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.

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.

Design, Email marketing, HTML Issue, Live Mail

The Year in Email: A Look Back At 2015

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.

Bad Links

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!

Bad linkIn 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]

link placerI’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

wrong linkWhen 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

66% failure rateGetting 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?

no linkThis 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.

Bad Formatting

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

misspelled dynamic tagno first namebad footer tagThis 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

bad codingMost 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:

bad codebad codeThese 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.

No Alts

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:

no alt informationThe 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:

good alt tags

Ya’ Got No Style!

no style on alt tagno alt tag on blueProviding 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

no formattingI’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

gaps in imageA 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 <img> 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

blue lines around iamgesThe 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 <td> tag will eliminate the problem, and many of these mailings contain that instruction, but Live Mail requires this property to be put inside the <img> tag. Put it anywhere else, and Live Mail ignores it.

Black is the New White

3 digit hex code problemAs 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.

Paragraph Alignment

centered textThis 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 <style> tags instead of inline.

Email from a Mime

santa letter in Live MailThis 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:

santa letter with imagesIn 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:

smaller and smaller imagesAs a point of reference, here is the same thing sent to a Gmail address:

correctly formattedQuite 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 <doctype> and <html> 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.

Marketing Missteps

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!

weird unsubCAN-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…

paypal announcementOne 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!

fake twitter messageMarketers 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:

fake follow-upLooks 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:

too many mailingsNow 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.

Deliverability, Design, Email marketing, HTML Issue

Using Fonts in Email

Fonts in EmailA 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:

Types of fonts

Serif

serif fontsSerifs 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.

Sans Serif

Sans SerifIf 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.

Handwriting

HandwritingA 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

DecorativeDecorative 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

MonospacedMonospaced 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

DingbatsDingbats 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:

<p style=”font-family: Helvetica;”>Hello World</p>

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:

<p style=”font-family: Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, ‘Helvetica Neue’, sans-serif;”>Hello World</p>

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 <link> 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 <link> 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:

Google Web FontsNow here’s the same email as it appears in various email clients and platforms:

web font chart using defaultsAs 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:

style=”font-family: ‘Luckiest Guy’, Impact, Haettenschweiler, ‘Franklin Gothic Bold’, ‘Arial Black’, sans-serif; font-size: 3em; color: #63499B”

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:

style=”font-family: ‘Josefin Slab’, Memphis, Lubalin, Rockwell, Clarendon, Georgia, serif; font-size: 1em;”

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:

Web Font chart with better style choicesAs 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.

Design, HTML Issue

Making Links Look Good

broken linksIf 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:

bad borderAs 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:

button with borderIn 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:

<img src="RegButton.jpg" alt="Register Today!" />

Now here’s what’s missing in red:

<img src="RegButton.jpg" alt="Register Today!" border="0" />

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:

cell based buttonBorders 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:

cell based button no changesNot 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.

Arranging Attributes

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 your <td> tags are closed within their appropriate <tr> tags, and the <tr> tags are closed within their <table> tags.

One area you should be especially careful is with the <a> tags. We’ve seen occasions where attempts to insert other tags inside of the <a> tags—such as <span> and <p> tags—have resulted in broken links. It’s far safer to make <a> tags the innermost tag set, and wrap the other tags around it, with the exception of the <img> tag, which is self-contained (i.e., requires no closing tag). Also keep in mind that the <a> tag wants to add certain style attributes to your text. To override these attributes, you need to change the style attributes of the <a> tag, not the text. Adding a span won’t always work. To illustrate, here is a screenshot of the same tag rendered three different ways:

link orderThe middle line is the only one that is correct here. All three lines were given the same style attributes (style=”font-weight: bold; color: #ee5500; text-decoration: none;”). The top example had the style attributes inserted into <span> tags that were placed inside the <a> tags; in the middle example, the styles were added directly to the <a> tag; and in the bottom example, the styles were inserted into <span> tags that start before the <a> tags and end after them. As you can see, all three lines had different results. In some email clients, the top two were correct, but none of them rendered the third line correctly. Adding “!important” to the styles had no effect. Clearly the best way to control the attributes of text in an <a> tag is by assigning the styles within that tag. Any other method can yield unpredictable results.

Live Spelled Backwards is Evil

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:

bad callsAnd here is how it appeared in other email clients:

everywhere elseThose 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:

cascade effectIn 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:

okay versionQuite a difference! So what caused this strange cascading effect? We narrowed it down to the <doctype> tag:

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"
"http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/loose.dtd">

Normally, the <doctype> 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 <doctype> 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 the <head> tags), and the actual content (which falls between the <body> tags). 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 <img> 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 <a> tags
  • Eliminate superfluous code and tags, such as JavaScript and <doctype>

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.

Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing

Geolocation Tricks and Techniques

Geolocation tipsIn our last blog post, we talked about assembling an email that uses location-specific data to personalize an email. We showed how you can use content blocks to offer information for specific store locations based on the subscriber’s address. In this article we will talk about how to use geolocation in email to personalize each mailing. We won’t be discussing how to obtain address information for your subscribers. There are plenty of articles on that subject, and most of the techniques (surveys, special offers, etc.) are easy to come up with. For now, we will assume you already have this information and would like to put it to better use. For our example, we’ll be using the address locations for the recipients, to show information about the nearest store.

Finding Geolocations for Email

You may have the street addresses for your recipients, and the physical locations of your stores, but these won’t do you much good as they are. It is hard to compute anything from a street address. After all, 1945 Polaris Place, North St. Paul, MN is a lot harder to use in a formula than 45 and -93. To find the actual geolocations, you’ll need the geographic coordinates—in other words, the latitude and longitude. This may sound a bit daunting, but obtaining this information is relatively easy. There are several online sites, such as Batch Geocode and GPS Visualizer that can generate latitude and longitude numbers from street addresses automatically. Now you have the geolocation data you need for your email marketing campaign, but you still need to convert that data into nearest store location information.

More Than Maps

There are some web sites that will automatically take your store address list and your subscriber list and convert these into maps, with arrows showing the store locations. This is relatively easy to do thanks to the online map features in Google, Bing, Mapquest, and others, but there are surprisingly few sites that will give you the same information as text, and it’s text we want to enter in our subscriber database. Online maps are fine for website use, where you are free to use Javascript in your design, but email affords us no such luxury. We can create our own maps as images to insert in the email, which is exactly what we did in the previous post with the content blocks, but we’ll still need actual data that identifies which map (or content block) to display for each customer.

If you have an IT department with a programmer available, the formula for finding the nearest store locations based on each of your recipient’s location information is a simple one. For those using SQL Server or MySQL, it is easy to compute because the formulas are built into these relational database management systems. For the IT department using other methods to compute these distances, here’s a web page that lists nearly every programming language method of accomplishing this.

Using Excel

For the company with a limited number of stores and/or a minimal IT department, we’ve created an Excel spreadsheet that computes the closest store based on each customer’s geolocation information. It has an area where you enter your store latitudes and longitudes, and another where you enter the latitudes and longitudes of your recipients. These should be simple copy and paste procedures from the data you’ve already obtained using the geocoding applications. The formulas in the spreadsheet then compute the distances between the stores and the addresses, and compare them to find the closest store.

Excel geolocation spreadsheetAside from any adjustments you need to make for additional stores (our sample is set up for three), the only things you need to know are the latitudes and longitudes for your stores and your subscriber addresses. The best thing about this spreadsheet is that you don’t have to figure out the formula to use it. We’ve already entered the basic trigonometric function for finding the nearest location. You can simply plug in the values and let Excel do the rest. Computing the closest location involves several steps. We have broken these steps down in our Excel spreadsheet to make it easier to understand. Download the Excel spreadsheet here.

Once the values are computed, it’s a simple matter to import this data into a column in our original subscriber list. Now we have values we can work with. We can use this data to match the content block with the recipient, as we demonstrated in the previous post:

dynamic content blocksWe can also use the data directly via mail merge or dynamic content to add individual details to the content, or the subject line (example: “Don’t miss the 40% off sale at our Stonestown store, this weekend”).

All The Data You Want

Of course, you don’t have to create a field containing the nearest store location. You can enter the geolocation data into your recipient demographics and work with it directly. With some email marketing software (such as Symphonie), you can create a custom mail merge tag that will run the mathematical logic to calculate the nearest store on-the-fly. This can be useful if you are computing many different distances, or your IT department can’t provide the resources when you need them.

Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be store locations. In our last post, we used similar data to compute the favorite teams for various locations. By creating separate fields for favorite teams we were able to use the data both for dynamic content purposes (example: If recipient lives in San Francisco, show the Giants image) and for merge purposes (Inserting the “favorite team” field in the email content).

Fine-tuning the Data

One thing this technique doesn’t take into account is the fact that some people don’t choose to shop at the store nearest to them. They might not like the location, or the personnel, or maybe they are using a mail drop that is located in another part of town. Gathering actual in-store data requires either a POS system that connects to membership information, or the credit card information obtained during purchases. As a rule, this isn’t that critical. Most people will understand why you showed the closest store. If someone does complain, you can always adjust their nearest store information to reflect their preference.

If you’re collecting address data as part of your email marketing effort, the best way to maximize the usefulness of that data is by adding geolocation data to the mix.

Content Blocks, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing

Using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content

Content Blocks
Too often, articles and blog posts that talk about Dynamic Content never go any further than telling us we should use it because it’s good for open rates and clickthroughs. While this may be true, there is seldom any actual information on how to use Dynamic Content in a mailing. Partly this is because every ESP is different and giving specific details on a procedure might only confuse someone who is not using that software, but mostly it’s because it is a lot harder to come up with examples that are relevant without getting into the details.

In this article, we’ll be creating an email using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content to show you how to generate highly personalized mailings. We won’t go into the details of adding the preheaders and menu bars to the top of the mailing or the CAN-SPAM information at the bottom—we’ve covered that material elsewhere on this blog and in the Goolara white papers. Instead, we’ll be looking exclusively at effective ways to use Content Blocks, Mail Merge and Dynamic Content in a mailing. You won’t find some of these features in low-end email marketing software, but most of these features should be available from the better ESPs. We’ll be discussing two parts of an email: A paragraph using Dynamic Content for personalization, and a Content Block for sales purposes. Here is an example of the final email as it would appear to someone living in San Francisco:

Anatomy of an EmailWe’ll discuss the two sections indicated above in reverse order, starting with the map and store information at the bottom of the email, which was created using a Content Block.

Set Up

In our example, the content changes dynamically based on two pieces of information about the customer: their store location and the nearest sports team. How this data is collected is beyond the scope of this article. The information you’ve collected is almost certainly different from what we are using here, but this should provide an ample demonstration of the power that one or two pieces of demographic information can have on an email when you use Dynamic Content.

Content Blocks

Content Blocks, as the name suggests, are blocks of content that are created outside of a mailing and are inserted into the mailing based on different qualifiers. In our example, we’ve used a Content Block to display a specific store’s information based on the recipient’s location. Content Blocks can be substituted into a message in the HTML or the plain-text section, or both, but the HTML section is the more interesting one. Any HTML elements can be added to a Content Block, including images, links, text, and all the standard HTML formatting.

You may have hundreds of stores, and creating a Content Block for each one will take some time, but once the work is done you can reuse these Content Blocks over and over in any messages you send. Make sure that the opening and closing tags for every HTML container inside of a Content Block (table tags, for instance) fall within that Content Block. Closing them outside of the Content Block will break the design.

In the email, Dynamic Content will identify which Content Block to insert using simple IF/THEN logic. If the recipient is in a certain city, then show that city’s Content Block:

If-then exampleIn the example shown above, the recipient’s location is listed as San Francisco, so they’ve received the Content Block for the San Francisco store. If the person had no location information, either no Content Block appears, and the area collapses, or you provide a generic default Content Block. Note that some ESPs will not collapse the Content Block area, so you’ll need to provide alternate data if this is the case. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a gap in your design.

As with the Content Block creation process, entering these IF/THEN rules might also take some time if you have hundreds of options, but once the logic is defined, the rules can be saved and easily be inserted into subsequent messages without having to re-enter anything.

Dynamic Content Inside Content Blocks

With some ESPs (such as Goolara Symphonie), it is also possible to use Dynamic Content inside of a Content Block. When this feature is available, it increases the power of Content Blocks exponentially. In our example, most of the information remains the same, but we’ve inserted the recipient’s membership number below the store hours. You could also use this feature to add information to the URL’s query string for tracking purposes, although you’ll need to contact your ESP on the correct procedure for doing this.

Dynamic Images

The primary content in the example shown above features a sale on baseball team bedspreads. You could pick a team, and use that image for everyone, but we have location information for the recipients already, why not make this more personal? Recipients living in San Francisco will receive email that shows the San Francisco Giants bedspread, while those in Boston will see the Red Sox design. Likewise, the links in each example take the recipients to the corresponding product pages. Recipients who do not live in cities with products tied to their local team will receive a more generic version of the information that takes them to a page displaying all the choices.

Of course, the fact that a person lives in a certain city does not automatically mean they support the local team, but the odds favor it. Even a New Yorker living in San Francisco who continues to support the Yankees will understand why they received the information for the Giants. You’ll still need to watch your clickthrough and open rates to see if this campaign proves successful, but that will always be true, no matter how sure you are of a campaign’s potential.

Personalizing Messages with Dynamic Content

The first section in the email is the primary sale area. We could have used a Content Block for this section as well, but it’s more work than is necessary. Since most of the primary message stays the same, and we are only planning to make this offer once, we’ve used Dynamic Content to accomplish the same effect with less set up. In our example, we’ve used the location information to determine which sports team-related product to display. We’ve also used it to change certain words in the text to reflect a specific team. Here is the final result with the areas changed using Dynamic Content highlighted in yellow:

Dynamic Content hightlightedWe were also careful to make sure that all our images are the same size. Technically, this isn’t necessary—the software will replace the image no matter what size it is—but it does help avoid potential layout problems. As you can see, most of the text in the first paragraph remains the same. In this case, the city is part of the demographic data, so a simple merge is used to insert the city name, while the team name is inserted dynamically based on the city.

Dynamic Changes within the HTML

An even faster way to make dynamic changes to your content is to use customer data to make link and image changes directly in the HTML. For instance, if we had a data field for the team name, we could use this data to easily change each link in the email like so (dynamic changes shown in red):

dynamic content in HTML linksThere are some limitations to this approach—words with special characters and names with spaces are not recommended, and not all email mail marketing software can track the resulting links, but under the right circumstances, dynamic changes to the HTML is a fast and efficient way to incorporate personalization into your mailings.

Adding A Coupon

Below the first paragraph is a coupon offer. As mentioned in our last article, coupons are a great tool for retail marketing. You can use generic codes that are the same for all mailings, but with Dynamic Content, you can change the codes accordingly. Using the same logic as shown above, you could make a code for members (for example: GOGIANTS) and another for non-members (GOTEAM). If your email marketing software allows you to create Dynamic Barcodes, you can create even more sophisticated coupons using Dynamic Content.

In our example, the paragraph above the coupon also changes dynamically based on the recipient’s membership status. Premium members are given a bigger discount than regular members, and non-members see a special offer for joining.

Using Preview for Multiple Testing

As with any email, you should always test it before you send it. When dealing with mailings, such as this one, that contain large chunks of Dynamic Content, sending test emails isn’t always an efficient way to check if everything is working correctly. You could create several different test accounts, each with different demographic information, and send to these, but there’s a quicker way. If your email marketing software includes a preview function, try selecting a gamut of recipients, each with different demographic information, and view these in your ESPs preview function.

Only Limited By Your Data

As you can see, the possibilities, while not unlimited, are vast. You are really only limited by your own data and the capabilities available to you. Using either Content Blocks or Dynamic Content in your mailings expands the possibilities for personalized, relevant mailings. Using them together can push your email marketing to a new level of engagement. If you’d like more information on using the features discussed here in Goolara Symphonie, contact us toll-free at 888-362-4575.