Category Archives: Design

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.

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.

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.