Category Archives: Email marketing

GDPR and Email: Part 3, Data Portability

data portability
NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles addressing the GDPR and its effects on email marketing. For an overview of the subject, see our previous article: GDPR and Email: Part 1, an Overview.

Last time on this blog, we looked at the issues of forgetting and unsubscribing, and how the General Protection Data Regulation (GDPR) affects email marketers. That particular portion of the GDPR has received a lot of press, but there’s a far thornier issue lying in wait a few paragraphs further down in the regulation. I’m referring to the “right to data portability,” which gives the subscriber the right to receive all the data a company has collected on them.1 Compared to the other features of the GDPR, the right to data portability seems haphazardly drawn up, or, at least, drawn up without ever considering the difficulties and problems that its simple request could generate.

Acceptable Formats

Briefly put, the right to data portability says a subscriber has the right to receive any data about them in a “structured, commonly used and machine-readable format.” They don’t specify what this format is. “Commonly used” would suggest a comma separated values (CSV) file, XML, or something similar. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the data can be formatted in a useful manner. Every customer relationship management system (CRM) and email-marketing service provider (ESP) has its own structure, order of operations, and, to a certain extent, terminology, so porting the data from one site to another isn’t as easy as transferring the file. Try opening a Microsoft Word file in a text editor and you’ll see what we mean. Even when the two system can read each other’s data, it doesn’t mean than one system will have a place for all the data from the other. There is no standard for formatting things like click-throughs or deletes without opening. In Recital 68 (separate clarifications to the GDPR), the regulation states that “data controllers should be encouraged to develop interoperable formats that enable data portability,”2 but they make no suggestions as to how this would be accomplished. It is the bureaucratic equivalent to a mom’s admonition for kids to “learn to get along.”

Privacy issues

CSV and XML certainly qualify as commonly used formats, but they are also as easy for humans to read as they are for machines, which raises other privacy issues. If the “Right to Erasure,” presents the danger of someone other than the subscriber making the request, the Right to Data Portability is even more of a threat. With erasure, you’re simply asking to have your data removed from a system. Most people wouldn’t cry if to learn that their data has been accidentally erased by their ESP, but would hit the ceiling if they learned that their data was sent to someone else. Anything sent out in an email has a risk of being seen by others. Even if the format is not easily read by humans, the “commonly used” qualifier means anyone looking to steal someone’s data probably has a program that will have no trouble deciphering the information. But there are other dangers waiting in the wings.

Identity Issues

There are plenty of examples of people pulled aside by the TSA at the airport because their names matched people on suspicious person lists. This isn’t a big concern in the email marketing field, because every subscriber already has a unique identifier: their email address. Even if someone enters the wrong email address, the email will go to the person who has the account and they can choose to ignore the message. There is some danger that if an email account is hacked, the identity thief can now request all that person’s data from the ESP, and the ESP will, by law, be required to provide all the personal data for that hacked account. Depending on the data that is kept, this could provide the thief with a wealth of information about that person. Security on an email account is even more critical than ever.

Here Come the Lawyers

It’s ironic that a regulation designed to help protect an individual’s private data might be the very thing responsible for the theft of that same data. This speaks to the rather haphazard nature of this particular clause. This is why the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names (ICANN) has filed a suit against EPAG, its German affiliate, in an attempt to get better clarification of the GDPR’s restrictions. EPAG recently informed ICANN that when it sells new domain name registrations it would no longer collect administrative and technical contact information, as it believes collection of that data would violate the GDPR rules. For ICANN, this presented an untenable problem since maintaining this data is central to ICANN’s purpose. It’s a thorny issue, for sure. Right now, no one is sure where the balance between private data and public records lies. The courts have their work cut out for them.

While ICANN’s lawsuit is aimed at clarifying the regulations, other lawsuits are aimed at companies that are seen as already violating the GDPR. As of this writing, the only major lawsuits filed against companies under the GDPR are ones against Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and LinkedIn. These were filed shortly after the law went into effect and are intended as test cases. The outcome of these cases will determine what happens next.

Stay Frosty

We will keep watching the events involving GDPR as they unfold and keep you posted if anything changes. In the meantime, as long as you’ve followed the rules of the GDPR that we laid out in part one of our GDPR and Email Overview, you should be alright.

(This concludes our three-part series on the GDPR.)


1. Chapter 3, Article 20: Right to data portability

2. Recital 68: Right to data portability

GDPR and Email: Part 1, an Overview

GDPR vs. Email
They started working on it in 2012, and for the next four years, the countries of the European Union argued over, cajoled each other, and hammered out the details of a ruling known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It was a long hard slog, but when the dust had cleared, the feeling was that the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament had a regulation that would satisfy the privacy issues inherent with any new or future technology, without hampering individual needs.

Or did they?

Ratified on May 24, 2016, the GDPR took effect on May 25th, 2018, and offers the strictest set of regulations to date as to what you can and cannot do with someone’s data. Everything from Facebook to your digital camera has to comply with the regulation, and that includes email subscriptions.

It Affects the Whole World

Although intended to protect the citizens on the European Union, it also applies to overseas companies with EU subscribers—and here’s where the GDPR starts getting fuzzy. In a recent webinar, listeners were told that they don’t have to worry about the GDPR as long as they can prove that did not actively seek European subscribers. On another site, readers were told that if you have any European subscribers, you’re obliged to follow the GDPR restrictions. So who’s right? The webinar is correct, in fact. If you can prove that you intended for your site to be used exclusively outside of the EU and had no mechanism in place to entice European subscribers, you are not liable, but that also means you might have to prove it at some point, and if, for reasons beyond your control, a large number of your subscribers are from the European Union, you’ll probably lose that fight.

That Depends on What The Meaning of “Is” is

At first glance, the GDPR looks pretty thorough. It even has a section that defines the terms it uses, such as “personal data” and “natural person.”1 But look more closely and you’ll see that every definition, in turn, raises new questions. “Personal data,” for instance, is defined as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’),” and goes on to explain that “an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly” (italics mine). Although the ruling is broad enough to include it, you won’t find a discussion of email anywhere in the regulation. In fact, the word “email” is used only once—as an example of one of the things that can be used to identify a person.

After reading and re-reading the current crop of articles about the regulation, what strikes us is how few of these address the questionable areas of GDPR, especially as it relates to email marketing. Whether you run email marketing using your own equipment or take advantage of a hosted solution, here are some questions and discussion about GDPR challenges for email senders.

Tell Me You Like Me

If you’re a European citizen and you’ve signed up to receive email from a company, that company must “demonstrate” that you actually did sign up. So how do you demonstrate that someone provided their information on a web form? The GDPR goes on to talk about written declarations, but that is unlikely to apply for email marketing.

You can be audited to ensure that you are complying with the GDPR, so you should be able to prove this.2 If you say that the recipient confirmed with a double-opt-in, what physical evidence can you present to backup this statement? Is the word of your software that says the recipient clicked the link enough? Do we need to record additional information to show this action really happened, like recording the IP address and browser information used when the confirmation link was clicked? But wait! Isn’t that Personal Identifying Information (PII) that you shouldn’t be keeping on recipients? Which takes precedence? Proving the recipient “demonstrated” their consent, or minimizing the PII for that recipient?

A double-opt-in confirmation step would seem to “demonstrate” the person’s interest in receiving your email. But as many email marketers know, getting people to confirm is challenging. A double-opt-in can reduce the list size; forcing them to do it again is guaranteed to reduce list sizes even further.

Unsubscribing is not Forgetting

You won’t find the word “unsubscribe” anywhere in the regulation or its recitals.3 When you unsubscribe, your information is still in the database, being applied to past metrics and ensuring that you aren’t accidentally left on any mailing list segments. Unsubscribing should be easy. Just click the unsubscribe link on any email and as long as it is an honest and legitimate company you should stop receiving mailings from that company in short order. But the GDPR even complicates this.

“Personal data shall be: adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed…” the regulation states, but then goes on to say: “In a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which the personal data are processed.” To further muddy the waters it continues by adding that “personal data may be stored for longer periods insofar as the personal data will be processed solely for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes…in order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the data subject.”4

The first statement seems to indicate that data about a recipient can be retained only while it is needed for processing. For a regular newsletter subscriber, it seems likely that retaining their information would be acceptable to be able to provide the newsletter service. But what if the person unsubscribes? Or the email address is no longer valid (goes on-hold). Should any personal data for the recipient be removed at this point?

The structure of the GDPR seems to suggest that the answer to this is no unless the person has requested to be “forgotten,” which opens up a whole new can of worms.

I Forgot to Remember to Forget

One of the most controversial and discussed topics about the GDPR is its “Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’)” clause, which states that the “data subject” has the right to request the erasure of personal data.5 Of course, nothing is ever that simple. The regulation goes on to list the cases where a person may request erasure. Since these include for direct “data marketing purposes,”6 we can assume that it applies to most email situations, but is it possible to request that a company erase all your personal information, even though you wish to remain a customer? And what about past metrics? If 25 subscribers clicked on links last year, then asked to be forgotten this year, what happens to that data? Data from previous could be construed as “historical research,” which the GDPR says is okay to keep.7

If “forgotten” means you’re no longer anywhere in the system, and not simply, “we’re not going to send you any more email,” how would you know this? Surely you need to keep a record verifying that a person requested to be forgotten, but if you do, then they’re not completely forgotten. It reminds us of comedian Mitch Hedberg’s joke: “A man in an infomercial told me to forget everything I knew about comforters, so I did. Then he tried to sell me a comforter, but I didn’t know what it was.” If you don’t keep track of who asked to be forgotten, then how can you prevent them being re-entered into your system? It’s ludicrous. The GDPR seems to suggest that a marketer has the right to retain the email address since it’s required for compliance with the legal obligations of the states and is required by the email marketer for the defense of claims that the recipient might make.

Data Extraction

In Article 20, the GDPR is very clear that a person has the right to “receive the personal data concerning him or her, which he or she has provided to a controller, in a structured, commonly used and machine-readable format.”8 This is the “data extraction” clause, and the way it is worded suggests that every email marketer intending to be compliant with the GDPR should have a mechanism that allows recipients to see the data that’s been collected on them. It just doesn’t say what this data might be. Data in demographic fields or associated one-to-many tables would seem like reasonable choices, but how about open and clickthrough data?

For both the data extraction request and the request to be forgotten, there are privacy and security issues left unaddressed by GDPR. You could, for instance, create a web form that lets an email address be “forgotten” when it’s entered, but then a malicious person could erase data just for kicks. Similarly, providing all the collected personal data on request should require some validation to ensure the recipient is actually requesting this data.

Many ESPs have added a request to be forgotten feature to their privacy policies requiring you to send an email to request this. While this wouldn’t appear to be automated, at least it’s a step towards ensuring the recipient is the one making the request. As for the request for data requirement, so far, only Goolara offers to extract the recipient’s personal data in electronic form. Since it is a requirement of the GDPR, we expect others will eventually comply.

Final Thoughts

While the goals of the GDPR are fairly clear and even laudable, it can be difficult to implement when the rubber hits the road. How do we both remove personal data and keep some for the purpose of honoring the unsubscribe? Do we really need to remove all demographics when someone unsubscribes? How do we implement features like data extraction and make it available for portability? We’d like to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.

In Part Two, we’ll get a little deeper into the nitty-gritty of the GDPR, and look at the right to be forgotten in more detail.


1. Chapter 1, Article 4: Definitions

2. Chapter 2, Article 7: Conditions for consent

3. Recitals are brief descriptions added to the GDPR to help clarify certain terms and aspects of the regulation. At this time, there are 173 recitals!

4. Chapter 2, Article 5: Principles relating to the processing of personal data

5. Chapter 3, Article 17: Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’)

6. Chapter 3, Article 21: Right to object

7. Chapter 9, Article 89: Safeguards and derogations relating to processing for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes

8. Chapter 3, Article 20: Right to data portability

Amazon and Email Marketing: Servers in the Ether

Email marketing and AWS
For anyone interested in migrating an in-house server to Amazon Web Service (AWS), the question remains: How do I migrate my email marketing system and send email from an Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instance? If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry, we’ll explain it all. The important thing to remember is this: Goolara Symphonie can be run from AWS, giving cloud users a powerful tool to perform email marketing from their own environment.

Amazon’s Cloud

Several companies are battling for King-of-the-Hill status as the best cloud provider, with Amazon and Microsoft being the top competitors for this market. As of this writing, the apparent winner for email marketing is Amazon, whose AWS solution allows for email sending, unlike Microsoft’s Azure. (for more on this topic, see Cloud Based Infrastructure and Your Email Marketing Solution).

When most people think of AWS and email, they think of Amazon’s own Simple Mail Solution (SES). While this may be fine for some, its limitation is right in its name: it’s Simple. Try to add features such as full automation, dynamic content, and content blocks, and you’ll hit a brick wall pretty quickly. While there are third party add-ons that can enhance the features of SES, they still work off Amazon’s basic “batch-and-blast” approach. That’s fine for the email marketer who thinks in those terms, but for someone looking for a more sophisticated approach to strategic email marketing, this won’t work at all. Fortunately, there is a solution.

Best of Both Worlds

Many companies that have moved their infrastructure to the cloud have had to keep some of their own data centers to operate their on-premise email marketing programs, or have switched to hosted solutions. An on-premise version has many advantages over a hosted solution in connectivity to corporate resources like CRMs or Point-of-Sales systems, the control and security of maintaining your own data, cost savings for high volume users, and much more. With Goolara’s Symphonie solution installed in AWS, you get the best of both worlds – all the power of Symphonie, but installed in your AWS environment.

Assessing the Cost

If you are familiar with AWS you’ll already know there are many cost points, and determining how much a service will eventually charge can be a bit challenging. Symphonie can be run with just two AWS services, EC2 and Amazon’s Relational Database Service (RDS), simplifying some of the calculations. The Symphonie license is perpetual, meaning you can use it forever to send an unlimited amount of email, for the one-time purchase price. For large volume senders this can mean significant savings over hosted providers.

To better understand what’s involved in using Goolara’s on-premise email marketing software via AWS, we’ve created this guide, which detail the process and outlines the various AWS components you’ll to make it work. Feel free to contact us to learn more about the process and to see if your company could benefit from moving its email marketing system into AWS.

The Past Year in Email

Happy New Yer!
Another year has come and gone, and although after the events of last year it seemed like the earth was about to spin off its axis, we’re still here and email is as strong as ever. It’s time once again for our annual look back at the best and worst examples of email of the past year. There are a few old favorites and a few surprises. We’ll start with that old chestnut that never seems to go away: The Bad Mail Merge.

Dear your name here,

bad mail merge

A few years ago, faulty mail merges, like those in the example above above, were the most common mistakes we saw. Attempts to sound personal suddenly have the opposite effect, pulling back the curtain and showing that the email for what it is: a pre-written script with information inserted as needed. This particular template called for both a first name and a company name, neither of which was available. The use of dynamic content instead of a merge could have avoided this problem by given the mailing other options when information was missing. It’s never good when a company that is trying to sell you on their technological prowess can’t assemble an email correctly.

The example below is even more egregious since it purports to be aimed at a specific person. This, coupled with the formatting errors in the apparently meaningless text below the main message (see UTF-8 discussion below), sent this one on a quick trip to the Spam Folder.

bad mail merge #2

While not as bad as either of the errors, another problem that cropped up in a new mailings was the repeat of my first name. Since I’m sure I never put my name in a field twice, I have to assume that the problem is somewhere in the email’s dynamic content structure.

merge error

Aw Gee-Mail

Weather error

Personalization can be a great way to start an email, but it has its limitations. The example above has my name, and a shout out the weather. The only problem, here’s the weather in Moraga for the day this email was sent:

actual weather

Not exactly sunny. I’m not sure if the “sunshine” comment was a dynamic insert based on some erroneous weather predictor, or simply an educated guess on the part of the sender. Either way, receiving this message on the coldest, most overcast day of the summer made us chuckle.

Time’s a-Wastin’!

jumping the gun

It seems like stores push closer and closer to Halloween when it comes to holiday sales. Kohl’s takes it one step further by announcing that you just have a few hours left for your Black Friday deals three weeks before Black Friday! From the content, it looks like this mailing was intended to be sent out on the 1st, but Black Friday threats simply won’t work in that case.

Musicians Who are Pushing

snippet cutoff

Gmail and other email clients like to give you a peek at what to expect before you open the mailing. You can use this your advantage with a preheader. Just make sure that when that preheader is abbreviated, you don’t end up with a different message. Musicbed made use of a preheader, but didn’t take into consideration what happened to the preheader when the window wasn’t big enough to fit the whole thing. They ended up with “musicians who are pushing,” instead of “musicians who are pushing the genre to new place.” Perhaps out of paranoia, Patrick James avoids the problem altogether by using a short preheader message followed by a long series of periods.

Amusingly, this particular problem isn’t limited to email. In 1998, a campaign in New York state to provide schools with pencils that featured an anti-drug message had to be pulled when kids started noticing that the more you sharpened the pencils, the more pro-drug the message became.

too cool to do drugs
Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/12/nyregion/slogan-causes-pencil-recall.html

It’s All Ελληνικά To Me

How you code your email can make the difference between a readable message and gibberish. An email written using 8-bit Unicode characters and then coded for 7-bit ASCII is going to have some problems. Some times you see this immediately in the subject lines:

utf errors

And sometimes it appears in the body copy. Normally, these snippets of code standout, and do little more than interfere with the design, but if you’ve created an email that relies directly on UTF-8 Unicode to get its idea across, you’re going to be in trouble. That’s what happened with ThinkGeek’s otherwise clever mailing:

thinkgeek

The text below the image was supposed to be a humorous paragraph printed upside-down and backwards, as an in-joke to the Stranger Things TV show. If you look at the source code, you’ll find the original message was:

“˙soƃƃƎ puᴉɟ ll,noʎ ‘ɹǝzǝǝɹɟ ǝɔᴉɟɟo ɹno uǝdo noʎ ɟI ˙pǝʇᴉɔxǝ ǝɹoɯ sn ƃuᴉʞɐɯ ʇsnɾ s,ʇɐɥʇ ǝsᴉpuɐɥɔɹǝɯ unɟ ɟo sʇɹos llɐ uᴉ ƃuᴉʇʇǝƃ ǝɹ,ǝʍ pu∀ (˙ɥʇuoɯ sᴉɥʇ sn pǝʇᴉsᴉʌ ǝʌ,noʎ ɟᴉ pǝɔᴉʇou ǝʌɐɥ ʎɐɯ no⅄) ˙sƃuᴉɥ┴ ɹǝƃuɐɹʇS ɟo uosɐǝs ʇxǝu ǝɥʇ ɹoɟ pǝʇᴉɔxǝ ʎʇʇǝɹd ǝɹ,ǝM”

Which, when view right-side up and reversed, reads:

“We’re pretty excited for the next season of Stranger Things. (You may have noticed if you’ve visited us this month.) And we’re getting in all sorts of fun merchandise that’s just making us more excited. If you open our office freezer, you’ll find Eggos.”

Unfortunately, the email was sent without the Unicode specification required to render the sentence, turning the message into gibberish.

Email Tourette Syndrome

unwanted code

Sometimes you can end up with gibberish inserting itself in an email for other reasons. In the example above, it looks like the URL was accidentally and replaced with the ALT tag, leaving only the query string. In the examples below, the problem was a matter of placement of conditional comments. Conditional comments are a way to assign special instructions that only Internet Explorer will read. To everything else, they will appear as comments and won’t display. The problem is that they can sometimes show up as text depending on where they are placed in an email.

While we understand the value of conditional comments, people are beginning to migrate away from IE, in favor of better alternatives. You might want to check your subscriber base and see if you even need them anymore.

A Bad Case of Mono

monograms or monographs?

This image came in an email from the normally exceptional email marketers at Email Monks. For the moment, I’m going to ignore the grammatical error in the ribbon banner at the top and concentrate on the type categories shown. I have no problem with Serif and Sans Serif, but there’s no such type style as “Monogram.” These are monograms:

monograms

What they meant was “monospaced.” Their description doesn’t make much (if any) sense either (and one more grammatical error to boot). A monospaced font is a font in which every characters takes the same amount of space, so a lower case “i” will take as much room as an uppercase “M,” even though the two characters clearly require different amounts of space. While the fourth category (Calligraphy) is a legitimate font category, in this case I would have used the more general category of “Decorative” as the final classification (of which Calligraphic fonts are a subset).

Give Me Some Room!

tanga on iphone

This email from Tanga looks fine on a desktop computer, and even a tablet, but reduce it to iPhone size and it suddenly turns into this scrunched up mess. Looking at the code, we see that whoever designed this is much more comfortable with HTML than CSS. The content is rife with deprecated attributes and the designer has used cells with non-breaking spaces to create margins. Either this was created many years ago, or someone needs to brush up on their CSS.

As bad as this is, at least all the content still appears on the page (albeit in a very squished format). Not so for Vibes’ webinar announcement. While it will appear just fine in most email clients. Something in its code just falls apart when opened in Live Mail. We’ve discussed the problems with Live Mail in previous year-end reviews, but now that Microsoft has abandoned it, maybe the folks at Vibes didn’t think it was worth the effort to fix.

Responsible Responsive

Responsive design was all the rage a few years ago. As we discussed in Part Four of our Responsive Email Design series, if you use a standardized template, then setting up a responsive template has advantages. It will mean a little extra work at the start but will yield dividends later on. Clearly, the folks at BangGoods didn’t read that article, because this is how their mailings appear on an iPhone:

This is a perfect layout for a responsive approach. The three columns across is fine for a desktop monitor, but it is rendered almost unreadable on most phones. Media queries that realigned the three columns and enlarged them according to screen size would do a world of good here.

The British Film Institute (BFI) takes a different approach. They do use responsive design, but they only use one column, so the main purpose of the media query is the adjust the size of the tables based on the screen size. This works well for the iPhone:

But not so well for the iPad:

They had the right idea, but set the size change at the wrong point, leading to an unnecessarily small display on the iPad mini.

Unsubscribe? Fuggedaboutit!

Until this point, most of the mistakes we’ve listed have been embarrassing at worst, but these next two aren’t simply bad mistakes—they’re against the law. CAN-SPAM requires the ability to unsubscribe. That can be accomplished a number of ways, but the most common is with an unsubscribe link. If you put an unsubscribe link in your email, it better work. That’s not the case for Proline Tools and Longchamp. In the case of Proline Tools, clicking unsub takes you to the following page:

This suggests that the problem only was temporary, but a second attempt to click on the unsubscribe link a two weeks later yielded the same result.

Similarly, clicking on the unsub link from Wengtek.com takes you to this page:

On the plus side, clicking on any link in the Wengtek mailing took me to this page, so this might simply be an ESP issue. Since the email purported to be from Longchamp, I would classify this one as Spam and move on.

tl;dr

A related problem occurs when you have too much text in your mailings. Some email clients, such as Gmail, will choose to cut off the message with the following notice:

This particular email is from Kohl’s whose list of caveats and cautions could fill a book. When this happens, the unsubscribe link is not displayed. Does that mean the email is breaking the law? Probably not, but it does mean one more step to get to it. In case you’re interested, here is the entire block of legal notices at the bottom of that email (reduced for the sake of brevity):

At least, in this case, the only thing missing besides the footer is a lot of legalese that no one ever reads anyway. Not so for Touch of Modern, whose email gets clipped like this:

Touch of Modern specializes in expensive products for gadget lovers and technophiles, and their emails are often a solid wall of these products. So much so, that they often get clipped for being too long. So how much is missing? When you click “View entire image,” you not only get the footer, but an additional 132 products are displayed as well. They would have been better off reducing the size of their email, concentrating on a few items each time, and using the website to present additional items.

The Good

This year we also saw some nice use of animated gifs and clever subject lines. The leader this year was EmailMonks, who offered games for Easter and Thanksgiving, an interactive Halloween mailings, and some clever videos and gifs. Where the email clients could interpret the code, the games could be played right there in the message. When that wasn’t possible the viewer was linked to the online version. The also get points for their clever use of poster gifs that do a good job of leading the viewer to the linked video (see Using HTML5 in Email: Video).

Cinemagraphs

One technique we were hoping to see more of this year was the use of cinemagraphs. These are the animated gifs that use animation sparingly to create the effect of a live video image. One company that put the technique to good use is Bourbon and Boots, who used a smoking cigar to draw the eye to the image. Subtle but effective, and it captures the essence of the company’s brand.

One of the cleverest uses of an animated gif came from Netflix, but they didn’t stop there. The design concept started with the subject line:

The blacked out lines and the subject matter make us slightly uneasy, but still curious. Upon opening the email, you are presented with a startling animated gif:

[Note: The original gif only goes through its animation one time, I’ve set it up to repeat to make it easier to view.]

A very clever combination of subject line and content used to create an effect.

Until Next Time

That will do it for this year. As usual, most of the errors could have easily been avoided by a little testing before sending. We were happy to that certain errors that were once very common, now only happen occasionally. Marketers are getting more email savvy and template designs are improving. As an added note, I recently heard from Jordie van Rijn from eMailMonday, who has created this pre-launch checklist you can use to make sure everything in order before you hit the send button.

Happy New Year!

A couple years ago, as a gift to our readers for the holidays, we offered The Email Game, a simple luck-based game that also served as an instructional tool for learning what to do, and what not to do when sending out your mailings. This year we’re back with a game we call Spam Attacks, based on the subscription bomb attacks that plagued ESPs everywhere in late 2016. The game is a dice and board game similar to Backgammon where each player moves from opposite points on the board and landing on an opponent’s piece will send it back to the beginning (or, in this case, into the Blacklist area). unlike the previous game, this you can win this game with strategy, although a certain amount of chance will still keep things exciting. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Email Gameboard
Pieces:

Playing pieces

How to Play:

Before you begin: Print out the game board and playing pieces (envelopes and bombs). Cut out the six playing pieces separately. You will also need a standard, six-sided die.

Number of players: Two. Each player has three pieces
These are designated as the Email Marketer and the Spam Attacker. The Email Marketer uses the three envelope pieces. These are referred to as emails. The Spam Attacker uses the bomb pieces. These are referred to as spam attacks.

Object: For the Email Marketer, it is to get at least one of their emails delivered before all three are blacklisted. An email is considered delivered when it successfully moves off the playing board. For the Spam Attacker, it is to get all three of the Email Marketer’s emails blacklisted before they can be delivered. The Spam Attacker causes an email to be blacklisted by landing on the square occupied by an email. That email is then sent to the bottom of the blacklist (the square labeled “Blacklisted!”). The Email Marketer must restart the journey for that piece from that point. The first player to achieve their objective wins the game.

Rules:

The Email Marketer begins their journey around the game board by placing a piece on the square in the upper left corner of the board (labeled with a ►), They then move their pieces clockwise around the board to the finish line. The Spam Attacker starts by placing a piece in the square in the lower left corner (labeled with a star) and initially moving counterclockwise. The spam player pieces cannot leave the board once they are in play, nor can the enter the blacklist area. If a spam attack piece reaches either end of the playing area, it continues its journey back in the opposite direction. The Email Marketer may only move forward in a counterclockwise direction. They do not need an exact count to leave the playing area. The Spam Attacker can move in either direction, so it’s possible for the Spam Attacker to double back and tag a piece they have already past.

Each player can decide at what point they wish to add each piece to the playing field. If they have more than one piece in play, they can choose which piece they want to move next. They can only move one piece with each die toss, but they must move one of their pieces with each toss.

Safety Zones: There are three Safety Zones on the board (labeled with the Goolara rings). The Spam attacker cannot land on these squares. The Spam Attacker must jump over them in their move counts. The Email Marketer can land on these squares, and can keep a piece on one of the these squares as long as they want. Two emails cannot occupy the same Safety Zone. If an envelope lands on Safety Zone that is already occupied, the second piece must move to the next square after the Safety Zone. The email marketer can, however, create a temporary Safety Zone by placing two pieces in the same square (see Special Cases).

Winning the game: The Email Marketer wins the game when at least one of their pieces moves off the board. The Spam Attacker wins if they get all three of the Email Marketer’s pieces in the blacklist area.

Special Cases: If the only move an Email Marketer can make causes that piece to land on a Spam Attacker’s piece, the Email Marketer cannot move and loses that turn. If the Email Marketer has two pieces on the same square, that square becomes a safety zone as long as two pieces of email occupy it, and the Spam Attacker cannot land on it.

Variation: The game can be played with four players: Three Email Marketers and one Spam Attacker. Each player must move on their turn, so the Safety Zones offer limited protection. Play continues until one of the Email Marketers has successfully moved their piece off the board. The first player to do so wins the game. The Spam Attacker wins if they manage to get all three players in the blacklist area.


Special kudos to Sabine Kroschel of Pixaline for her lovely background image.

A Look at Email Ten Years From Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technological Convergence

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

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

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things

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

New Email Authentication Protocols

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

CSS Animations

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

More Videos in Email

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

Simpler Responsive Design Techniques

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

HTML Scripting

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

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

Forms in email

Forms in Email

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

“The Death of Email” Articles

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

Incorrect Predictions

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


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

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

Cloud-based Infrastructure and Your Email Marketing Solution

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

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

On-Premise Meets the Cloud

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

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

Email Marketing and Cloud-Computing

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

ESP and IaaS

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

On-Premise and Cloud Computing

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

International Issues

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

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