added every day. As of this writing, there are 722 emojis available with Unicode character coding. Emojis have popped up everywhere from Android phones to Gmail.

As befitting their Japanese roots, some emojis are specifically aimed at Japanese culture and leave westerners scratching their heads. Emojis for foods such and Dango (🍡) and Oden (🍢), and festivals such as Tanabata (🎋) and Tsukimi (🎑) presumably don’t see much use in America and Europe, while other symbols, such as the white flower (💮) might be used, but in an entirely different context from how it’s used in Japan (in Japan it is used to mean “well done”).

Where Are They?

Unless you are using an iPhone to write your mailings, which is highly doubtful, finding the emojis on a keyboard can be tricky. You can type in the Unicode directly, but that is a pain in the neck, and you first have to know these codes to type them. For instance, to add an airplane (✈) to your subject line, you’d need to type in U+2708 (hold down the Ctrl+Alt+Shift keys, type U, type 2708, then hit enter). It’s a lot of work for one character, and it doesn’t always work anyway. Some desktop systems have shortcuts for inserting emojis, or special pull-down menus, but these are still slow. The easiest way to add emojis that we’ve found is iEmoji.com, which lets you compose the subject line on their web page, then copy and paste it to your email marketing software. But some care should be taken when doing this, which leads us to the next point: Why do some emojis work in subject lines and others don’t?

Question Marks and Empty Squares

Have you tried using emojis in your subject lines, only to have them replaced by small squares or questions marks? There are two primary causes for this. The first is that you are using a newer, unusual emoji that is not included across all systems. The country flags, for instance, do not show up in most email reader subject lines, and often not in the content either. In most email readers, the newer ability to choose the skin tones of certain emojis isn’t available, and will add blank squares or question marks to a subject line (more on this below). When using emojis in the subject line, it is safest to stick to the default emojis, which usually appear in yellow.

With a few email readers, such as Live Mail, how it displays can even depend on where it is in the software. Take this example:

Live Mail comparisonAll three emojis appear in the list window on the left, but not in the title window on the right. The first emoji (the umbrella) appears correctly in both areas, while the others (the cat and dog) appear as empty boxes on the right. The reason for this is because the umbrella is one of the original emojis that were introduced in 1995. As a rule, these will appear in your subject lines more often than the newer emojis will. Some of these characters, such as the smiley face (☺), musical notes (♪ ♫), and card suits (♠ ♣ ♥ ♦) were added early on, and are available as symbol characters in basic English character sets.1 Here is a list of the original 1995 emojis:

☺ ☹ ☠ ☝ ✌ ✍ ❤ ❣ ♨ ✈ ⌛ ⌚ ☀ ☁
☂ ❄ ☃ ☄ ♠ ♥ ♦ ♣ ☎ ⌨ ✉ ✏ ✒ ✂
☢ ☣ ↗ ➡ ↘ ↙ ↖ ↕ ↔ ↩ ↪ ✡ ☸ ☯
✝ ☦ ☪ ☮ ▶ ◀ ☑ ✔ ✖ ✳ ✴ ❇ ‼ 〰
♈ ♉ ♊ ♋ ♌ ♍ ♎ ♏ ♐ ♑ ♒ ♓
© ® ™ Ⓜ ㊗ ㊙ ▪ ▫

A second, and more likely cause of question marks in the subject line, is that your email is set to something other than Unicode. If the character you want to use is not available in the character set you are using, it will not appear in the subject line. Go to the settings while in your email marketing software and check the character encoding choice. If it doesn’t say “UTF-8” it’s probably not going to work in the subject line, even if it works in the content.

As a rule, it is never a good idea to use emojis to replace words in a subject line. If the emoji is replaced with a question mark, you might end up with a subject line that still makes sense, but says something you don’t want it to. For instance, if you replaced the word “love” with a heart in the subject line “You’ll ❤ our deals,” you could end up with this: “You’ll ? our ideas,” which isn’t exactly a confidence builder, and could be read as “You’ll question our deals.” In fact, a scan of various emails—and even web pages—shows that using the heart symbol to replace the word love might just be the number one gaffe. I even found the following line in an online article about emojis: “There’s a lot of ? for emoji these days….”

It is safer to put the emojis at the beginning and the ends of the subject lines, or as breaks between words. Even so, you should ask yourself: If a question mark appears instead, will it affect the subject line’s meaning?

I’m Not Mad, I’m Happy

In some cases, the emojis from one operating system are different enough from the emojis in another to cause confusion. Here, for instance is the emoji labeled “drooling face”:

drooling emojiTwo appear happy, two appear unhappy, and the last one looks downright scared. One doesn’t even appear at all. While it is unusual for emojis to vary this much across platforms, it doesn’t hurt to check the emoji you plan to use to make sure it doesn’t change too drastically when viewed on different devices and operating systems. The easiest place to do this is at the Unicode Consortium’s Full Emoji Data page. There, you’ll find all the emojis—including a few that appear animated, such as the Gmail emojis, which sometimes cry, bounce up and down, or wink. The Unicode Consortium’s Data page also lists the date when each emoji was introduced, which can help you determine how safe it is to use that emoji. An emoji introduced in 2016 is probably not going to show up in a subject line, and might not even show up in the content.

Politically Correct Emojis

While animation is more site specific, and doesn’t affect the individual emojis, there is another recent addition to the emojis that will affect how and emoji behaves in a subject line. After people complained that the emojis of hands and faces were not ethnically inclusive enough, a feature was added whereby you can specify the gender of an emoji and its skin color. Care must be taken when using skin tones and genders as these add additional code to each emoji. For instance, the code for the left pointing finger emoji is U+1F448, while the code for the same emoji with pale skin is U+1F448+U+1F3FB. In subject lines, even if the original default emoji appears, the gender and color information will in most cases appear as empty square blocks or question marks. For this reason, it is best to stick to the basic emojis and avoid skin tones and gender additions until more mail readers are compatible with these features.

Emojis and Deliverability

As always, the most important question is: Can emojis affect the deliverability of an email? Our tests suggest that, under some circumstances, emojis do appear to have a negative effect on an email’s deliverability, but a minor one. Mailings with large quantities of emojis in the subject line and contents were more likely to end up in the spam folder, while those that used them more judiciously appeared to have no problems getting through. Obviously a subject line that is nothing but emojis is probably not a good idea. Some spam filters can identify is a subject line is nonsense, and a string of emojis looks just like gibberish. We recommend restricting the use of emojis in subject lines to no more than three, and to make sure there is actual text in the subject line as well. Keep in mind also that there may be aspects of your content that are pushing your mailings close to a negative rating, and the emojis won’t do anything to improve the situation. For for information on what to look out for, check out our white paper, Deliverability Enhanced.

As to which emojis provide the best open rates, a quick scan of the articles that discuss this shows that there is no consensus here. In all likelihood, this data changes from month to month anyway. The only meaningful answer is to see how they do in your own tests, and proceed accordingly. Like those articles that tell you which day of the week is best for sending, any article that claims to know which emoji performs best is working from a limited data set and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Test and Test Again

If you do plan to use emojis in your subject lines, our advice is, as always with any first time format experimentation, test and test again. We would also recommend paying closer attention than usual to the deliverability results in your tests. Some A/B split testing against subject lines without emojis or with different emojis isn’t a bad idea either. Emojis can be a fun way to enliven your subject lines and increase open rates, but it will still require testing with your own recipients to see if they’ll work for you.


1. It should be noted that the term “emoji” was not applied to these character, however, until Unicode version 6.0, released in 2010.