Category Archives: Design

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.

Coupon Techniques for Email

coupons in emailThere is a segment of society that loves coupons. They will go to local store armed with a stack of coupons or only log onto their favorite web-based retail sites during sale times. The love of coupons isn’t restricted by economic factors either, Lady Gaga, Kourtney Kardashian and Carrie Underwood all admit to loving coupons, and Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell even admitted to stealing her neighbor’s Bed, Bath & Beyond fliers for the coupons. Coupons represent savings, but much more than that: they represent limited time opportunities and exclusive savings that the rest of the world might not know about.

What is a coupon?

Until recently, a coupon was strictly a physical item—a small slip of paper that you handed to the cashier upon checkout. In today’s online world, the term must take on new meanings. Coupons can be anything from a printable gif file, to a special code the recipient has to enter, to a link with a unique query string at the end of it. In all cases, the idea is the same: The customer is receiving a discount in exchange for the desired marketing information.

Link instead of coupon

With PIZZA EXPRESS, the code is built into link. Clicking on “Get Code” takes you to the Pizza Express website, although the offer is the same if you visit the site on your own, so the opportunity is wasted.

These techniques offer email marketers effective tools for improving open rates and engagements. Various studies show that emails containing coupons have open rates anywhere from 14% to 34% higher, and revenues up to 48% higher. Of course, these numbers might be due, in part, to the fact, that coupons leave a marker. If a person shops in a store because of something he or she read in an email, we may have no way of knowing it, but if a coupon is used, now we have a direct link between the mailing and the purchase. Even more importantly, it is possible to make every coupon unique, which makes the data even more valuable and helps control the use of coupons that are intended for single use.

Coupon techniques fall into one of three categories: Online only, in-store only, and “Buy Online, Pick Up in Store” (BOPIS). Each serves a specific purpose and its value is based on the type of business you have and the type of information you are trying to gather.

Online Only

An approach often used, especially by stores with both physical locations and on-line sales departments, is to offer specials that are only available online. In these cases, the retailer may choose to forgo the coupon entirely in favor of either an alphanumeric code that the customer must enter to receive the discount, or a direct link to the sale page. In the case of the latter, a query string may be attached to the end of the URL to help identify the source. A typical query string looks something like this (query string shown in red):

http://www.companyname.com/sales/octobersalepage.asp?id=Bh9vDkFyIaI
UIOTSgkDgxCHC5VWgNfIKzsKGhwYEyFWl4yBBtsGoqBy1eUFFUL3JpV1YDZQPCgGN3g

A direct link of this type makes it easier for the recipient, but might also eliminate the perception that the recipient is getting something unique. In truth, a dynamically-constructed query string can make a link as unique as any coupon, but you should design the sale page so that the customer is aware of the exclusivity of the link. Access to an exclusive sale page should not be possible from the website—only from the links provided in the mailings.

If an alphanumeric code is included in the email, then the recipient must enter this code just prior to purchase to receive the discount. In this case, it is a good idea to make this code selectable text rather than part of an image. This lets the recipient cut and paste the code rather than retype it and run the risk of errors, or the need to refer back to the original mailing during checkout. It is likely that a certain segment of the audience will overlook the possibility of copying the text, it is usually not a good idea to make these codes too complex, or, at least, provide some explanatory text in the email (e.g., “copy and paste this code for additional savings”).

Enter code

Shutterfly has no physical locations, so all offers are online only. The code here is rendered as text, which is a good thing since entering a code this complex accurately could be difficult. Nonetheless, for the less tech-savvy user, the fact that it is copyable might be overlooked.

While, technically, no actual coupon is needed for online only purchases, a design that mimics the feel of a coupon can have a psychological edge. The use of dynamic content can also help personalize a mailing and increase the recipient’s feeling that the mailing is unique.

In-Store Only

For in-store purchases, a more traditional approach to coupons is used. In this case, features such as Goolara Symphonie’s dynamic barcode capability come in handy. The email contains a coupon that is scannable by the companies point-of-sale (POS) system. This can be presented at the cash register in the form of a paper print-out, or, more often nowadays, directly from the email on a smart phone. The most commonly used type of barcode in these instances is the Code 128. UPC-A codes may also be use if the data in the code is restricted to numeric values only and must be set to exactly 12 characters. Code 39 is another alternative, but is restricted to the 43 upper case letters, numerals and a few special characters. Code 128 allows for a more complete set of alphanumeric and special characters.

Code 128 has no length restrictions, but if you’re not careful, you can end up with a barcode long enough to interfere with the appearance of your mailing. In these cases, the QR-Code has a distinct advantage, although not all POS systems can read QR-codes. If your system is capable of reading QR-codes, you’ll find that these are more suitable for scanning from phones than the other barcodes, which might appear too small on a phone’s screen to be easily scanned. In the airline industry, you’ll see the PDF417 code used sometimes, although these are giving way to QR-codes due to the latter’s ability to store more data in a smaller amount of space.

in-store coupon

The Gap is using a Code 128 for their store only email coupons. This one is a fairly simple code, that is shown in text below it (“5TOSAVE”). Since this code is compatible across the largest number of POS systems, it’s a safe choice, and the code text (shown below it) is short enough to keep the barcode from being too long, and ensuring that the cashier can enter it manually without much difficulty if necessary.

The BOPIS Approach

A third approach, and one that appears to be the most popular, is to offer a “Buy Online, Pick Up in Store” option. This option is offered by nearly every retail business nowadays, from Apple to Nordstrom. Even stores, such as Kohl’s, that only a couple years ago had no such policy, now offer this service. With the BOPIS approach, a store can keep their in-store inventories reasonable, and still offer a complete selection of products.

As with the online only approach, physical codes are not really necessary, but a company might want to use a barcode for verification purposes during the in-store pickup.

BOPIS approach

Guitar World has large stores in many urban locations, yet they often feature online only sales notices. This helps keep their customer base engaged with their email and allows them to make offers without worrying about a product’s availability at the local store. In most instances, GW offers their customers the option of picking up the purchased item at a local store.

Covering All Bases With BISBO

BISBO stands for “Buy in Store, Buy Online” and offers the whole enchilada. With BISBO offers, the coupon code again becomes useful. In this case, the store might place a scannable coupon in the email, that also contains an active link containing a unique query string, and a text promo code. This is a bit of overkill, but it is possible to set-up the link with its own query string, which will help you identify which recipients used the online services and which ones went to the store.

Multi-purpose coupon

Kohl’s is taking no chances and offering their coupons for use in-store or online, with a scannable barcode, a special PIN, and unique promo code. The only thing wrong here is that the promo code is rendered as an image, forcing the recipient to reenter the data.

Of all of the techniques listed here, the most useful for stores with physical locations is the BISBO approach, because it is possible to set up each part the discount information to respond differently—query strings for online purchases and barcodes for in-store use.

As Always, It Depends…

We are all tired of hearing “it depends” as the answer to concrete questions about email marketing techniques, but there is just no way around it sometimes. If your business is primarily a brick-and-mortar establishment, then redeemable coupons is probably the way to go—especially if you are using a POS system that can scan barcodes. For the online only store, the physical coupon is less necessary, but it does have the psychological advantage of looking like a coupon, which, as Lady Gaga, Kristen Bell, and Carrie Underwood can attest, still holds a powerful attraction.

For more information on using dynamic content with query strings and barcodes, you can contact us at info@goolara.com, or call (888) 362-4575.

Using Animated Gifs in Email

First off, let’s get the oldest question out of the way—how to pronounce Gif. According to Steve Wilhite, who invented the format, it should be pronounced “jiff.” You’d think that would settle the matter, but it only polarized the factions. Recently, no less than President Obama weighed in on the subject, pronouncing it with a hard “G” and saying he pondered the pronunciation a “long time” and that was his “official position” on the subject. Dictionaries don’t even try to settle this argument, listing both pronunciations as acceptable.

Almost as contentious as the pronunciation is the format’s value when it comes to using animations in email marketing. Jessie-Lee Nichols of Quintain Marketing lists three ways to use animated gifs in your email marketing, while Arienne Holland at Raven Internet Marketing Tools cites three reasons to not use animated gifs in your emails. In spite of the seemingly contradictory nature of these statements, they both make some valid points. Gifs can be valuable tools for increasing email engagement, sharing, and clickthroughs, but they can have the opposite effect, distracting from the message and annoying the viewer.

What’s My Motivation?

This question isn’t just for actors. It’s the first question any email marketer needs to ask before committing to the time and effort of creating an animated gif. Just because you know how to make them doesn’t mean you should automatically use them. There is always a temptation to test out new tools, especially flashy ones, but you should first ask yourself: “Is there any advantage to using an animated message?” You could also turn this question around and ask if there is any disadvantage to using a non-animated image. If the answer to either of these questions is no, then you might as well use a static image.

So what are the advantages of animated gifs? Here are the main ones:

  • To provide visual stimulus
  • To include more than one item in the same space
  • To show things not easily comprehended with static images
  • To encourage sharing

These are all good reasons, but let’s take a look at them one at a time.

Hey! Look At Me!

The most common reason for the addition of animated gifs to a mailing is to provide visual stimulation for the reader. Ideally, it should make them want to investigate further. It shouldn’t make them want to hit delete, but that’s what will happen if you make your gifs too busy. A well-designed gif will have just enough animation to entice the viewer into clicking the link. Here’s a good example from Bed, Bath & Beyond:
BB&B fans
The dog’s ears flapping in the breeze invoke an almost tactile response. We can feel the breeze just looking at the picture. If the viewer is in a hot room, this might be enough to provoke a purchase.

More importantly, look at the position of the dog—right in the center of the image with all the products and pricing information surrounding it. One of the biggest dangers of animation is that it can distract the eye from the primary message. Here’s one from the clothing retailer, Singer22:
email-marketing-singer22-2With all that activity on the left side of the image, it’s doubtful that anyone takes time to read the actual message. Fortunately in this case, the message isn’t that important, but it does demonstrate the effect an animation can have on where the reader looks. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is set up as a continuous loop. In highly active animation like this, one time through is enough. Let the animation end so that the reader can move on to the actual message.

The Above-the-Fold Advantage

Another common use of animated gifs—especially in the retail market—is to provide multiple images that cycle continuous in the mailing’s hero image. As it is with web pages and search engines, a certain percentage of the public never touches the scroll bar if they can help it. It’s always a good idea to make sure the main message is in plain view when the recipient opens the email, but suppose you are trying to present more than one item? You then are faced with the choice of stacking several images in the email and hoping that the reader looks at all of them, or creating an animated gif that cycles through the images. Here is an example from Andrew Marc:
andrewmarc1If you decide to use this technique, keep in mind that the choice of images should dictate the speed at which the images change. The default time that most companies use is one second, which is fine when you are dealing with variations on the same basic product, as is the case in the example above, but if you plan to show a disparate collection images, a slower cycle rate is recommended. Here is a particularly bad example from Levenger:
toofastanimationAlthough most of these products are related to iPad accessories, the images are as different as can be. With each image, the viewer must reassess the image to make sense of it, by the time the viewer has done this, the image has changed and the process begins again. If your gif is made up of images that have little or nothing in common (e.g., a red purse, followed by black shoes, followed by a blue shirt), one second is too short a period for the human eye to adjust to the differences between the images. Allow each image at least a second-and-a-half before changing. You can further soften the shifts between images by adding dissolves, but keep in mind that this will increase the file size substantially. A three image gif that is 200 Kb without dissolves, will balloon to over a megabyte when dissolves are added.

As if the rapid-fire changes in the Levenger gif weren’t enough, the gif includes five images. As a rule, it is best to keep these slideshow gifs to a maximum of four different images. More than that and you run the risk of losing the viewer’s attention. Three images is ideal.

So That’s How It Works!

When Dell introduced their new XPS 12 Convertible Ultrabook, they wanted a quick way to show the computer’s ability to switch from a laptop to a tablet. One option was to show the process in a series of images, but that meant the recipient would have to scroll through the email to understand how the device works—always a risky proposition. No single image could adequately explain the feature, so the decision was made to use an animated gif in the email.
Dell XPS12This approach works well in this instance. The final size is only 512Kb, which is remarkably small for a gif containing 59 panels.

Generating Buzz

When Netflix announced their second season of their series, House of Cards, they used an animated gif that proved to be so popular almost everyone who received it, forwarded it on to someone else:
Netflix House of CardsWhile we’re sure that the folks at Netflix knew they had a clever animated gif on their hands, we don’t think they knew it would end up canvassing the Internet like it did. Things like that are hard to predict and hard to plan for. Nine out of ten attempts at viral marketing fall short, but that has never stopped anyone from trying. The Netflix example has a slightly creepy quality and its motion is minimal enough to keep from being annoying, but it might have been a good idea to include their url or logo somewhere on the gif in case the image got separated from the original message (which is exactly what happened).

Cinemagraphs

The minimal use of motion is part of why the Netflix gif works. In all likelihood, a flashier, hyperkinetic gif would have had a less favorable response. The subtler approach defies the usual expectations of an animated gif. It is related to an animation form called a cinemagraph. In a cinemagraph, the action is often minimal and repetitive—a waterfall, or a breeze blowing a woman’s hair. The dog in the Bed, Bath & Beyond mailing certainly qualifies as an example of this. Here’s another example from Pizza Express:
animated gifThe animation is a small enough portion of the image to keep from being distraction, but is interesting enough to make you want to explore further. In their usual fashion, however, Pizza Express didn’t stop with the animation, but made sure the message got across even when the images weren’t displayed (see 2013: The Year in Email). For further information on cinemagraphs, Internet Marketing Specialist Shane Eubanks has several beautiful examples on his blog.

The First Frame Solution

There is really only one major email client that won’t display animated gifs. Unfortunately, that email client is Microsoft Outlook. Although older versions of the software will display animated gifs, every version of Outlook since 2007 stops at the first frame. A gif that brings out the details of a sale as it moves along, must be sure to start the animation with a zero time interval of the last frame before beginning the animation. In the example below (shown here without animation) Bed, Bath & Beyond used animation to show the details of their sale.
BB&B truck
Bed, Bath & Beyond was careful to start their animation with this final frame, so Outlook users got the entire message. The marketers at Kohl’s were not so careful. Here’s the first frame their version of a similar concept (a truck pulling details of a sale across the screen):

Kohl no animationSince Microsoft Outlook is the only major email reader that does not render animated gifs, it is conceivable to take advantage of this by providing an Outlook specific message as the first frame, although, in real world situations, this approach is of limited use.

Always Split Test

Even if you are positive that your animated gif will generate more clickthroughs and yield better results, we recommend that you split test it first. As the Marketing Team for the Obama campaign discovered during the last presidential election, what may seem like the best choice to you might not be the one that performs the best in the real world. You may have some emotional investment in that finely-crafted animated gif you spent an afternoon preparing, but the public may disagree with you. It is better to put the gif aside.

Creating Animated Gifs

So you’ve decided to try and create an animated gif, but where to start? If you have Adobe Photoshop, you can create animated gifs without much difficulty using the Timeline window. There are also several free online services that let you make animated gifs from a wide variety of file types with very little effort, however, most of these also attach their own watermarks to the gifs. Similar in functionality to Adobe Photoshop, Picasion is an online application that has a full set of editing controls and, most importantly, it doesn’t watermark the finished image.

Animated Gifs are a Spice

Animated gifs are a fun way to liven up your mailings and present information in a new way, but they also can have a numbing effect if they are used too often. A sprinkle of cinnamon on top of your latte is nice, but try eating a tablespoon of it. Occasional use of animated gifs can enhance a campaign’s appeal, but use them too often, or badly, and they will have the opposite effect. Also, never forget that engagement starts well before the first image is loaded. If the subject line isn’t compelling, or the recipient is indifferent to your mailings, it won’t matter how perfectly you’ve executed your animation. No one will ever see it.

Gmail Insights: Designing Images for the Gmail Promotions Grid

Some things just don't workUpdate: As of April 17, 2015, Google has discontinued the Grid View in Gmail.

In our last article, we looked at the grid view Google is beta testing for the Promotional tab in Gmail. Like most other ESPs, we like what we see, and think it has the potential to improve the relationship between email recipients and the promotional mailings they receive. In this article we’ll look at ways to take advantage of this feature to improve your open rates.

As we pointed out in the last blog post, leaving the image that appears in your grid view up to Google makes no sense. You could make sure that your hero image matches Google’s preferred dimensions (580 × 400 pixels), and keep all other the images below the threshold of acceptability (233 × 161 pixels), and that would probably work, but let’s face it, even if you do this, you’ll still want to back that choice up with—at the minimum—the following lines of code:

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
  <link itemprop="image" 
       href="http://www.example.com/product_image.jpg"/>
</div>

In this way, you avoid unhappy surprises. Since the code points to an image’s URL, it only requires that the image exists somewhere on the web. Our tests show that it doesn’t have to be in the email at all. This gives us the perfect opportunity to ensure that the displayed image is optimized for Gmail’s grid view and helps us provide a good-looking image no matter what the contents of the email contains (see also, the longer form of code in the previous post).

Creating a Grid View image

To demonstrate the how and why of this, let’s take an actual recent email from Sur la Table—a Seattle-based company that specializes in cooking equipment. Their emails are filled with enticing images, but they’ve developed two very bad habits. The first is that they place all their text in the images (see Using Text to Deliver Your Message), and the second is that they then slice these images instead of using image maps (see Keeping It Together—Image Slicing vs. Image Mapping). The grid view defaults to the first image that is large enough to fit the preview, which means in nearly all of Sur la Table’s emails, the displayed image is a cropped bit of the text portion of an image, creating particularly ugly grid view displays.

Needs grid view image

None of these emails from Sur la Table gives us any idea of the mouth-watering pictures that await us inside. The middle one, at least, seems to be offering something (free shipping), but the other two are almost meaningless. If we open the email on the right, we see that the mailing has an attractive image as the main component of its contents:

An actual email

Obviously, if you were going to choose which portion of this email to use for a visual display, the ice cream scoop would win hands down. By itself, a scoop of ice cream has no hook, so we’ll add the bit about free shipping that appears at the top of the page using the same purple they use in their copy. We also noticed that Sur la Table has not yet registered their Google+ account. If an email in the grid view either does not have a Google+ account, or it has not been registered, the panel displays either the first letter of their email address or domain name. We’ve added Sur la Table’s Google+ profile image from their account to finish the corrected email for the grid display:

Fixed for grid view

Now we have a panel that works. It’s by no means perfect, but it is substantially better than what we had when the process was left up to chance. I would also recommend that Sur la Table change their Google+ image to something that scales down better than the picture of their original store.

Grid View Images = Reader’s Digest

Sometimes your email may have two or three main messages scattered in different parts of the copy. By creating a grid view image, you can consolidate these pieces of information into a sort of executive summary. For instance, here is the grid view for an email from Ann Taylor:

Needs work

“EEING TRIPES” isn’t much of a message. Even if you do figure out what the message is really trying to say, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the image until you look at the email:

Actual email contents

Now the headline makes more sense. Clearly the topic of discussion is the skirt, and not the top, so let’s make sure that the skirt is shown in the grid view image. While we’re at it, let’s also add the “Extra 40% Off” offer to the image since sale notices are good sources for clickthroughs. Here’s our revised grid view:

Fixed display

Imaging Text

You’ll notice that we are straying from our usual recommendation to keep text and images separate. In a previous blog post, we discussed the advantages of keeping text and images as separate as possible. It improves your deliverability and it ensures that even when the images are turned off, your message gets across. While that’s still true for the content of your mailing, combining text and images as separate elements is not an option with the grid view. It has to be an image. If there is a textual message that you want to get across, you will need to convert it to an image. Here’s an extreme example:

text-based panel

This may not look like anything special, but here’s how it appeared in the Promotion grid view:

whenonlymytesthasimage-rev

Google’s choice of gray type on a light gray background makes all the other panels fade into the background. You may think this is an exaggeration, but it is not. The Superstore Central was an imaginary test file that I sent using Justin Khoo’s testing page.* Aside from the addition of the Google+ logo after the fact (since it was an imaginary company, it wasn’t an option), this is exactly how everything appeared on the page. No Photoshop tricks were used to move the panels around or replace them.

Amazingly, all of these emails had images that were large enough to serve as a display image, but were ignored either because they left off the height information, or they sliced up the image, or they started the page with a long and narrow image. Clearly this is a worst case scenario (or best case, if you are Superstore Central), but it demonstrates that right now, if you start adding the link tag for the promotional display to your email, you’ll have an edge over everyone else.

You’ll notice that the final line of text is not centered, but is shifted to the left to keep the Google+ icon from blocking the date. When you’re choosing or designing an image for the grid display, you should always keep this in mind. Even if you don’t have a Google+ account, the grid view is going to place that square over the image. In the previous section, had we made the image of the woman any bigger, the Google+ icon would have covered the striped skirt.

Even if your email has no images, as long as it has an HTML component (not a text-only email), you will want to create a preview image for the grid display. Otherwise, you could end up with something like this:

No image, just text

Size Matters

To create an image for the grid view, you first need to make sure its dimensions fall between 580 and 233 pixels in width and 400 and 161 pixels in height. You may be wondering why Google is requesting such a large image when, on most devices, the actual size of the displayed image is closer to the minimum than the recommended 580 × 400. Google hasn’t released any information on this, but we assume it is either to prepare for some future features (a pop-out display, for instance) or to make sure its compatible with any future device resolutions. If your image is the correct height or width, but is either very tall or very long, it might still cause problems, so you will want to size the image accordingly before you proceed. If the image is below the recommended size, but is larger than the minimum specifications, you should be alright.

To check the dimensions on your grid image, we’ve created a template that is sized according to the width recommended by Google (580 pixels) and the grid proportional height, which is slightly smaller than Google’s recommendation (398 pixels). [Note: The image may appear smaller than its actual size. To download, right-click and select “Save Image As…” from the drop down menu.]:

grid template

You can use this template by copying it and pasting it over the image you want to work with, then either choose the “Multiply” blending mode from the Layer menu (in Photoshop), or reduce the opacity (in other image editing software) to see how the image aligns to the actual image area. If your image is smaller than the white inner rectangle, it means it’s too small to use as the grid display image. If it is longer or taller in one direction, you will need to crop it accordingly. For example, here is an image that is the right height, but too wide:

too wide

If we left it up to Google, this image would either crop halfway through the model’s face, or it would not display at all due to its width. By moving around our template, we’ve found the optimal position for the image, which shows the model’s face, yet doesn’t crop off part of the text. You’ll then want to crop the image based on this position (remembering to delete the template layer, of course), which yields the following results:

final panel

In our second example, we have a considerably smaller image:

smaller image in place

In this case, the image is already smaller than the recommended size, but it is larger than the minimum, so it is usable. The problem we have here comes from the checkbox in the upper left corner, which looks as if it will interfere with the text. When we size the template down to the image’s actual size, we see that this is still a problem:

Adjusted for size

Repositioning won’t help in this case. If it’s an option, we could move the text down to clear the checkbox. If that’s not an option, we’ll need to find a different image to serve for the grid display. Also keep in mind that the size of the type can be a factor as well. Smaller type that’s readable when you view the image at 580 pixels might lose its legibility when its scaled down to fit the grid view on your browser. As always, a test send is recommended (if your test email doesn’t land in the promotions tab, you can easily rectify this by clicking and dragging it to that tab).

More to Come…

We’ve only scratched the surface here when it comes to the possibilities that the view grid presents. Some experimentation is in order. They haven’t officially rolled out the Grid view to the general public, but you can stay ahead of the curve by signing up to take part in the field trials here. You will, of course, need the Promotions tab and image display enabled to use this feature.

One thing we’ve learned from Google is that they are not about to stop tweaking the Gmail interface, so we do recommend some caution and vigilance when using these techniques. It is entirely possible that Google will change everything again in a month or two.

 

*Justin Khoo’s help with this and the previous blog post was invaluable. Justin is always on the cutting edge of email design. You can find more great ideas on his Fresh Inbox blog.

2013: The Year in Email

2013 was an interesting year. 2012 ended with Oracle buying Eloqua, and 2013 ended with Oracle buying Responsys. Who will they buy next? 2013 began with Salesforce CEO Marc Beniot telling a crowd at CES that email was dead, and then turning around and buying ExactTarget a few months later. It was also the year that marketers finally got over their infatuation with social media after several reports showed that far-and-away the most effective digital channel for marketing is still email.

We’d like to take a look what landed in our inbox over the year. Here’s a round-up of some of the most interesting examples. Some of it is inspired, some of it is confusing, and some of it is just plain awful. Several of the mistakes shown here are things that can happen to any of us, but they stand as good reminders that email isn’t just about writing content and sending it—it is also about proofing and testing.

Alt Tag Fun

Ya’ got something against “T”s?

Alt tag goof

Lyris gets points for using a colored cells with reversed text, but if you ever needed a reminder to check your alt tags as carefully as you check your content, this is it. In Lyris’ defense, at least they had an alt tag. I can’t say the same for Hugo Boss, whose email always lands in my inbox looking exactly the same:

No alt tags

Slightly better—but only slightly—is J. Crew. Here’s their solution to the alt tag dilemma:

weak alt tags

Last September, for a week or two, someone who knew what they were doing must have taken over J. Crew’s email preparation, because suddenly the email was going out with actual, meaningful alt tags:

Good alt tags

Sadly, it appears to have been a blip on the chart. Within a couple weeks they were back to the generic “jcrew.com” alt tags on all their images.

You’re using an image because…?

It’s always heartening to see someone use alt tags to further their message. That can be anything from a simple “Turn on your images to see what you’re missing,” to fully styled alt tag in a colored cell (see The Finer Points of Styled Alt Tags for more on how to do this). But this alt tag from Generator Research takes the cake:

wordy alt tag

Bizarrely, the missing image is nothing more than this same list as a gif file, which raises the question: Why bother with the image at all?

Delivery Problems

Some problems are beyond the control of the sender. Network slow downs, unexpected glitches, and certain browser extensions can ruin the best email design. Here are a few examples of emails that were probably fine back at the office, but ended up a mess when they arrived in our inbox.

Text still rules

Bad image display

This is a great example of why you should always include text in your mailings. We’re not sure why this email from Fab got screwed up in transmission, but had they included some text it would have mattered less. As it stands, the only visible message is something about Pumpkin Pie Cake. Is it a product, a cookbook, or just a joke? I’ll never know because the only other text in this email were the legal notices, address, and unsubscribes mandated by the CAN-SPAM act.

WOT the heck?

WOT effect on display

There are a lot of sneaky pitfalls that can ruin the best planned email. This one from Slate might have been okay had they not decided to convert everything in their mailing into images. They were careful to include the “display:block” command with each of the image sections, but because I use Web of Trust (WOT) with my browser, each of the image segments is slightly displaced by WOT’s symbol insertion. Admittedly, this wasn’t entirely their fault, but their choice to use an image instead of a combination of text and images certainly exacerbated the problem. Had they used actual text for the message and separated the decorative elements from the images that need links this wouldn’t have happened. [Note: For more information on this topic, see our blog post Using Text to Deliver Your Message.]

Subject Line & Sender Disasters

The single most important pieces of text in your email are your subject line and your ‘From’ address. Before they’ve even opened the message, these things will say something about you, and if that something is not good, then it doesn’t matter if that mailing has the best, most persuasive content in the world, no one will bother to look. Here are a some rookie mistakes from people who should know better.

Call me dyslexic

This piece of email came from Digital Marketing News:

Misspelled name
Digital News Marketing = DNM? If you’re going to misspell something, try not to let it be your From address.

Who is ANSI_X3.4-1968 anyway?

ANSI text issue

You may have seen this subject line structure before. The problem is that the encoding didn’t match the chosen character set. The headline used an em dash (it should read: “EEC 2014—Early Bird Special Ends Tomorrow”) but for that to work, the subject line must be encoded properly. You’ll see this most often when using email-injector programs, such as the Javamail API included in Java, instead of the software from a professional ESP. Any decent email marketing software should be able to avoid this problem. But even a single test email would have exposed this problem, so testing cannot be overlooked.

We care, now go away!

Do Not Reply

In our blog post, Of Senders and Subject Lines, we talked about what a bad idea it is to use “DoNotReply” as a sender address. Somehow, it’s not surprising that it’s a phone company that makes this mistake, but the fact they did it on an email claiming that “your opinion matters” almost pushes this one into satire.

The Linkin’ Logs

There is one simple rule in email design: If you have a picture of a product, the link on that picture should go to that product. Sadly this rule is sometimes ignored. Some marketers cut down on links in hopes of improving their deliverability (there are better ways to achieve this), but it can lead to its own problems. Here a few examples of bad linking choices.

Look at this! Now try to find it!

Inaccurate links

Bed, Bath & Beyond was the first out of the gate with Christmas-based emails. Before the candles had gone out on the Halloween pumpkins, BB&B was sending holiday messages. This email forgets the basic rule that when you show a product, make sure that the link goes to a page that features that product. In this email, clicking on any of these items takes you to the main page as noted in the red tabs below the images. In all these examples, the products shown are not on the first page, and in some cases, don’t show up until the last page. It would have been a far better strategy to either show a picture of the first product in the section, or link to the actual products and have the red sub-tabs go to those main landing pages.

No links

Even worse is this email from H&M. Not only don’t the individual images link to the products shown, they don’t link to anything at all. The only link in this email is at the little “Visit us today” text below the image. Way to miss an opportunity H&M. The same goes for NuForce, whose layout suggest there will be links, and was almost custom designed for image-mapped links, but no links exist.

No links

Alignment Issues

Alignment can be tricky. Forget one “display:block” command and everything falls apart. But some things just don’t need to happen. Here are a few problem emails that came our way last year:

Why did the web designer leave the restaurant?

If you haven’t heard the joke already, the punchline is: Because there were too many tables. Web designers hate tables. A few years back, it was mandated that tables should be for tabular dated only and not for image and text alignment. For that, we were told, you should use divs. The only problem with this advice is that someone forgot to tell the email clients, many of whom have barely entered the 21st century when it comes to HTML compatibility. So what happens when you hire a web designer to create your email? Most of the time, it’s not that big of a problem, but there are tell-tale signs if you know where to look. For instance, here is the right edge of three images in an Andrew Marc email:

aminsider2If you look closely, you’ll see that this is slightly misaligned. It’s a very small issue, and clearly the designer decided it wasn’t worth worrying about, but there is really no reason for these images to be out of alignment at all. The designer is showing his (or her) web design background by stacking these images up in a div. A simple table would have eliminated the misalignment entirely. This particular email also contained a chunk of JavaScript—a big no-no in email design, and the white gaps between the images have a whiff of “I meant to do that!” about them.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, it could be worse:

Misalignment #1

Misalignment #2

Misalignment #3

Some of these suffer from the classic missing “display:block” problem, but not all. The Old Navy/Piperlime email at the top was the result of a 100% width assignment on the first cell, instead of the desired 700px width. This was obviously an oversight, but a test email should have caught it.

Microsoft strikes again

We don’t know what it is about Microsoft, but they certainly do like to make designing email a challenge. Every email browser they offer is different. On one hand, Outlook.com can handle more HTML5 commands than any other email browser out there, while Live Mail seems to ignore almost everything. A recent development with Live Mail that’s worth keeping in mind is the way it handles style information, and, more importantly, the way it handles sizing. Here is the visible portion of an email we received recently:

Oversized empty window

And here is the same email after we chose “Display Images”:

With images displayed

This happens if the image or cell has included width information, but not height information. Had this particular image include both height and width, the text portion of the message would have displayed in the window, improving its odds of being read.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is

Practice what you preach.

Nobody says email has to be pretty, but if what you’re trying to promote is “beautiful email newsletters,” then you’d better have something to show for it. This monospaced, bland message does nothing to enforce the idea that the author knows anything about aesthetics.

Ending on a Good Note

Not all email is bad news. Some email marketers are doing an excellent job of making email interesting an exciting. Here are a few examples of above average work from the past year.

Thanks for Subscribing

Thanks for subscribing

Everyone sends out some sort of alert to notify people that they have subscribed to a company’s email, but few make it as much fun as Upworthy. The great thing about this notice is that it makes you look forward to receiving the email instead of immediately regretting signing up for it.

Beyond Mosaics

Last Spring, we did an article here that covered the use of Mosaics. Mosaics are a way to use colored table cells to imitate an image. Most of the time, mosaics aren’t worth the effort because they can needlessly increase your email’s file size if you try to make them too detailed, and end up looking clunky if you make them too coarse. Pizza Express in England has found a better way to deal with it by using mosaics sparingly and making them just detailed enough to get the idea across. Here’s a beautiful example of their work from last Valentine’s Day:

Valentine's Day

Normally, the mailings from Pizza Express don’t get this complex, but they always use colored cells to make their email interesting whether you have images turned on or not. In the example above, for instance, the cells use a palette of blue, red, and black for their background colors.

Pizza Express pulls out all the stops for their birthday email design, which looks like this when the images are turned off:

Happy Birthday!

Not bad, but the design goes further by using an animated gif when the images are displayed:

animated gifNice work Pizza Express.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look back 2013. Perhaps there is some schadenfreude in seeing the mistakes of others, but here are things to be learned: make your email visually interesting, but not at the expense of text, don’t neglect the subject line, in email, tables still rule, and—most important of all—test before you send.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

The Complete Preheaders and Snippets Tutorial

Tricks for using preheaders

Every email client shows you the sender (usually the “Friendly From”) and the subject line. Some go a step further and display additional text below the subject line. Desktop programs such as Outlook and Thunderbird, browser clients such as Gmail and Yahoo, and devices such as the iPhone and some Android phones, all display this “snippet” of text. The snippet is a potential opportunity to increase the likelihood that your email will be opened, but it is often overlooked. We have already discussed the importance of a good “From” address in Best Practices Enhanced Vol. 1, and good Subject Lines on this blog, but the snippet, while not used everywhere, is used in enough email clients and on enough devices to warrant consideration when you are putting together your mailings.

Here is an example of how snippets display on an iPhone 5:

Email on an iPhone

You can see that the snippets for PBS and Wall Street Journal are not very inspired, while the snippet for Travelocity, at least, includes the most important bit of information from the email (“EXTRA 12% off today”). iPhone users can turn off the snippets or change the number of lines that are displayed, but four is the iPhone’s default setting, and people rarely bother to change default settings.

Here is another example taken from the desktop version of Gmail:

Gmail on computer

In this case, ThinkGeek, an online store that specializes in science fiction-themed knickknacks, has made sure that the next line of text after the subject line has some useful information, while the other vendors shown are counting on their subject line to do all the work. The worst offender here is Touch of Modernwhich is slightly ironic considering that this particular website says in its description that it is dedicated to “extraordinary design.” The subject line (“Something incredibly artful”) is so nondescript it almost seems like a placeholder, and the snippet that follows it only makes matters worse by begging to be added to your contact list. Fab’s first email subject line is long enough to push most of the snippet text out of the line. That works fine in Gmail on the desktop, but the iPhone only displays the first 35 – 40 characters in the subject line and devotes the next lines to snippet text. On the iPhone, most of the visible information, then, would be devoted to the click-to-view message, followed by the first alt tags on the images at the top of the page.

It’s a shame to waste this valuable real estate on things like “Click here to view as Web page,” “Unsubscribe,” and random alt tags when you could be using it to further promote your message. There are some easy ways to do this, and they don’t require major redesigns to your email. In this article we’ll look at some of these ways, including some advanced techniques that will help ensure your email gets noticed.

First Element Solution

The simplest, and most popular solution to the problem is to make sure that the first text in the email is meaningful information. Here’s a typical example:

Preheader sample

Old Navy has started their email with the line “Give something special and treat yourself too.” In email browsers that display snippets, the Subject line (“Amazing Gifts for Them…And You!”) is immediately followed by this line. By putting this sentence before the usual “View in Browser” and “Unsubscribe” links, Old Navy ensures that the snippet expands on their sales message. It is probably no coincidence that it rhymes as well.

Here’s a slightly more sophisticated approach from gdgt.com:

Second preheader sample

In this case, they’ve organized everything so that the first bit of text on the page is their image’s alt tag (“gdgt”), followed by two text-based links (“Reviews” and “Best Gadgets”). The alt tag and the two links all assemble into a meaningful phrase (“gdgt Reviews Best gadgets”) followed by the two lines of text on the left:

from and snippet

Cleverly, they’ve used “text-transform: uppercase” to make the links text appear in uppercase in the email, but still appear upper and lower case in the snippet. Unfortunately, they did all this at the expense of the “View in browser” link, which appears nowhere in this particular email. Knowing that alt tag text is also incorporated into snippets, some marketers takes this technique one step further by making sure that the image is the first element on the page, and that the image’s alt text contains the preheader message. With the technique, the alt text is also the first text on the page if image display is turned off.

The downside to using preheader text as a first element is that it runs the risk of drawing attention away from the primary message. This is especially true if, as with the Old Navy example shown above, the preheader text is also a link. For this reason, email marketers often assign a mid-tone color to the text and use “text-display: none” in its style information if the text also contains a link.

Preheader Div Solution

An alternative to the first element approach is to use a non-displaying div preheader that contains the information you want to appear in the snippet. This method affords greater flexibility because the text that appears in a div preheader does not have to appear anywhere else in the message. With this method you can either expand on the meaning of the subject line, give people the most important piece of information from the email, or paraphrase the text on the page as needed. Here is an example from Direct Marketing News (DMN):

div preheader sample

Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that DMN has mixed up their own initials in the From name, the div tag gets the piece of information that will appeal to the most people across immediately (“Register now for a chance to win an AMEX giftcard!”). A look at the actual email shows that this information does not appear in the top part of the message:

Top of email with preheader div

By using a preheader div, DMN was able to keep the top of the message on topic while allowing the snippet to act as an enticement to encourage registration. Had DMN not used the preheader div on this email, the text below the subject line would read: “View web version Leads, Channels, and the Ongoing Pursuit of ROI,” which may have worked with some segments of the market, but nothing beats a free gift (as long as it’s genuine).

But preheader divs come with one drawback. As we discussed in the series on Responsive Email Design, not all email clients handle invisible divs well. Some will go ahead and place the text on the page. For this reason, preheader div tags are usually configured something like this:

Preheader snippet text goes here.

The color attribute shown in the example is based on an email with a white background. Some marketers prefer to omit this color information since text on a background of the same color is seen by some spam filters as a negative quality and can effect the email’s deliverability. Some marketers set the font size to zero, but that comes with the same caveat as color on color.

Which is better?

So is it better to use a div or a preheader that appears as the first text on the page? Most email marketers use the first text approach. It is simpler to implement and is in less danger of being flagged as spam. It also eliminates the problem of compatibility. A preheader that appears as text on a page will work anywhere, whereas non-displaying divs might not.

On the other hand, if your email design is not conducive to the first text approach, and there is some message further down in the content that makes a better teaser line than the first text on the page, then the div approach is the better choice.

Preheader Best Practices

Whichever method you use, it is a good idea to make sure that the snippet is not misleading. If the snippet reads “Learn how to receive your personalized coffee mug,” there better be a way to do so in the email or you are only going to alienate your audience and come across as dishonest.

You also need to be careful about the wording in your preheader. A preheader sentence such as “All clothing is now 50% off for all platinum club members,” could shorten to “All clothing is now 50% off…,” which might make non-platinum club members angry when they finally see the full sentence. Rewording the sentence (e.g., “Platinum club members now get 50% off on all clothing”) so that the modifying information comes first will help avoid this problem. Also be careful with statements where the second half of the sentence contradicts the first half (e.g., “The Ford Fiesta is a great car, if you like visiting the repair shop”). Unless you are intentionally intending for the message to be cut off for a humorous effect, it’s a good idea to reword the line so that this won’t happen.

Another thing to watch out for is the Title tag, which the iPhone will include as the first text in the snippet, but other email clients, such as Gmail and Yahoo, will not. There may be times when you can take advantage of this idiosyncrasy, but in most cases you’ll want to remove the title tags from your email’s HTML to ensure that your preheader appears the same across all platforms.

Whether you choose to use a first text preheader, or the div version is up to you, but you should be doing one or the other. The various email clients give you a certain amount of text to get your message across, and if you’re not taking advantage of it, you are missing out on a simple and easy method to add to the potential selling power of your email.


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