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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
All 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”:
Two 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.
Here at Goolara we’ve been seeing a recent rise in a peculiar method of gathering and hijacking information. The basic mechanism isn’t new, but the fact that it’s being used with clickthroughs appears to be a new twist. It is based on exploiting mistyped email addresses by purchasing domain names that are either misspelled or have letters added or removed. You might, for instance, intend to send an email to someone at a Gmail address, but because you typed too quickly, it’s going to “gmial.com” instead; or maybe your finger hit two keys at once, and the mailing is sent to “gmailk.com.” In both cases, the domains are registered and your mail is actually being processed by these sites. To put it another way: That mail you accidentally sent to the wrong address is being received by someone who has intentionally chosen their domain name to take advantage of this mistake. Is that someone you really want to have any of your email data?
This technique, called typosquatting, has long been used to trick people into visiting sites (called domain doppelgangers) that look a lot like the sites they are imitating.1 Most of it disappeared after laws were passed and some successful lawsuits were filed against these pretenders, but the legislation didn’t address the other part of the equation. The law can prevent them from mimicking an existing website, but anyone who has registered one of these domains still has the ability to receive any email sent to it. While a website could be construed as attempted fraud, simply receiving misaddressed email falls into a very gray area. Even this isn’t that new. These fakes sites have always accepted email. The new twist is that they are now apparently clicking on the links in the email they receive.
It’s hard to know the reasons for these clickthroughs. It’s possible that they are intended to keep the address active and defray suspicion. Or it might be part of more complex scheme, such as the “Man-in-the-MailBox” scam detailed in a report on domain doppelgangers put out in 2011 by Peter Kim and Garret Gee of the Godai Group. In that report, Kim and Gee explained how they set up set up 30 doppelganger accounts for various firms and received 120,000 e-mails in the six-month testing period. Acting as middlemen, they would pass on data to the correct address and then send the information back to the intended recipient. In this way, they accrued 20 GBs of data that included everything from trade secrets to individual passwords.
It is also a method of verifying the links, which can be useful for ascertaining the value of each email address. This may seem like an inefficient way to collect addresses, but the evidence suggests that the processes here are handled primarily by bots, so minimal manpower is required. Like an army of ants, they achieve their goals methodically over time. If you intended, for instance, to send something to a specific address at Gmail, the typosquatter can now figure out the correct address without much difficulty and add it to their list. With the amount of email data passing through the Internet every hour, it is possible to build up a substantial list of names in no time.
Why It’s Important
You might be tempted to ask why this is important? After all, it’s only a few addresses here and there, but there are costs involved. Keep in mind that you’re paying for those addresses, and you’re paying for sending to those addresses. If you’re using an automated system to relay leads to your sales department, then clickthroughs from these sources can cause your sales staff to waste valuable time chasing down these imaginary leads and doing follow-ups that go nowhere.
It is also possible that some of these people are up to things far worse than merely collecting addresses. While many companies don’t accept email responses, some set up their mailings so that they send email replies to specific staff members. You don’t want to put your sales team in a situation where clicking on links from these sources—either accidentally or absentmindedly—lead to bigger problems. It is also worth remembering that these address mistakes simultaneous keep those subscribers from receiving your intended email while opening them up to receive email from these questionable sources.
As you might imagine, protecting yourself against this problem can be tricky. Checking for typos only goes so far, and when your mailing list includes thousands of names, it’s almost impossible to catch them all. In Symphonie, we’ve added logic to the process that identifies and blocks these domains when we encounter them, so you don’t have to worry about the most commonly mistyped addresses. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay on your guard, though. Like rust, these scammers never sleep and they are coming up with new naming variations all the time. Catching these people in that act is a responsibility we all share.
Requiring a double opt-in will help somewhat. Since, in most cases, the email address is initially entered by the subscriber, getting them to verify it will eliminate a lot of the potential for typos. It won’t keep you from accidentally sending the verification email to an incorrect address, but it will help keep that address off your recipient list. The mistyped address still has the potential to end up on scammer’s list, but at least you won’t be sending wasting your time and money sending mailings to them.
1. Technically, there is difference between typosquatting and domain doppelgangers. Typosquatting means a domain that is similar to the intended domain, but is misspelled, while a domain doppelganger will appear almost the same, but with periods either added, removed or misplaced (for instance yourcompanyc.om instead of yourcompany.com).
In the retail marketing field, one popular use of email marketing automation is to create shopping cart abandonment programs, and it’s no wonder: Shopping cart abandonment rates are higher than ever, with various sectors reporting an average rate of 75% abandonment. Some sources estimate the amount in lost sales in the billions, although these figures are extrapolated from a scenario where all of these shopping cart sales are completed. In truth, a lot of shopping cart abandonments never amount to anything; they are comprised of people who are just looking, or realize they can’t afford the purchase. But even if only 5% of these abandoned carts are ever fulfilled, 5% of a billion is still 50 million, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. In this, the fourth installment in our Email Automation series, we’ll look at the things you’ll need to consider when setting up an abandonment program.
Shopping Cart Solutions
Before we get too deep into the details of creating a shopping cart abandonment workflow, let’s look at how shopping carts are created and how they work. For most businesses, the shopping carts exist separately from their main websites. They are purchased from third-party vendors rather than made from scratch. For anyone looking to buy a shopping cart solution, there are almost as many of these as there are email marketing solutions, and, as with email marketing solutions, shopping cart programs range in price from free to hundreds of dollars. Not surprisingly, the ones listed as free, are usually anything but, and require additional (expensive) modules to handle things such as shopping cart abandonments. Even some of the more expensive solutions sometimes require additional fees for inclusion of an abandonment extension or module. Some shopping cart software doesn’t include any type of abandonment solution, expecting you to implement it through your ESP either via webhooks or an API.
The Right Tool for the Job
A few shopping cart systems do offer email abandonment programs, but there are some important downsides to this approach. The biggest downside is that it separates the shopping cart actions from the data in your ESP where things such as clickthroughs and opens will have more use for determining shopping behavior. Some ESPs let you import that data in the form of external data tables, and this can help, especially if you plan to combine your shopping cart solution with another program, such as a recommendation engine (a little more on this later).
It is also important to remember that shopping cart software is not designed with email in mind. Its primary function is to process purchases, so features such as personalization, content blocks, and segmentation are either non-existent, or available only in their simplest forms. You might be able to merge a person’s first name and cart details into a mailing, but you won’t have the options of changing subject lines and individual content blocks based on the recipient’s shopping behavior. This can turn into a major downside if you want to tweak the individual abandonment reminders for each customer based on factors such as past purchases or other actions.
Lastly, email marketing software has a distinct edge in deliverability. Deliverability is the bread and butter for any ESP, so most do everything in their power to ensure that the email deliver rates for their clients run into as few problems as possible. For a shopping cart provider, the ramifications of email deliverability are less of a concern, and you may find yourself having to hire a deliverability expert to keep things on track.
There are really only two basic pieces of information that the ESP needs to run an abandoned cart campaign. The first is a notification that someone has started a checkout procedure with a shopping cart, but has left the purchase unfinished for a specified amount of time. The second is the indicator that the cart is now empty. This information can come in a number of forms, such as webhooks and API calls, but they all do essentially the same thing. Sometimes these functions are wrapped up in a neat little package and presented as an extension or an app, but these handle the same call-out information as the processes described above, just wrapped in a slightly more user-friendly format.
As far as Goolara Symphonie is concerned (and, presumably, other ESPs that offer automation), the format matters very little. Once Symphonie checks on whether a cart has remained unfulfilled, and learns when it has been emptied, it should be possible to go ahead with a shopping cart abandonment email campaign. The basic structure looks something like this:
Did the customer put an item or items in the cart and then leave?
If so, send them a reminder.
Some cart abandonments stop at this point, while others continue with three or more reminders. Some will increase the incentive by offering an additional discount, depending on the nature of their business.
Don’t Miss the Bus
You should act quickly on cart abandonments. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that a customer will return to the shopping cart. If you are planning an abandonment program, you’ll need to work more closely with your IT department than you would with other types of automations. Cart abandonment programs need to kick in as soon as it becomes apparent that the person is not proceeding with the purchase of the items in their cart. If you already have systems in place to notify you to the actions of visitors to your site, the process becomes somewhat simpler.
In research for this article, we tried abandoning carts on various sites, to see what happened. A remarkable number of them sent no notices. Of the ones that did send notices, the strategies were quite varied and, in some cases, were contingent open the type of products they sold. Here are a few examples:
Company A specializes in high-end, expensive items that appeal to the fashion conscious. They had the most thorough abandonment campaign. It started with a notice that items were placed in the shopping cart as soon as it happened, followed by a reminder the next day. Two days later, another reminder was sent offering $5 off the chosen product. Two days after that, another reminder was sent with the subject line “Last chance for $5 off on that item you liked.” No further notices after that.
Company B specializes in clever devices for fans of science fiction films and television shows. They took a very different approach. They only sent one notice, which also added a $10 discount to the purchase. After that, they sent one more email that contained suggestions for similar products. This is a very clever approach, but it also means either utilizing a sophisticated recommendation engine as part of the process, or including a field that indicates each recipient’s preferred product line or department. For this type of sophisticated approach, the ability to accept external data tables is a must.
Company C had the weakest campaign, sending only one reminder two days later, which contained no discount offers. For them, this makes a certain amount of sense. This site specializes in heavily discounted products that are only available in limited quantities, so there is already a built in discount for each product, and the limited quantities discourage one from dawdling too long before purchasing a product.
As you can see, cart abandonment does not have a “one size fits all” solution. The type of commerce your company engages in will determine the best approach. If you are already offering substantial discounts, it might be counter-productive to offer more. If your products fall into specific categories, you might also want to offer alternatives when that is practical, although keep in mind that setting this up, will probably mean more work on your end.
Targeting the Messages
As with any email, the more personal the message, the more likely the recipient is to respond to it. One nice thing about shopping carts is that most sites require a sign-in before a customer can add anything to a cart. You should have a customer’s first name and email at the very least. If your site collects other information about a customer’s shopping habits, so much the better. Additional data can help you decide which messages to send. Here are a two very different examples of ways using an ESP can improve the shopping cart results.
The Serial Abandoner
Everyone has decided at some point to skip purchasing something that they put in their shopping cart, but there are some people who make a habit of it. There are also those who have become aware that you offer discounts when carts are abandoned, and start abandoning carts on purpose to get price reductions. The first group is an annoyance, but data shows that these people are still good potential sources of sales. The second group is a little trickier. Wouldn’t it be nice to know who these people are well before they start loading up their shopping carts with items, and what their previous shopping behavior is like?
Most cart software doesn’t address the issue of serial abandoners, but if your cart is communicating with your ESP, it’s easy enough to store information such as this in your recipient data. Once the information is in the email marketing software, it’s an easy matter to tweak the automation to either skip these people—if they commonly abandoned cart without purchasing—or eliminate or reduce the discounts if they appear to be routinely using abandonment strategies to get additional discounts. You still may want to offer those discounts, but wouldn’t you prefer to know if your doing it for a select group of people and not the general public?
Tweaking the Message
At the other end of the spectrum is the person who buys things regularly. Just as with the serial abandoner, the regular purchaser is a great source of personalized data. If person tends to purchase certain products, then even cart reminders can act as a source for additional sales. This data can also clue you into when a customer has changed their buying habits, switching to other products, or dropping the purchase of certain items completely. Knowing things like this offers some excellent opportunities to sweeten the message with additional offers.
These two extremes point out the main advantage of using an ESP in conjunction with your cart software. Using an ESP with good automation capabilities doesn’t just enhance the shopping cart experience, it supercharges it. Used well, with the inherent advantages of dynamic content and interchangeable content blocks, an ESP automated workflow will not only save you time, it can increase your sales.
Calling it Quits
Shopping Cart abandonment programs kick in quickly, and often end just as quickly. We’ve received abandonment notifications as far as two weeks after the event, although these are rare. Most businesses give up after three days. We certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from a one or two week follow-up notification, but this should signal the end of the process. What happens to the shopping cart after that will vary. Some companies automatically empty abandoned carts while others leave items in the cart forever. Whatever the case, you’ll need to address what happens when a customer comes back to the site and either looks and leaves, doing nothing to empty the cart, or adds new items and leaves again without proceeding to the checkout.
Don’t Overstay Your Welcome
Care must also be taken to ensure that you aren’t sending abandonment notifications to the people who went back and made the final purchases or deleted the unpurchased items from their shopping cart. Once the shopping cart is empty, any notices regarding sales at this point will be met with confusion at best, or hostility at worst. Once the purchases are made, that recipient should drop off the workflow. For this reason, a drip campaign is a poor substitute for a real automated workflow. If a person has emptied their cart, the last thing they want or need is another email telling them that they haven’t. By using automation, you will avoid this problem, ensuring that only those who really do have items in their carts are being reminded to finish their purchases.
Where to Find Help
As you can probably tell, shopping cart abandonment is not something to be taken on lightly. If you need help either setting up a shopping cart abandonment program, or getting your shopping cart software to communicate with your email marketing software, either contact us via our website, or give us a call at 1-888-362-4575. You might also want to take a look at the workflow automation features included in Goolara Symphonie. To find out more, click here.
In the previous article in our Automated Email Workflows series, we looked at on-boarding campaigns and how to use email automation to simplify the process. As we saw, this was a variation on the classic drip campaign, but with some automation added to make sure that the mailings properly reflect the actions and requirements of the recipient. This time we’ll look at event-based campaigns, where the recipient has signed up for a specific event. An event might be online (e.g., a webinar) or at a physical location (e.g., a trade show).
An on-boarding automation has a fairly clear entry point—when new recipients are added to the system, they are automatically added to the on-boarding workflow as well. With an event-based workflow, you first must to decide who to invite, and decide how to handle the entries that come in late. In most cases, the recipients are identified through segmentation, based on what you know about each recipient. Your target audience could be anyone who’s purchased something, anyone who’s downloaded certain whitepapers, or—when it’s expedient and makes sense—everyone on your distribution list.
Where to Start
Once you’ve identified the audience, you’ll next have to decide the point at which the automation workflow begins. Should it start after a the initial invitation, or do you want the invitation to be the first step in the workflow process? It’s really six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sending a mailing targeted to the segment of recipients is easy, and then make the workflow use that same segment. Alternatively, you can start the workflow going with the segment as the target, and then have the first step in the workflow be the sending of the invitation.
Late to the Party
The next thing to consider is what to do with late arrivals. If the event is more than a few days after the initial invitation, there might be new people added to your list that you’ll want to tell about the event. If you don’t care whether or not new subscribers get invited to the event, then don’t worry about it, but if you want to take every opportunity to get the word out, you’ll need to make sure your workflow can properly handle entry at any point.
The basic idea of an event based workflow is to work backwards (or forwards) from the event’s date, sending reminders or confirmations as needed. For example, a webinar might start with an initial invitation three weeks before the event. If no enrollment is received, the recipient could be sent several more reminders before the webinar, and perhaps one more afterward. If we lay this out on a timeline, the flow would look something like this:
Running concurrently is the timeline for the recipients who have registered for the event. Once a recipient registers, the logic of the workflow needs to switch to one where advertising the webinar is no longer the focus, and instead the emails are sent to remind the recipient of the upcoming event. That flow would look more like this:
There are several ways a flexible workflow design tool would allow this structure to be diagrammed, and every ESP or digital marketing automation tool has its own method. One straightforward choice is to put each of the email steps shown in the diagrams above into the workflow with conditional logic to determine if it should be done or not. For example, the unregistered path has an email sent at nine days before the event. A logic node (sometimes called a decision diamond) should be put into the workflow to check at this nine-day-out point to see if the recipient has registered. If so, the email node is skipped, since we don’t want to remind recipients about an event for which they’ve already registered. In the same way, at the week-before point, a logic node should check if the recipient has registered, and only send the email if that is true.
Taking Care of Stragglers
That takes care of most of the logic, but what do we do about the recipients who’ve entered the list after the automation has begun? In our example, let’s say a recipient signs up to receive email eight days prior to the event. This is where the initial choice we discussed about whether the first email is sent outside the workflow or as the first step of the workflow makes some difference. If the first workflow step is to send the invitation email, then recipients who are newly added will automatically get that invitation, which could be ideal in this case. But we don’t want to send them the nine-day announcement a few seconds later, even though they would have received it in the standard flow. Workflows that allow entry after an initial invitation has been sent must have another piece of logic before each send node to determine if the timing is right. In this case, since we know the recipient entered at day eight, we should skip the nine-day announcement and let the workflow pick them up again at the four-day point.
With good workflow software these steps should be easy to implement. If you’re using Goolara Symphonie to implement the workflow, we’ll be happy to help you create any workflows you need. If you plan to do webinars or similar events on a regular basis, then you will want to set your automation up with master mailings that you can modify for each campaign. This requires even more forethought and work at the start, but can save hours of work in the long run.
In our last post, we looked at drip campaigns, which start at certain points, based on when the subscribers takes action, then send out regular mailings after that. With event-based workflows, everything revolves around the date of the event. All actions are based on this. While they are more complex than standard drip campaigns, event-based automations can also be quite simple, especially if you don’t allow new recipients to enter the workflow once the initial invitation is sent.
Another year has come and gone, and with it, another bagful of email catastrophes. Some of these are minor issues that could have been caught with a little more testing or another set of eyes, some are truly catastrophic, and a few problems are unique to that bane of email, Microsoft Live Mail.
It’s always a good idea to test your links before sending out an email, but even the best of us miss one from time to time. Here are a few we noticed this year.
You Know What I Mean!
In this newsletter from last January, MediaPost created a link to the AMA conference without the all important “http://” at the beginning. While that works fine when you are entering a URL in the Address Bar, it won’t work in an href command. It doesn’t help that they’ve used base64 encoding on the message which moves us further from the link and is probably why their emails always end up in my Spam folder.
My Name is [Your Name]
I’ve talked about using placer information in previous year-end reviews. Placers are useful, but only if you don’t forget to remove them from the final mailings. In this case, the placer link “http://your.website.address.here/” was used on the image. Fortunately, there were actual links later in the message, which minimized the damage here.
Spot the Panda
When you have several links in an email, there is always a danger that one won’t get its proper URL. Net-A-Porter does a good job of ensuring that every link goes to the item you click on, saving a lot of useless scrolling and page flipping (See last year’s Year-End Review for examples of this). But with this many unique links and more in every mailing, it was inevitable that they would miss one. In this case, it’s the Stella McCarthy coat on the bottom left, which links instead to Net-A-Porter’s emagazine.
Three Out of Nine is Not Good Odds
Getting one link wrong is forgivable. Getting six out of nine wrong is not. This email from Fab takes you to the same page no matter which of these images you click. The problem here is that six of the images are not even on the page. If you want to find them, you’ll have to search for them (they are on the site). Rule #1: Always make it easy for your customers to purchase things. Either create a landing page specifically for the items you’re showing, or link to each of them individually.
Psst! Wanna See a Picture?
This class sounds interesting, but if you click on the image it will take you to…the image. That’s right. It opens the image location. It doesn’t even take you to Sur La Table’s home page. You can eventually get there by clicking various other links on the page, but it seems like an image that says “Reserve Your Spot” should at least enable you to do just that.
Some mistakes are the result of formatting errors. One missing greater-than sign or comment tag and your entire design goes off the rails. Here are a few coding mistakes that we saw this year.
Dear First Name
This one is so common that we’re guaranteed to receive a few of these every year. Usually it is the first name that’s missing, but, as you can see from the third example, it can happen elsewhere in an email. I suspect that most of the time this comes about when someone is using a previous mailing to create a new one, and doesn’t pay attention to the merge fields and dynamic content. This is mostly just laziness. I know that Goolara Symphonie will maintain my merge data when I copy in this fashion, but I always replace it just to be on the safe side. Judging from these examples, I suspect that other ESPs are less forgiving.
MS Word + HTML = Disaster
Most people know better than to try and use Word for their HTML generator. Every once in a while, however, we get an email with the tell-tale “o:p” tag that Microsoft uses to allow you to convert the HTML back into a Word document. This email probably looked just fine in Microsoft Word, and it even looks okay in some visual editors, but it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Ironically, this particular mailing is all text and would have been easier to create directly in any ESP’s visual editor than in Word. This one will always fail in Live Mail (see section below) and often fails elsewhere as well. Here are a couple more examples:
These people would have all been better off typing their content in a plain text editor.
Bad Code Practices
Some problems are not the result of typos or inadequate testing. Some are simply bad practices. These aren’t mistakes in the strictest sense, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for them.
Ever since Gmail started caching the images, we’ve seen an increase in the number of mailings that omit the alt tags. Here’s a perfect example of this from Warby Parker:
The only text in this mailing is the company’s address and a few links at the bottom. Now here’s one from Bed, Bath and Beyond where they’ve gone the extra mile to make sure that even with the images off, you know what their email is all about and have some impetus to click through:
Ya’ Got No Style!
Providing alt tags is a good practice, but if you’re using them in cells with dark backgrounds, remember to add style color information to the cell, in particular a color property such as #FFFFFF (white) and “text-decoration:none” to make sure the alt tag is readable. In the top example from the Westfield shopping center, the type is barely legible, but even that is only because it includes a link, which turns the type blue by default. The second example from TradePub.com, also includes a link, but the blue background makes it nearly impossible to read. For more information on how to create styled alt tags, see our white paper, Using Text & Images.
Formatting is for Sissies
I’ve removed the name and address information from the address above because it belongs to the competition. This email came without any formatting. No active links, no nothing. It was clearly a mistake, but there was no follow up apology; just a second mailing with completely different content twenty minutes later. Perhaps they are following that new “never say you’re sorry” attitude that is making the rounds on the Internet, or maybe they hoped no one would notice. Of course, one could point out that this email is, in fact, a violation of the CAN-SPAM act (inactive unsub link), but it’s probably moot.
Don’t Forget to Block
A perennial problem with sliced images in email is the problem of gaps. This is an easy one to prevent. The addition of “display: block” to each of the tags will go a long ways toward preventing this situation. Also watch out for things like padding and margin, which can also wreck a sliced image.
Live Mail Strikes Again
Every email reader has its own idiosyncrasies, but the one that seems to break email the most often is Live Mail. Here are some common problems—and one not so common problem—to look out for in Live Mail.
Watch Out for Links
The problem we see most often is the blue borders on images with links. Most of the time, it’s merely distracting, but in some cases, such as in the example above, it actually screws up the design. With other mail readers, putting an attribute such as “border: 0” (or “none”) in the
tag will eliminate the problem, and many of these mailings contain that instruction, but Live Mail requires this property to be put inside the tag. Put it anywhere else, and Live Mail ignores it.
Black is the New White
As discussed in last year’s email review, Live Mail does not like three-digit hex codes. You’ve assigned a background of #FFF (white)? Live Mail will treat it the same as #000 (black). Even if you have no customers using Live Mail, it’s a good idea to get into the practice of typing out the full six-digit hex codes.
This mailing from Duct Tape Marketing looks fine everywhere else, but open it in Live Mail and suddenly all the text is centered, including a list that appears later on the page. While this isn’t a complete catastrophe, it does make the text harder to read, which is never good. In this case, the problem comes back to the placing the style information between tags instead of inline.
Email from a Mime
This is particularly weird phenomenon that only seems to happen in Live Mail. I received the email above shortly before Christmas. A big red block. That’s it. No text, no alt tags, and no “Show Images” link to indicate that anything was missing. Not surprisingly, it is an unsolicited email. It comes from a company that offers Santa letters for children. The email does have images (see below), but you couldn’t tell it from what I received in Live Mail. As far as Live Mail was concerned, this mailing was nothing more than a big red block. Here’s how it should have looked:
In a way, it’s probably just as well that nothing showed up. There are typos in nearly every line, they obviously didn’t bother with a test mailing, which would have showed that they used too many snowflakes (it only looks correct in Dreamweaver), and that kid is pretty obviously a stock image. This one would have ended up in this year-end review even if the images did show up.
Cascading Image Sizing
One of the weirdest anomalies We’ve encountered with Live Mail is the following one from Lionsbridge:
As a point of reference, here is the same thing sent to a Gmail address:
Quite a difference! After a bit of testing, we found that simply removing the doctype information at the top of the email’s code fixed the problem. This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered that particular issue. Our more recent tests with Live Mail show that this particular problem has been fixed. Nonetheless, as a rule, if you’re copying your code from an HTML editor, it’s a good idea to exclude the and tags from the process. The email software is going to wrap your information in those tags anyway. This doesn’t always mess things up, HTML is remarkably forgiving, but better safe than sorry. The truth is, the safest procedure for maximum compatibility is to omit everything except content between the body tags and to put inline any styles you have included, with the exceptions of the media queries and the usual boilerplate styles used to improve compatibility with various mailboxes.
This next section is about mailings that use questionable marketing techniques to achieve their goals. Some could argue that these are effective because they get you to pay attention, but so will a car accident; that doesn’t make it a good thing.
It’s Our Special Interface!
CAN-SPAM requires that every promotional mailing includes an unsubscribe link that works, but there is nothing in the law that dictates exactly how you convey this message. This one’s from a questionable company, and would almost certainly have ended up in the spam folder had it been sent to my Gmail account, but my Live Mail account is set to accept a wider range of email. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it preferable to click “This is Spam” rather than click on that suspiciously worded unsubscribe. My advice: Stick to the tried-and-true “Click here to unsubscribe.” The unsubscribe link is no place to get clever.
About Your Account…
One of the most common techniques used by phishers is the one where they send you a notice about the way they are changing their charges on your bank account. The idea is for you to say, “Oh no!” and click the link, which takes you to a fake, but believable login page where you enter your bank login information. So it’s never a good idea when a legitimate company sends out an email that sets off the same alarm bells. Since I’ve never used PayPal with this account, the fact they sent this email to me means one of two things. Either they think I did give them a PayPal account (I did not), or they didn’t bother to segment the mailing. Both are bad, but the latter is unforgivable.
@SneakyMarketer is now following you!
Marketers are always looking for new ways to get you to look at their mailings. Sometimes they cross the line. PRWeek’s take off on Twitter’s following notices might have been okay had it been more obviously fake, and had had some truth to it. In fact, it’s just a come on to sign up for their webinar on social media.
Remember Me? No?
An insidious trend in spamming that showed up in my Inbox this year is the fake follow up. Here’s an example:
Looks legit, but a quick look at my Inbox, spam, and trash folder shows that no such original email was ever sent. This is not the first of these I’ve received, but it’s the first time that they went to the trouble of making it look like something was already sent.
Hello, It’s Me Again
Lately there’s been a lot of press about the advantages of sending more email instead of less. The folks at HubSpot must have taken this to heart, because this is what I found in my email inbox one morning:
Now I’m all for frequent mailings, but this is going a bit far. All kidding aside, I realize that this is more likely the result of their site’s automation, but it probably didn’t help things that most of these were sent during hours when many U.S. companies aren’t sending (I am surprised, however, that I didn’t get something between the eight o’clock and nine o’clock mailings).
Until Next Year
That’s all for this year. I normally like end with a few examples of good and/or clever mailing ideas, but this post is already pushing the limits of acceptable length for an online article. I’d like to thank Justin Khoo at FreshInbox for his help in diagnosing some of Live Mail’s idiosyncrasies. Keep emailing, and if there’s one takeaway from this article it’s this: Always test before sending.
[Note: This is the second in a series of posts about automated workflows for email marketing. In part two, we look at the use of automation to create sophisticated drip campaigns. The examples used in these articles were created using Goolara Symphonie’s Automation features, but the information presented here is applicable to other systems as well.]
One of the simplest forms of automated workflows is an on-boarding campaign for a new client. In its simplest form, it goes something like this: Client A signs up for a product or service (let’s call him “Bob”), and thereafter receives regularly scheduled mailings instructing him in the ways he can use the product or service. Suppose Bob has signed up to use ABC Widgets SaaS inventory control system for his business. The first email he receives welcomes him to the service and explains all the advantages of ABC Widgets. The next mailing teaches him the basics of using the software. A few days later, he receives another email that might ask him to verify that he’s happy with the system and give him some more tips and ideas for using the software more efficiently. Finally, he receives a mailing with the information he needs to get help or move to the more advanced aspects of the system. In flowchart form, that might look something like this:
As you can see from the example above, the only automated aspect of this type of drip campaign is the starting point. After that, everything flows automatically based on the start date. In this respect, it is similar to a standard opt-in set-up, where a mailing is sent as soon as you sign up. Several email marketing software providers offer this particular style of drip campaign, and claim to offer automation, but true automation should offer much more than the ability to start a drip campaign at any given time. Full-featured email automation gives you the ability to get much more specific in what happens at each step along the way. For instance, you might want to branch out to two different results based on something that the client does or doesn’t do. For this, you’ll need to add logic to your automation.
Suppose simply starting a drip campaign isn’t enough. Maybe you want to make sure that Bob implements the database in the ABC Widgets software as soon as possible. If Bob hasn’t started entering data into the database after a day or two, you’ll want to remind him of the importance of doing so, but you won’t want to remind him to do this if has already done it. Nobody likes to receive a notice like that, and it doesn’t make you look good with Bob either. To do this properly, you’ll need to add a logic point (also called a decision point) to your workflow that looks at Bob’s use of the software and offers different mailing choices based on that information. Here is the same drip campaign shown previously, but a decision point added to the workflow:
In our example, the decision point is a yes or no choice, in some software, that’s all you get. With some email marketing software, (such as Goolara Symphonie), you are not limited to this simple yes or no choice. You can branch the decision point in into as many alternative paths as you’d like. You might, for instance, offer multiple paths based on each recipient’s membership level, with each level receiving a different set of mailings.
You can also add additional trigger points that are activated when the client takes specific actions. These are in the form of “wait until” commands that come into play when the recipient makes a specific choice, such as clicking or opening certain pages. In our example, ABC Widgets could notify Bob when he finally does use the database feature, and offer additional tips and instructions after that. There’s no reason this couldn’t be an on-going set-up, with new information and suggestions being provided at different points during the on-boarding procedure and after.
Similarly, you can set up delays that are triggered based on their proximity to specific dates, such as birthdays or membership anniversaries. In our example, ABC Widget may want to notify Bob toward the end of a three-month trial period, or before the annual membership is due. These dates will be different for every client, which makes them ideal candidates for automation.
Split Test, Write Fields, and More
Other possible automation nodes include A/B splits, which is useful for split testing that requires different levels of interaction; write fields, which lets you completely change the content of each mailing based on any data you wish; and jump points, which are primarily used to help keep complicated workflows easy to manage. Not all ESPs offer all these features, but these represent a few of the more common nodes that you’ll encounter with advanced email marketing software.
Now let’s look at our original on-boarding campaign with a few more features added. In the example below, we’ve split the mailings into three different paths based on the subscription level for each client. The automation checks the subscription level, offers the correct email, looks at the actions of the client and proceeds with the automation based on whether or not the client has implemented the database. You could also set this up so that each of the three membership levels receives a completely different set of mailings for every step, but in our example, we’ve used dynamic content to change the data in the first and last mailings, allowing us to consolidate those two mailings. For more on dynamic content see the previous post, Personalizing Your Email Marketing.
If you are new to automation, you should start with a simple workflow and develop more complex ones as you get more familiar with the tools. One thing to be careful about is adding new functions to an existing automation. This is certainly acceptable and even preferable in many circumstances, but you’ll want to use email marketing software, such as Symphonie, that will flag possible recursive operations (operations that endlessly loop back on themselves) to make sure that your automated email workflows run smoothly.
[Note: This is the first in a series of posts about automated workflows for email marketing. In this, the first part, we will look at what you need to know before you get started creating an automated workflow. The examples used in these articles were created using Goolara Symphonie’s Automation features, but the information presented here is applicable to other systems as well.]
Automation is an important part of a complete email marketing program. It allows the person in charge of email marketing to work on other things while the emails that don’t require their attention are sent out automatically. If you are not using automated email workflows yet, you might be leaving money on the table. While they can take some time to set up, studies show that automated workflows improve sales results and pay for themselves in no time.
There are many interesting things that can be done with a flexible automation tool: drip campaigns, on-boarding programs, and shopping cart abandonment, to name but a few. But how do you get started implementing some of these programs? Let’s take a look.
Data is King
Your ability to personalize and tailor a program to an individual depends considerably on what you know about that person. You cannot, for instance, address someone by their first name in an email if you don’t have that information as a field in your demographics. Collecting useful data and providing it to your digital marketing solution is key to the success of any email marketing program. When working with automation, data is also king. A shopping cart abandonment program will only work if the data indicating an abandonment can be transferred from your shopping cart software. That leads us to the next question: How do we get that data into our system?
Real-time vs. Batch Processing
With automations, the sooner you can act on the data you’ve collected, the better. The ideal situation is when data can be transferred immediately. This is generally done through an API call responding to something that happens outside the system, such as a cart abandonment, a webinar sign-up, or a white paper download. If possible, you’ll want your programmers to setup a call to the digital marketing platform to transfer this data and activate the automation as soon as an event has occurred.
If it’s not possible to transfer data in real-time, you can try collecting the data once a day and transferring it to your digital marketing platform. This is an imperfect solution, however. Most people nowadays expect near instantaneous responses, but some examples where a response delay is more acceptable include, a drip associated with a webinar, follow-up to an event, such as a trade show, or something long term, such as a birthday reminder.
When There’s No External Data
If you can’t get real-time or batch data out of your internal systems, don’t panic. There are some situations where you can automate actions based on the data that is already in your digital marketing platform. One example is an on-boarding program. When a new recipient is added, they are automatically added to a drip campaign that provides automated emails to help them get started. Another example is automation based on open or clickthrough behavior. This can be dangerous, as many recipients don’t react well if they feel that their actions are being tracked, but it can be a useful tool to send administrative alerts to the salesperson or follow-up on the recipient’s demonstrated interest.
So, what data should be provided in external data tables to facilitate a good automation program? Obviously, the email address. You won’t get far without that one. The email address is also the best identifier of each recipient since it’s the one piece of information that will be unique for everyone. Beyond that, it is a question of which data is actionable by your automation tool. You should be able to offer different paths within the automation flow based on the data provided. For example, knowing the date of the webinar will allow you to coordinate the drips so they are sent at the appropriate dates and times before and after the event.
Data to merge
Another important consideration is what data you will want for merging purposes. As an example, a shopping cart email that references some vague statement like “there are items in your cart” will not be as effective as one that references the specific item(s). The data may be usable in its native form (names, dates, and such), or it can be inserted into the message directly as HTML (as an invoice layout, for instance).
Utilizing Past Data
You’ll also want to look at the capabilities of your automation tool to make sure that it can handle simultaneous workflows for the same recipient, and that previous data is available for decision points in the workflow. If you offer events that have any overlap, like several webinars a month, it is important that your workflow can handle keeping track of which webinar the recipient has and hasn’t signed up for. Additionally, using the data from previous events can help you make the best decisions within a workflow. For example, you may offer a discount for a redeemed shopping cart the first few times a recipient abandons, but after a pattern of abandonments has been established you may want to cut out the discount to make sure recipients aren’t gaming your program. A good automation program should allow you to make decisions based on this previous history.
Gathering data for your automation, deciding what data should be collected, and making a workflow that is intelligent based on past behaviors are several of the key things to consider when starting an automation program. After that is specifics of the different types of workflows, which we will look at in subsequent blog posts.
A well-designed typeface is a thing of beauty. It can convey emotion, improve sales, and help define a corporate identity. For years, designers have been trying to figure how to use their favorite fonts in email, sometimes these attempts fail miserably, and other times they lead to other problems that you wouldn’t expect. Using fonts in email takes you into treacherous territory. Is it better to use inline font-family styles or convert everything to images? And what about web fonts? Can you use them in email marketing?
In this overview, we look at all the methods for using fonts in email that are available to marketers and designers. Some of these techniques qualify as best practices, while others should be avoided at all costs. A couple might even qualify as worst practices.
Before we get too deep into the subject, we’d like to point out that we’ll be using font and typeface interchangeably. In the past, “font” referred a specific size of a typeface, so Helvetica 12pt was one font and Helvetica 24pt was another. With the advent of digital publishing, these designations lost their meaning.
Types of Fonts
Fonts come in six basic types:
Serifs are those little feet that protrude from the edges of a character. Examples of this style of typeface include Century Schoolbook, Garamond, and Palatino. The most famous serif typeface is Times New Roman, which was created for the London Times by Stanley Morison. Serif typefaces are still the preferred choice for blocks of printed text. On the computer screen, they are little harder to read due to the effects of screen resolution of the serifs.
If a typeface does not have those little feet, it is referred to as “sans serif.” Examples of sans serif typefaces include Franklin Gothic, Gill Sans, and Univers. The most well-known sans serif font is Helvetica, which is even the star of its own movie. The most common variation on Helvetica is Arial, which was specifically designed to match the font metrics of Helvetica. This was Microsoft’s way of getting around the license fees for Helvetica. San serif typefaces are preferred over serif typefaces for text on the computer screen. Some fonts, such as Verdana, were specifically designed for better readability on computer monitors.
A Handwriting font, as the name suggests, is one that resembles handwritten text. These fonts are also referred to as “Cursive” or “Script” fonts. Sometimes these are fancy, such as Park Avenue and Edwardian Script, and sometimes they are more casual, such as Comic Sans and Freestyle Script. Caution should be used with these fonts. As you’ll see when we get to the Web Fonts, cursive fonts usually default to Comic Sans, which is often a poor substitution.
Decorative fonts are the ones that favor novelty over readability. They come in both serif and sans serif variations, and are usually restricted to logos and headlines. As a rule, they should never be used for blocks of text. Popular decorative fonts include Ad Lib, Jim Crow, Mesquite, Stencil, and Old English. They are sometimes used for logos, but, even here, are best used sparingly if at all. Because of the high level of variations between them, they should never be used in email.
Monospaced fonts are the ones that assign the same amount of space for each character. In a monospaced font, the ‘m’ takes the same amount of space as an ‘i’. This type of font is often used to display code, or to mimic an old typewriter. The most popular example of this is Courier. Monospaced fonts come in both serif versions, such as Courier, and sans serif versions, such as Consolas.
Dingbats are not fonts in the usual sense of the word, but, instead, have replaced the standard alphanumeric characters with little pictographs. In Webdings, for instance, a capital J renders a picture of an island with a palm tree, while in Wingdings it renders a smiley face. Dingbat fonts should never be used in email. You may like the idea of creating rebuses using Webdings, and it may look right on your PC; but if someone opens it on a Mac or some other system that doesn’t come with Webdings, they’ll only see gibberish.
Several pictographs are built into other typefaces as part of the Unicode (UTF-8). These are safer to use and sometimes are even used in subject lines (with ✈ and ❤ being particular favorites). Just make sure that you’ve encoded your mailing as UTF-8 and not 7-bit ASCII. Otherwise, you may end up with little squares or questions marks where the pictographs should be. It’s also important to remember that although there is some overlap in appearance between dingbat font characters and the pictographs that are available as part of the standard Unicode font set, they are not interchangeable. For example, the picture of the airplane in the middle on the left in the picture above is a capital Q in Wingdings. This one will not work in email. You need to use the airplane character as it is indicated in Unicode (you can find a handy chart of the Unicode dingbats and other special characters here).
Using a font directly
You can assign any typeface you want to your email content. Here, is an example of an inline style assigned to display in Helvetica:
Of course, this doesn’t mean that your recipients are going to see the same thing on their computers that you see on yours. If the recipient does not have Helvetica installed in their system, they are going to see another font. As a rule, this will be Arial, but don’t count of the substitution to be automatic. By only listing one typeface in font-family style, you leave it up to the ISP, email client, or particular software to choose the alternative. This could end up being anything from Myriad Pro to Courier.
For this reason, it is always a good idea to provide a list of acceptable alternatives to the font-family style, starting with the preferred font, with the rest of the fonts following in order of preference:
We’ve ended the list with the generic “sans-serif” as a safety measure to ensure that if none of the fonts listed are available, the text will still appear as a sans-serif font.
But what if your type absolutely has to be in a specific typeface? If it is part of your logo or associated with a specific branding campaign, you might not want the type replaced with anything else. In that case, your best bet is to convert the type to an image, but be careful—this is an overused technique that comes with some definite downsides.
Using Images for Type
At first, it seems like converting all your text to an image seems like a way to go. If you wanted to use Ad Lib for your headlines with Broadway for your text, an image would make sure that this (admittedly terrible) combination would look the same to everybody, regardless of their operating system, email client, or computer. But before you go converting all your mailings to images, there are a few important caveats to take into account.
No Text, No Inbox
First and foremost, you shouldn’t do it because it can affect deliverability. Shady email senders sometimes try and outsmart the spam filters by converting their text to an image in an attempt to elude the spam filters that check for certain words. As a consequence, many ISPs deduct points from a reputation score when they find only images in a message. This can be just enough of a negative to redirect your mailing from the Inbox to the Spam folder.
Not Text, No See
The second downside to using only images is that not all mailbox providers display images as a default. The Mail app on the iPhone does and Gmail does, but most others still default to image display off. If all your text has been converted into an image, you run the risk of missing potential sales for no better reason than that the recipient never saw your actual message.
Remember the Alt Tag
If you do plan to use an image to display text, the safest thing to do is to include the text in the image as an alt tag. That way if the recipient has image display turned off, he can still get an idea of what the picture contains. In the case of logos, you can also add styles to the alt tag to improve the email’s appearance. For more on this subject, see our white paper, Using Text and Images.
What About Web Fonts?
From time to time, people ask about using Google Web Fonts in email. If you are new to Google Web Fonts, these are fonts that you can use without having to have them installed either on your computer, or the computers of your recipients. There are other sources for web fonts, such as Adobe and Font Squirrel, but these usually require scripts, which do not work in email. Web fonts require you to add two pieces of information to your mailings—a tag with the URL for the font you want to use, and a font-family style attribute.
Web Fonts will only work when the email client recognizes the tag and can use it to download remote content (in this case, the fonts). Here’s an example of an email that was set using two Google Web Fonts—Luckiest Guy for the headline and Josefin Slab for the text. In this first example we’ve taken the HTML code provided by Google and stuck it in the mailing without further modification. Here is how the HTML it appears in a browser (in this case, Chrome) before it is sent as an email:
Now here’s the same email as it appears in various email clients and platforms:
As you can see, only the iPhone and Thunderbird rendered it correctly. Even here the fonts are only displayed when “Load Remote Images” is turned on (the default setting for the iPhone, but not for Thunderbird). Because Web Fonts require a link to work, these fonts are treated the same as images. If an email client defaults to “Images Off,” it’s not going to display Web Fonts either, even if it can. No images, no fonts.
The fact that cursive is listed as the font category for Luckiest Guy doesn’t help. It means that on PCs the headline defaults to various weights of Comic Sans, a font so detested that Weird Al Yankovic uses it as a gag in his song, “Tacky”. On Macs and iPhones, cursive defaults to Snell Roundhand which is better than Comic Sans, but is still a far cry the intended result. In the case of Live Mail, the fact that “serif” was listed as the fallback didn’t seem to matter. It still converted the text to Arial.
Of course, there’s nothing that says you have to use the HTML exactly as Google provides it. In the case of the Luckiest Guy font (and, I suspect, many others), you’d be better off ignoring their recommended category and choose one of your own. You’ll also want to add a few logical alternatives to the list. Here are the inline style settings for the headline after we’ve modified it:
There’s really nothing like Luckiest Guy that is common on computers, so I’ve chosen an assortment of bold display faces that you’ll find on many devices and platforms. Likewise, Josefin Slab is a hard one to match since slab-serifs (i.e., serifs that are squared off instead of pointed) are not that popular either. Here are the inline style settings for the body copy:
Rockwell and Clarendon are popular fonts, and although Georgia is not a slab-serif font, it is a common font and shares many characteristics with Clarendon. Here are the results:
As you can see, the results are still far from perfect, but they are better. If this level of discrepancy between fonts is acceptable to you, then you might find web fonts worth experimenting with. If your audience is made up primarily of iPhone and Mac users, it might be worthwhile. If your audience is primarily on PCs and Android phones, then it probably isn’t worth the effort.
Text Still Wins
When all is said and done, the advice we gave in Using Text to Deliver Your Message still stands: You’ll get the best results if you remain flexible on the font choices. Converting text to images where the font is important (such as logos and other branding) is acceptable, but even then, limit it as much as possible and make sure you’ve provided alt tags that are either informative or will make people want to display the images.
If the email that lands in our inboxes every day is any indication, people don’t spend enough time thinking about the effects that links have on images and text. Blue linked text on dark backgrounds, problematic borders, and unwanted underlines can all interfere with an email’s design. These are very easy fixes that should be in every email designer’s toolbox, so it’s a little puzzling why so many mailings don’t follow these simple rules.
Links on Images
In a previous article on this blog, we discussed ways to make sure your images link correctly in email. Image maps and image slicing offer ways to let portions of an image link to different pages, but that’s only part of the story. There is one more hidden pitfall in image handling that often goes overlooked. In fact, hardly a day goes by when I don’t see this particular mistake pop up in some email or another. You may think you’ve covered all your bases when it comes to linking images, but if you’re not careful, there’s one more trap waiting to trip you up.
To understand better take a look at this example:
As you can see, the last two sections of the image have links. The email viewing software saw the links and placed highlights around these sections. In this particular case, the link borders also throw off the text in the image, making it harder to read, although the text at the top and the bottom could have been—and should have been—actual text (see Using Text to Deliver Your Message), the blue line certainly makes matters worse.
The blue line doesn’t appear in all email viewers, which is why this is sometimes overlooked. If the email reader you normally use doesn’t do this, you might miss it. Unfortunately, the problem crops up most often in Microsoft email clients and mailboxes, which aren’t exactly low profile products. Sometimes it can interfere with the design in other ways. Here’s a button with rounded corners and a blue border that completely destroys the intended effect:
In this particular case, rather than create the button using the border-radius style in a colored table cell, they generated it as an image instead, so the email reader put a border on it to indicate it has a link.
The fix for this is easy, and should come almost as second nature to email designers. Let’s look at the image tag on the button:
Now here’s what’s missing in red:
It’s that simple. The addition of the border attribute is all it takes to eliminate this particular problem so why do so many emails still show up with blue borders? In all likelihood it’s because the sender is only checking against their default email client.
Lost in the Blue
With text, links default to blue underlined text in email. In one sense, this is usually a good thing. It wouldn’t serve much purpose to leave the text black with no underline. On the other hand, there are times when the blue color and the underscore can interfere with the design. Here’s an example of the button shown above recreated (as near I could) as a table cell instead of an image:
Borders aren’t an issue because it is no longer an image. The styles on the table cell are entered as inline styles, giving it specific text attributes and removing the underline that indicates it is a link. But here’s that same table cell, with the inline styles removed, allowing the text to revert to its default choices:
Not very useful. You can remove the underline by adding the style attribute “text-decoration: none,” but the text would still be blue. Just be careful that you haven’t assigned the text to appear in a color that is close to the default link color (which varies between browsers), email client systems aren’t smart enough to recognize the color of your text, and your links are likely to get lost.
Browsers can be very forgiving when it comes to the order of attributes in your HTML. Email clients are not so generous. For this reason, you’ll sometimes encounter cases where a mailing looks just fine as a stand-alone web page, but then falls apart when it reaches the inbox. When this happens, you should check the order of your tags. Make sure things like yourtags are closed within their appropriate
tags, and thetags are closed within their
The email client that is the worst offender when it comes to creating this sort of havoc is, not surprisingly, Live Mail. The examples shown above come from this particular email client, and were, in some cases, okay in other email clients. As we discussed in our 2014 Year End Review, Live Mail brings its own set of idiosyncrasies to the table. Here’s an example of how a set of social buttons at the bottom of the page in an L.A. Times newsletter appeared in Live Mail:
And here is how it appeared in other email clients:
Those of you that have read the 2014 Year in Review article might guess that the black background is the result of using the three digit color code “#fff” instead of “#ffffff.” But the example above has nothing on this one from Lionbridge:
In this case, the buttons are overlapping each other, with each button appearing slightly smaller than the one to its right. Now here’s what this table looks like in every other email client:
Quite a difference! So what caused this strange cascading effect? We narrowed it down to the tag:
Normally, the tag has no effect on an email. Ironically, even this one wouldn’t have been a problem if the designer had left off the URL at the end. Then it would have worked just fine. Like the browsers, Live Mail has its own methods for dealing with the differences between HTML versions, and without the link, the software figures it out correctly. Of course, there’s really no reason to ever place a tag in an email. We recommend leaving them out. For that matter, the safest approach is to place only the styles you want for responsive purposes (which normally appear between thetags), and the actual content (which falls between thetags). Everything else serves no purpose in an email, and may actually create problems.
A Few Basic Rules
Getting links in email to appear the way you want them to is not difficult. It boils down to a few simple rules:
Always include border=0 in your tags
Use text-decoration: none to eliminate the underline on links
Assign a contrasting color on text links if the main content is blue
Place the style attributes for linked text in the tags
These fixes are so easy to implement, it’s puzzling why many emails are still sent with these problems. In the grand scheme, these are relatively minor issues, but, as we have shown, little things can make a big difference.