CAN-SPAM, Deliverability, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Live Mail, Personalization, spam, Subject Lines

The Year in Email: A Look Back At 2016

By all accounts, 2016 was an extraordinarily eventful year. It saw the deaths of Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Leon Russell, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Wilder, and a whole host of others. Politically, it was the year of Brexit and a presidential election that caused the New York Times to take a hard look at their polling methodology. In sports, it was the year that the Chicago Cubs, after 108 years of losing, finally won a world series in a final game that played out like a movie script.

It was an eventful year in email too, but not necessarily in a good way. Some might argue that email—or, at least, email that wasn’t meant to be seen by the general public—helped lose the election for Hillary Clinton. August saw an organized subscription bomb attack of suspicious origin that temporarily landed several respectable news organizations on spam lists and caused Spamhaus to update their opt-in verification recommendations. In one respect, 2016 was a better than previous years. We saw fewer of the kind of clumsy design errors that we’ve seen in the past. Most of the really terrible errors came from sources that were questionable to begin with.

The Importance of Testing Across Platforms

It should go without saying that whenever you send out a message you should test it. If you are using Goolara Symphonie, or another ESP that has a preview feature built in, I’d start there. If you want to be extra careful, you can also send test mailings to several different addresses, or use the email previews available from Litmus and Email on Acid. Sometimes, a message looks fine in one email reader, but not so good in another. Here are some examples.

Aw Gee-Mail

misaligned iamges

If you’re going to have a problem displaying your email design in one provider, the provider should never be Gmail. After all, it is the most popular email reader out there, and it doesn’t cost anything to get an address, so what’s the problem? The folks at Orchard apparently didn’t learn this lesson, though. This particular email looked fine everywhere else, including the always problematic Live Mail, but completely fell apart in Gmail.

Dynamic Content Mishap

Bad dymamic content

One time when you absolutely must test before sending is when you are using mail merge or dynamic content.1 The example above is an actual email, sent to us with the subject line: “Your email.” A blank space between “Hello” and the comma would have been better than this. Well constructed dynamic content instructions would have prevented this from happening.

Hide and Seek

images covering type

A picture’s worth a thousand words, but this is email is pushing it. At first glance, it looks like Wired expects these images to do all the work, but look closely at the right edge of the top photo, just below the horizon. There’s a series of small dots there. A closer investigation reveals that those dots are the text hidden under each photo. This particular problem occurs in Microsoft’s recently abandoned Live Mail, and if Live Mail was the only email reader that had trouble with this mailing, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning it. But Thunderbird also has trouble with the file, pushing the text and social links out to the right of the main table. Live Mail, at least, brings the text and social links back into the area where they belong, but then plops the photo down on top of everything. This wouldn’t matter if Wired bothered to provide meaningful alt tags, but the alt tags read: “Image for story 1,” “Image for story 2,” etc. Not exactly helpful.

A close inspection of the source code reveals the problem. Whoever put this email together did go to the trouble of using tables, but then they inserted divs into the mix. The code is also littered with ids and class tags that have no corresponding style instructions. It’s worth noting that all of the other mailings from the magazine look fine, and the ones for subscription offers include highly descriptive alt tags.

Honestly Missing Logo

Missing logo

That “Honest Mail Email Marketing” logo, looks suspiciously like nothing at all. A quick check of the HTML code reveals the problem:

<img src=”” alt=”Honest Mail Email Marketing Logo” width=”160″ height=”50″ border=”0″ style=”width:160px; height:50px;” />

They remembered to include the height, width, and border information. They even added alt text There’s only one thing missing: the actual source location for the image. Honestly, one test preview would have revealed this problem. There’s no excuse for it.

Code Fails

Some problems are simply the result of bad HTML. Sometimes it’s an out-and-out typo, but sometimes the problem is something subtle like including the DOCTYPE and HTML tags when you paste the email into the ESP app. Test previews and test send should catch most of these problems.

It’s Important, Procrustes

Bad image sizing

This email from Keurig suffers from a few problems. The image of the people chatting over coffee and the “Shop Today” button are obviously stretched. The designer put the correct size information in the properties for each of these images, but they forgot to add !important, so the sizing information was overridden in favor of the master table, stretching the images to match the master table’s 100% width requirement.

Knowing When to Link

button design

Having linking buttons is always a good idea, but knowing where to put the link is important. In this example from Camper, only the words “Women,” “Men,” and “Kids” are links. Since this text is placed in its own table, and that table has a bordered cell, it would make more sense to add the link to either the table or the cell. As it stands now, clicking anywhere inside the black border does nothing unless you click directly on the words. It’s a minor thing, but one worth remembering. Judging from the number of div tags in this email, I suspect that the author of this email is new to the form.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

fake button

Providing buttons that link to web content is never a bad idea. What is a bad idea is providing a button that is not a button at all. This email from Template Monster makes that mistake. Clicking on “Learn Now” simply brings up the image. To make matters worse, they’ve given it a blue border, further enforcing the perception that this is a link and not just an image.

Oops, I Did It Again!

Not to rag on Template Monster, but they don’t seem to have anyone checking the email before they send it. Here is the top of one of their emails:

Missing code

And here is the code for the logo at the top:

<a href=”#” style=”border:none;” target=”_blank”><img alt=”TemplateMonster” border=”0″ height=”40″…

Look at the href at the beginning of the line of code. This should link to their website, but it doesn’t. The pound sign (#) is a placer that indicates that although there is a link, it’s not going anywhere. Hover over it and it appears active, but clicking on it accomplishes nothing.

A little further down the page in the same email we get this:

Typo

The text in the orange button reads “Download You Gift.” I confess, I am always typing “you” instead of “your” so I can relate to this one, but a second pair of qualified eyes would have caught this immediately.

In the same email, every headline and image has a different link, even when they go to the same place. The headline about 20 free writing tools goes to the same page as the image next to it. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, and say that they did this to find out whether the images or the headlines are responsible for the most clickthroughs, but in the long run, isn’t that less important than the fact that they did click through?

That’s Code for …Code!

badly coded spam

I love it when spammers screw up. This was already obviously a spam message without having to even open it, but upon opening you’re presented with the HTML code for the message. When putting together a mailing in your ESPs visual editor, always make sure you are in the right tab (usually marked HTML) before pasting HTML code. Otherwise this might happen to you. Of course, any decent email marketer would have previewed the mailing, but these people tend to work fast. I’m surprise this doesn’t happen more often, actually.

Shopping Links

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with an email, until you click on one of the links. Then you suddenly find yourself staring at a page that has nothing to do with anything. Retail stores appear to be the worst offenders, which is odd since so much of their business is contingent on people getting to the right page and ordering the product they want.

I Know It’s Here Somewhere

missing products

Fab has, in the past, shown products in their mailings that aren’t on the landing page. In most cases, the products shown are available, but buried on the second or third page of the sale listings. That’s fine. Lots of companies do this, so the public is used to it. But in the email shown above, the “Cosmo Complete Set” and Captain America print don’t even show up in any of the lists. Clicking on them takes you to the a sale page, but neither product is on any of the sales pages. If you want to buy either of these items, you’ll need to enter them as search queries on the web site.

Now Go and Find Me

not on site

Normally, Bed, Bath & Beyond is one of the better companies when it comes to email marketing, they always provided meaningful alt tags, their design is easy to read on both a desktop computer and a mobile phone, and their links, in most cases, go directly to the products shown. Here is one of their rare missteps. Clicking on this product does not take you to the products, or even anywhere near the product. A clue lies in the button labeled “Find a Store”—only it’s not a button. Clicking anywhere in the image will take you to BB&B’s Find a Store page. I suppose they justify this by pointing out that the product isn’t available online, but that’s no reason that this couldn’t be included on a page with more information on the product.

Alt, Right?

I bring it up every year, but every year there are plenty of examples of companies forgetting to add alt information to the img tags. While it’s true that services such as Gmail and the iPhone display images as the default, some people still prefer to keep the images turned off. Alt tags not only impart information on what they are missing, they also can provide incentive to display images as well. Here’s an example from Warby Parker that demonstrates the worst case scenario:

no alt tags

Now here’s a company that knows how to do it right, Bed, Bath & Beyond:

Good alt tags

Quite a difference. Perhaps the guys at Warby Parker assume that people will always want to display their images, a questionable assumption.

Unsubscribe Catastrophes

Unsubscribing should never be a hassle. Nobody is happy when a recipient unsubscribes, but it’s better than having that person mark your mailings as spam because they can’t figure out how else to get you to stop sending them things. Some marketers go to extraordinary lengths to making unsubscribing difficult, treading very close to the legal requirements of CAN-SPAM. A few cross over to the dark side. Here are this year’s worst offenders.

Unsubscribe? fUGGedaboutit!

No unsub link

CAN-SPAM has a few hard and fast rules. One of them is that you have to have an unsubscribe link. You also have to have a physical address. This email has neither. The supposed unsubscribe link takes you to the home page for the company. Not surprisingly, this email is not from an official UGG site at all, but a spammer that is trying to make their site look as legitimate as possible.

Email Purgatory

Missing unsub link

Unlike the previous email, this one is from a legitimate company (T-Mobile). This part of the email—which is commented in the HTML as “legal footer”—contains the physical address, privacy policy information, links to their various plan options, and instructions for how to ensure that email from them does not wind up in the spam folder. What it doesn’t include, however, is an unsubscribe link—an unequivocal violation of CAN-SPAM.

Go Ahead and Try to Unsubscribe! I Dare You!

bad unsub link

When it comes to anti-spam laws, the USA is about the most lax, but they still require two things: A physical address and an unsubscribe link. So when I get an email like this, it makes my blood boil. Here’s what you get when you click the unsubscribe link:

unsub fail

As one might imagine, this one went straight to the spam folder.

Crouching Promo and Hidden Unsub

unsub in image off

A nearly as devious method of hiding the unsubscribe was used by Lids, a company that specializes in sports caps. Here’s the bottom of their email with the images turned off:

You can see there’s a physical address, but where’s the unsubscribe link? Now here’s the same section of the email with the images displayed:

unsub in image on

Ah, there it is! They’ve made unsubscribe part of an image. To make matters worse, they used an image map to separate the various categories shown. I’m not sure what the thinking was here. Attempts to reach them went unanswered. Just to add insult to injury, I never signed up for this email, it was someone entering the wrong address either accidentally or on purpose.

Sure, There’s an Unsub. It’s Just Not Yours.

Another highly questionable approach to handling unsubscribes came from, of all companies, Salesforce:

Salesforce CAN-SPAM violation

I’ve blurred the names to save some embarrassment, but I can verify that the author of this email comes from Salesforce, promoting a webinar Salesforce has co-sponsored. Yes, there’s an unsubscribe link, but only in the forwarded content. Presumably that will only work for the original recipient, not for the person to whom the email was forwarded. This means that Salesforce, the largest SaaS-based, customer relationship management (CRM) provider on the planet, a company with its own email marketing solution, just sent me a promotional email without an unsubscribe link. It is a tactic worthy of a Viagra spammer. It doesn’t help that there’s a typo in the very first sentence. I dearly hope the author of this email is new to Salesforce.

Subject Line Fun

The subject line is the most important part of your mailing. If a subject line doesn’t provoke the recipient to open the email, then all your hard work providing good content and responsive design is for naught. Here area few subject lines that either failed miserably or worked brilliantly, or, in the case of the first example, simply overdid things.

Hello, It’s Me Again

Too many emails

Some email marketing experts are big fans of the practice of sending high quantities of email to your recipient list. It is a topic hotly discussed on email marketing forums, and each side can back up their position with plenty of facts and figures. But even the most ardent fan of high-volume sending would agree that Travelocity is pushing it here, sending an email every hour or so from two in the morning to five. It doesn’t help that all of these were sent at times when no others were sending out email, leading to all four messages being bunched together. Perhaps that was the idea, to create a sort of billboard for Travelocity residing in the inbox.

Did I mention…?

same email

It’s not usual for companies to offer multiple newsletters. Nor is it unusual to send these newsletters out on the same day. What is unusual is the use exactly the same subject line and content on both mailings, right down to the “You are subscribed to PCMag Tech Deals as…” at the bottom of each page. Given that a normal announcement from PCMag reads “You are subscribed to PCMag Announcements as…” and is usually some sort of deal on a PCMag subscription, I’d chalk this one up to either a mistake or laziness.

I’m Either a Realtor or a Marketer

email goof

Even we email marketers make boneheaded mistakes. To their credit, the folks at EEC caught this and quickly followed up with an apology.

A Special Odaer, Ordrre, Ordeorr…Oh Forget It!

typo in subject line

“Order” is a hard word to screw up, but whoever put this email together seems to have had a terrible time with it. They misspelled it in the subject line, and then again in the content.

Okay, I’m not REALLY Out of the Office

Out of Office trick subject line

I think I know what Sephora was trying to do here. This was an attempt to equate being out of the office with their summertime contest. Sending a fake out-of-office autoreply isn’t the worst misuse of a subject line, but it’s pretty sneaky and isn’t likely to endear you to anyone.

You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Game sof Throne subject line

As a fan of Game of Thrones, I enjoyed the use of GoT references in the subject line and “friendly” from, but I’m not sure that a company that specializes in predictive marketing is the right place for this approach. This link leads to a series of videos in which they try to show the marketing lessons available in the HBO series. That is more a testament to the ability of the human brain to find patterns where none exist than any marketing subplots lurking in George R.R. Martin’s on-going saga. This kind of subject is better served on a site such as ThinkGeek, which specializes in products attached to all aspects of geekdom, from TV shows or computer games. For them, even this is acceptable:

Konami Code subject line

A combination of keystrokes known as the Konami Code, a cheat that gives gamers additional powers while playing. If you’re in the real estate business, this probably isn’t a good subject line, but it works quite well for a company whose primary audience resembles the cast from The Big Bang Theory.

Location, Location, Location!

Deliverability fail

Sometimes, a subject line, by itself isn’t anything special, but where you find it makes all the differences. I found this one in my spam folder. I could say “Physician heal thyself,” but this just demonstrates what a complicated subject deliverability is.

That’s it for this year! We can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring. We predict more email address providers will follow Gmail’s lead in allowing CSS in email. On one hand, this means we can get more creative in our email designs, but on the other hand, it means more places for things to go wrong. If there is a moral to this blog post, it should be obvious by now: test, test, test. For more on the subject of how to deal with email mistakes, check out our white paper on the subject: Oops! – Handling and resolving email marketing mistakes.


1. If you’re not using dynamic content, you’re missing a real opportunity to improve your email engagement results. Jordie van Rijn explains how and why in his article, Making the most out of Dynamic Email Marketing. For more on Goolara Symphonie’s powerful dynamic content visits, visit our dynamic content page.

Design, Email marketing, Subject Lines, Trends

A Guide to Using Emojis in Subject Lines

emojis
We all get them, especially around the holidays: those emails with little pictographs in the subject line. At Halloween, they are jack-o-lanterns and ghosts (🎃, 👻), further into winter they might be snowmen or Christmas trees (☃, 🎄). Sometimes they relate to the sender’s industry. Guitar Center, for instance, regularly uses the guitar pictograph (🎸), while Webdesigner News starts every subject line with the image of a pencil (✏). These are emojis, and have become popular tools for spicing up subject lines to make them more appealing. In this article we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of using emojis, and things to look out for when using them.

Emoji or Emoticon?

First let’s get the out of the way the inevitable question, “What is the difference between an emoji and an emoticon?” An emoticon is a facial expression created using the limited assortment of punctuation that is available in basic English text. The most well-known example is the colon and right parenthesis indicating a smiling face: :) . The alternative to basic text is Unicode, a character coding system designed to include every character in every language. In Unicode, there is an emoji for a smiling face (☺), along with a large assortment of other tiny pictographs. Unlike a smiling face created with a colon and a right parenthesis, the emoji is one character, not two. There are several emojis you can choose from to indicate various levels of mirth (😄😃😀😊😁), along with characters for nearly every other human emotion (😯😨😭😡😳).

Emojis got their start on Japanese mobile phones, where they were used to replace emoticons. Although the names sound similar, the word emoji has nothing to do with emotions. It is a combination of the Japanese words for “picture” (e – 絵) and “character” (mo-ji – 文字).Their worldwide acceptance began when Apple decided to include emojis as a feature on its iPhones in 2009. Then in 2010, hundreds of emojis were encoded and introduced in the Unicode Standard, and more are added every day. As of this writing, there are 722 emojis available with Unicode character coding. Emojis have popped up everywhere from Android phones to Gmail.

As befitting their Japanese roots, some emojis are specifically aimed at Japanese culture and leave westerners scratching their heads. Emojis for foods such and Dango (🍡) and Oden (🍢), and festivals such as Tanabata (🎋) and Tsukimi (🎑) presumably don’t see much use in America and Europe, while other symbols, such as the white flower (💮) might be used, but in an entirely different context from how it’s used in Japan (in Japan it is used to mean “well done”).

Where Are They?

Unless you are using an iPhone to write your mailings, which is highly doubtful, finding the emojis on a keyboard can be tricky. You can type in the Unicode directly, but that is a pain in the neck, and you first have to know these codes to type them. For instance, to add an airplane (✈) to your subject line, you’d need to type in U+2708 (hold down the Ctrl+Alt+Shift keys, type U, type 2708, then hit enter). It’s a lot of work for one character, and it doesn’t always work anyway. Some desktop systems have shortcuts for inserting emojis, or special pull-down menus, but these are still slow. The easiest way to add emojis that we’ve found is iEmoji.com, which lets you compose the subject line on their web page, then copy and paste it to your email marketing software. But some care should be taken when doing this, which leads us to the next point: Why do some emojis work in subject lines and others don’t?

Question Marks and Empty Squares

Have you tried using emojis in your subject lines, only to have them replaced by small squares or questions marks? There are two primary causes for this. The first is that you are using a newer, unusual emoji that is not included across all systems. The country flags, for instance, do not show up in most email reader subject lines, and often not in the content either. In most email readers, the newer ability to choose the skin tones of certain emojis isn’t available, and will add blank squares or question marks to a subject line (more on this below). When using emojis in the subject line, it is safest to stick to the default emojis, which usually appear in yellow.

With a few email readers, such as Live Mail, how it displays can even depend on where it is in the software. Take this example:

Live Mail comparisonAll three emojis appear in the list window on the left, but not in the title window on the right. The first emoji (the umbrella) appears correctly in both areas, while the others (the cat and dog) appear as empty boxes on the right. The reason for this is because the umbrella is one of the original emojis that were introduced in 1995. As a rule, these will appear in your subject lines more often than the newer emojis will. Some of these characters, such as the smiley face (☺), musical notes (♪ ♫), and card suits (♠ ♣ ♥ ♦) were added early on, and are available as symbol characters in basic English character sets.1 Here is a list of the original 1995 emojis:

☺ ☹ ☠ ☝ ✌ ✍ ❤ ❣ ♨ ✈ ⌛ ⌚ ☀ ☁
☂ ❄ ☃ ☄ ♠ ♥ ♦ ♣ ☎ ⌨ ✉ ✏ ✒ ✂
☢ ☣ ↗ ➡ ↘ ↙ ↖ ↕ ↔ ↩ ↪ ✡ ☸ ☯
✝ ☦ ☪ ☮ ▶ ◀ ☑ ✔ ✖ ✳ ✴ ❇ ‼ 〰
♈ ♉ ♊ ♋ ♌ ♍ ♎ ♏ ♐ ♑ ♒ ♓
© ® ™ Ⓜ ㊗ ㊙ ▪ ▫

A second, and more likely cause of question marks in the subject line, is that your email is set to something other than Unicode. If the character you want to use is not available in the character set you are using, it will not appear in the subject line. Go to the settings while in your email marketing software and check the character encoding choice. If it doesn’t say “UTF-8” it’s probably not going to work in the subject line, even if it works in the content.

As a rule, it is never a good idea to use emojis to replace words in a subject line. If the emoji is replaced with a question mark, you might end up with a subject line that still makes sense, but says something you don’t want it to. For instance, if you replaced the word “love” with a heart in the subject line “You’ll ❤ our deals,” you could end up with this: “You’ll ? our ideas,” which isn’t exactly a confidence builder, and could be read as “You’ll question our deals.” In fact, a scan of various emails—and even web pages—shows that using the heart symbol to replace the word love might just be the number one gaffe. I even found the following line in an online article about emojis: “There’s a lot of ? for emoji these days….”

It is safer to put the emojis at the beginning and the ends of the subject lines, or as breaks between words. Even so, you should ask yourself: If a question mark appears instead, will it affect the subject line’s meaning?

I’m Not Mad, I’m Happy

In some cases, the emojis from one operating system are different enough from the emojis in another to cause confusion. Here, for instance is the emoji labeled “drooling face”:

drooling emojiTwo appear happy, two appear unhappy, and the last one looks downright scared. One doesn’t even appear at all. While it is unusual for emojis to vary this much across platforms, it doesn’t hurt to check the emoji you plan to use to make sure it doesn’t change too drastically when viewed on different devices and operating systems. The easiest place to do this is at the Unicode Consortium’s Full Emoji Data page. There, you’ll find all the emojis—including a few that appear animated, such as the Gmail emojis, which sometimes cry, bounce up and down, or wink. The Unicode Consortium’s Data page also lists the date when each emoji was introduced, which can help you determine how safe it is to use that emoji. An emoji introduced in 2016 is probably not going to show up in a subject line, and might not even show up in the content.

Politically Correct Emojis

While animation is more site specific, and doesn’t affect the individual emojis, there is another recent addition to the emojis that will affect how and emoji behaves in a subject line. After people complained that the emojis of hands and faces were not ethnically inclusive enough, a feature was added whereby you can specify the gender of an emoji and its skin color. Care must be taken when using skin tones and genders as these add additional code to each emoji. For instance, the code for the left pointing finger emoji is U+1F448, while the code for the same emoji with pale skin is U+1F448+U+1F3FB. In subject lines, even if the original default emoji appears, the gender and color information will in most cases appear as empty square blocks or question marks. For this reason, it is best to stick to the basic emojis and avoid skin tones and gender additions until more mail readers are compatible with these features.

Emojis and Deliverability

As always, the most important question is: Can emojis affect the deliverability of an email? Our tests suggest that, under some circumstances, emojis do appear to have a negative effect on an email’s deliverability, but a minor one. Mailings with large quantities of emojis in the subject line and contents were more likely to end up in the spam folder, while those that used them more judiciously appeared to have no problems getting through. Obviously a subject line that is nothing but emojis is probably not a good idea. Some spam filters can identify is a subject line is nonsense, and a string of emojis looks just like gibberish. We recommend restricting the use of emojis in subject lines to no more than three, and to make sure there is actual text in the subject line as well. Keep in mind also that there may be aspects of your content that are pushing your mailings close to a negative rating, and the emojis won’t do anything to improve the situation. For for information on what to look out for, check out our white paper, Deliverability Enhanced.

As to which emojis provide the best open rates, a quick scan of the articles that discuss this shows that there is no consensus here. In all likelihood, this data changes from month to month anyway. The only meaningful answer is to see how they do in your own tests, and proceed accordingly. Like those articles that tell you which day of the week is best for sending, any article that claims to know which emoji performs best is working from a limited data set and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Test and Test Again

If you do plan to use emojis in your subject lines, our advice is, as always with any first time format experimentation, test and test again. We would also recommend paying closer attention than usual to the deliverability results in your tests. Some A/B split testing against subject lines without emojis or with different emojis isn’t a bad idea either. Emojis can be a fun way to enliven your subject lines and increase open rates, but it will still require testing with your own recipients to see if they’ll work for you.


1. It should be noted that the term “emoji” was not applied to these character, however, until Unicode version 6.0, released in 2010.

Design, Email marketing, Subject Lines, Trends

2013: The Year in Email

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

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

Alt Tag Fun

Ya’ got something against “T”s?

Alt tag goof

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

No alt tags

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

weak alt tags

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

Good alt tags

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

You’re using an image because…?

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

wordy alt tag

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

Delivery Problems

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

Text still rules

Bad image display

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

WOT the heck?

WOT effect on display

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

Subject Line & Sender Disasters

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

Call me dyslexic

This piece of email came from Digital Marketing News:

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

Who is ANSI_X3.4-1968 anyway?

ANSI text issue

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

We care, now go away!

Do Not Reply

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

The Linkin’ Logs

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

Look at this! Now try to find it!

Inaccurate links

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

No links

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

No links

Alignment Issues

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

Why did the web designer leave the restaurant?

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

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

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

Misalignment #1

Misalignment #2

Misalignment #3

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

Microsoft strikes again

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

Oversized empty window

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

With images displayed

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

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is

Practice what you preach.

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

Ending on a Good Note

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

Thanks for Subscribing

Thanks for subscribing

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

Beyond Mosaics

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

Valentine's Day

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

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

Happy Birthday!

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

animated gifNice work Pizza Express.

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

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Design, Email marketing, Subject Lines, Trends

The Complete Preheaders and Snippets Tutorial

Tricks for using preheaders

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

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

Email on an iPhone

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

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

Gmail on computer

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

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

First Element Solution

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

Preheader sample

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

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

Second preheader sample

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

from and snippet

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

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

Preheader Div Solution

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

div preheader sample

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

Top of email with preheader div

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

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

Preheader snippet text goes here.

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

Which is better?

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

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

Preheader Best Practices

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

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

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

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


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A-B Split Testing, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Personalization, Segmentation, Subject Lines

The Emailing of a President

Obama and Romney

The 2012 presidential election demonstrated better than any previous election just how important good email tactics are to a successful campaign. Some people have gone so far as to avow that it was email that won the presidency for Obama. Whether that is true or not, one incontestable fact that emerges from the campaign is that Obama’s team spent a lot more time and effort taking advantage of the most important aspects of any successful large-scale email campaign—testing and metrics.

The Obama campaign is a testament to the power of split testing and report analysis. They tested nearly every aspect of each email, from the subject line to the content, and even the formatting. In some cases, they tested as many as 18 variations before choosing one to send out to their subscribers. “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would adopt it,” said the campaign’s email director, Toby Fallsgraff.[1]

They tested everything from mild profanity (“Hell yeah, I like Obamacare”) to extremely terse subject lines (“Hey,” “Wow,” “High five!” “Me again”), to the downright weird (”Sometime soon can we meet for dinner?” “It doesn’t need to be this way,” “You must be at least a little curious”). They even tried “No subject,” which yielded strong results the first time they used it, but was largely ignored after that. Out of all of these, “Hey” yielded the best open rates. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps not, the subject line, “I will be out spent” was the most successful at generating donations, pulling in almost three million dollars.

Obama’s director of digital analytics, Amelia Showalter, was often amazed by which emails yielded the best results. The crew in the marketing department eventually started to bet on which ones would perform well and which would flop. Most of the time they were wrong. It became apparent to Ms. Showalter that trying to run a campaign without split testing would have been a study in futility.

When something worked, they would use it for a while, but usually the novelty wore off quickly and the crew would have to go back to testing to find the next winning Subject Line. The proof of the effectiveness of this technique shows up in the open rate results. The Obama emails had more than twice the open rate Romney’s emails.

The biggest complaint from nearly every quarter was the astounding amount of email sent by the Obama campaign, sometimes as many as ten emails per day. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that more of the Obama campaign’s email got marked as spam—5% compared to Romney’s .08%.[2] It undoubtedly helped Obama that most people recognized that this onslaught of email was a temporary thing, guaranteed to end after November 6th. A retail store trying the same tactic would certainly face a much higher complaint rate. Nonetheless, Toby Fallsgraff paid close attention to the metrics throughout the campaign, making sure that deliverability wasn’t affected. This was no “spray and pray” operation.

Another unexpected hit was profanity. Dropping in mild curse words such as “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare” got big clicks. But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” Amelia Showalter said.[1]

Most of the news article focused on the Obama Team’s use of the A/B split testing of subject lines, but that was only part of the story. They were also using segmentation and dynamic content to make the emails more personal. “There were lots of interesting behavioral and personal markers that we used to make the content more dynamic and relevant for our supporters,” Ms. Showalter said. “[We added] language thanking people for previous volunteer service when putting out a wide call for future volunteer service, for instance. And there was a lot of personalization in the fund-raising emails, of course.”

When it comes to email marketing, Ms. Showalter acknowledged, it is best to leave no stone unturned. “We pretty much tested everything!” She said.

References:

1. The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign E-Mails, by Joshua Green. Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/29/2012

2. The Race for the Inbox, Return Path infographic