CAN-SPAM, Email marketing, Legislation, Personalization, Trends

To IP or Not IP, That is the Question

IP graphic
Internet Protocol (IP) addresses are how the Internet keeps track of who is where. They aren’t necessarily attached to specific email addresses, but they do contain potentially valuable information about a person’s geographic location (although, as we’ll see, this is an imperfect science). It stands to reason that the more information you know about your subscribers, the easier it is to tailor your content to fit their interests, so there is some value in attaching IP information to each email address, but be careful: Where you and your customers reside can affect the legality of this practice.

Using the IP Address

Your computer’s IP address is like a landline telephone. If everyone in a household is using that telephone, then everyone will show up under the same number. Like a telephone number, an IP address can give you a good idea as to where someone is located without showing you the exact address. A search on our own IP, for instance, turns in different results, but they are all in the Bay Area, which is where our headquarters are located. Even with this limitation, an IP address will narrow down the possible location of the subscriber, which can, in turn, help greatly with certain types of marketing.

Dynamic vs. Static

There are two kinds of IP addresses—dynamic and static. Their names suggest exactly what they are. A static IP address is one that never changes. Companies, for instance, will often be use a static IP address to help them send and receive data and allow others to easily log onto their servers. A static IP address is mandatory for certain activities such as VoIP and VPN to ensure stable connections. Individuals might also opt for static addresses if they plan to host a website on a server, or are highly active in the online gaming community.

Dynamic IP addresses are often used for home connections. They are considerably cheaper and the end user doesn’t have to worry about network configuration since this is handled automatically. As one might expect, geolocation is a little more reliable with a static address than a dynamic one, although both have some value here.

Linking IP addresses to the email addresses gives you ability to provide information as to when and where a person opted to receive email from you, eliminating potential claims that your mailings were unsolicited. Some ISPs ask for this information when investigating spam complaints. But there is a big caveat to using this approach: It might be against the law.

IP Addresses and the Law

The legality of linking IP addresses to email addresses changes from country to to country. In some countries, it is perfectly legal, while others see it as a violation of privacy, allowing it only after the subscriber has agreed to let the ESP use that information. In the US, for instance, there is no single, comprehensive federal law regulating the collection and use of personal data. Even if there were, the odds of it being enforced are slim considering that the FTC only brings a handful of cases against emailers to court every year, and most of those are because the products these companies are selling don’t work, rather than privacy breaches or CAN-SPAM violation.

In Canada, which has some of the strictest spam laws on the books, a record of an opt-in is required. Canada has strict rules about what information the government can gather about a person, but the laws concerning the private sector appear less well defined. If businesses aren’t allowed to attach IP information to email addresses, then the verification of subscription becomes a lot harder. This summer, a second aspect of CASL takes effect that lets individuals challenge a company’s email programs, meaning anyone can bring any company to court. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but only time will tell.

In Great Britain, you can collect IP addresses, but you start treading into the danger zone once you connect those IP addresses to individual email accounts. An IP address by itself isn’t considered personal data, but when it’s combined with other information to build a profile of an individual, it suddenly becomes personal data—even if that individual’s name is unknown. You’ll need to get permission from the recipients to do so. This isn’t a big deal., although most British companies use these additional requests for more specific information, such as the location of the recipient’s preferred store.

In most of the rest of Europe, things get even even trickier. In Europe, static IP addresses have been considered personal data for some time now, but on October 19, 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that dynamic IP addresses can also qualify as personal data under EU privacy law. Additionally, the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that collecting and storing IP addresses is in violation of the Personal Data Act.

These laws have been further enforced with the approval of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The regulation was passed by the EU Parliament in April of 2016. Although not specific to email, the regulation does require businesses to keep tight controls on their private data and gives your subscribers the “right to be forgotten.” Any data you have on them needs their approval and they can nix it at any point. This includes their name, photos, email addresses, bank details, posts on social networking websites, medical information, and computer IP addresses. The regulation has a two year grace period before they start cracking down on violators, and applies to any business doing business in the European Union.

The irony here is that by not allowing the ESPs to use this information, it makes it harder to verify when someone not associated with that email address is pranking the actual addressee, making it far more likely for that person to receive spam than they otherwise would.

Over in China they have a completely different take on the matter. As far as they’re concerned, an IP address in isolation isn’t personal data because it’s focused on a computer and not an individual. This reasoning was applied by the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner in a complaint about Yahoo!’s disclosure of information about a journalist to Chinese authorities.

Approach With Caution

So what is the best technique? If your company does no business outside of the United States, and never plans to expand past that country’s borders, IP collection isn’t an issue. If, on the other hand, your clientele is international and you need to stay compliant in several countries, you’re better off either forgetting about collecting IP information, or adding a check box to the sign-in process to verify that the recipient has approved your use of their IP address information. Given the constantly shifting landscapes or laws on this subject. Some type of verification from the users that it’s okay to note their IP addresses is the safest route.

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.

Deliverability, Email marketing, Trends

Watch Out For Typos!

Email typos
Here at Goolara we’ve been seeing a recent rise in a peculiar method of gathering and hijacking information. The basic mechanism isn’t new, but the fact that it’s being used with clickthroughs appears to be a new twist. It is based on exploiting mistyped email addresses by purchasing domain names that are either misspelled or have letters added or removed. You might, for instance, intend to send an email to someone at a Gmail address, but because you typed too quickly, it’s going to “gmial.com” instead; or maybe your finger hit two keys at once, and the mailing is sent to “gmailk.com.” In both cases, the domains are registered and your mail is actually being processed by these sites. To put it another way: That mail you accidentally sent to the wrong address is being received by someone who has intentionally chosen their domain name to take advantage of this mistake. Is that someone you really want to have any of your email data?

This technique, called typosquatting, has long been used to trick people into visiting sites (called domain doppelgangers) that look a lot like the sites they are imitating.1 Most of it disappeared after laws were passed and some successful lawsuits were filed against these pretenders, but the legislation didn’t address the other part of the equation. The law can prevent them from mimicking an existing website, but anyone who has registered one of these domains still has the ability to receive any email sent to it. While a website could be construed as attempted fraud, simply receiving misaddressed email falls into a very gray area. Even this isn’t that new. These fakes sites have always accepted email. The new twist is that they are now apparently clicking on the links in the email they receive.

The Man-in-the-MailBox

It’s hard to know the reasons for these clickthroughs. It’s possible that they are intended to keep the address active and defray suspicion. Or it might be part of more complex scheme, such as the “Man-in-the-MailBox” scam detailed in a report on domain doppelgangers put out in 2011 by Peter Kim and Garret Gee of the Godai Group. In that report, Kim and Gee explained how they set up set up 30 doppelganger accounts for various firms and received 120,000 e-mails in the six-month testing period. Acting as middlemen, they would pass on data to the correct address and then send the information back to the intended recipient. In this way, they accrued 20 GBs of data that included everything from trade secrets to individual passwords.

It is also a method of verifying the links, which can be useful for ascertaining the value of each email address. This may seem like an inefficient way to collect addresses, but the evidence suggests that the processes here are handled primarily by bots, so minimal manpower is required. Like an army of ants, they achieve their goals methodically over time. If you intended, for instance, to send something to a specific address at Gmail, the typosquatter can now figure out the correct address without much difficulty and add it to their list. With the amount of email data passing through the Internet every hour, it is possible to build up a substantial list of names in no time.

Why It’s Important

You might be tempted to ask why this is important? After all, it’s only a few addresses here and there, but there are costs involved. Keep in mind that you’re paying for those addresses, and you’re paying for sending to those addresses. If you’re using an automated system to relay leads to your sales department, then clickthroughs from these sources can cause your sales staff to waste valuable time chasing down these imaginary leads and doing follow-ups that go nowhere.

It is also possible that some of these people are up to things far worse than merely collecting addresses. While many companies don’t accept email responses, some set up their mailings so that they send email replies to specific staff members. You don’t want to put your sales team in a situation where clicking on links from these sources—either accidentally or absentmindedly—lead to bigger problems. It is also worth remembering that these address mistakes simultaneous keep those subscribers from receiving your intended email while opening them up to receive email from these questionable sources.

Protecting Yourself

As you might imagine, protecting yourself against this problem can be tricky. Checking for typos only goes so far, and when your mailing list includes thousands of names, it’s almost impossible to catch them all. In Symphonie, we’ve added logic to the process that identifies and blocks these domains when we encounter them, so you don’t have to worry about the most commonly mistyped addresses. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay on your guard, though. Like rust, these scammers never sleep and they are coming up with new naming variations all the time. Catching these people in that act is a responsibility we all share.

Requiring a double opt-in will help somewhat. Since, in most cases, the email address is initially entered by the subscriber, getting them to verify it will eliminate a lot of the potential for typos. It won’t keep you from accidentally sending the verification email to an incorrect address, but it will help keep that address off your recipient list. The mistyped address still has the potential to end up on scammer’s list, but at least you won’t be sending wasting your time and money sending mailings to them.


1. Technically, there is difference between typosquatting and domain doppelgangers. Typosquatting means a domain that is similar to the intended domain, but is misspelled, while a domain doppelganger will appear almost the same, but with periods either added, removed or misplaced (for instance yourcompanyc.om instead of yourcompany.com).

Deliverability, Email marketing, Trends

Deliverability and Volume Shifting

Deliverability chart 1
Sometimes you might come up against a situation where the perfectly innocuous email you are sending has trouble getting delivered to certain addresses. You may have had no problems sending to that ISP in the past, and the mailing might even be based on a previous design that got through without problems, but suddenly you’re finding your mailings held up and greylisted. When this happens, you’ll want to check your mailing patterns for sharp increases in volume. If you see a spike like the one shown in the picture above, there’s a good chance you’ve uncovered the problem. It is easy enough to avoid, but it might require you to retool your approach to campaign marketing.

The Volume Factor

Besides using keywords, text-to-image ratios, bit.ly link redirects and a myriad of other ways to assess if an email is possible spam, ISPs and other mailbox providers also use your mailing patterns to identify when something’s wrong. If you suddenly decide to send out 100,000 emails, where you have previously been restricting your mailing output to a few thousand, you might find your mailing suddenly throttled way back on its delivery. Sudden spikes like this can cause even well-established companies to experience delivery problems. Email marketing programs that otherwise do not have deliverability issues will see their mailings blocked or greylisted when the volume of delivery jumps suddenly at irregular intervals.

On one level this makes perfect sense. If one day you suddenly saw a fifty-fold increase in traffic to your site, you’d immediately suspect something was wrong. The mailbox service providers react the same way, erring on the side of caution. Of course, if you regularly send 100,000 emails a day, the email provider won’t see anything unusual and will (unless there are other issues) allow your mailing to land in the Inbox.

This isn’t to say you have to send the same number of emails every day, but it does suggest that a little planning goes a long ways. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Don’t be Sporadic

It’s okay to have spikes in your mailings as long as the occur at fairly regular intervals. You may have some problems the first time it happens, but if you do it regularly, most email service providers will adjust and allow more of your email through in the future. The chart shown at the top of this article shows what happens when a once time high-volume mailing arrives at a mailbox provider—alarm bells go off, even if you’ve had no deliverability problems in the past. If the same sender has a pattern of sending large quantities once a week, the odds are better that the mailing will get through.

Deliverability chart 2

Watch Out For Greylists

Provided there are no obvious spam triggering elements in your mailings, then, in all likelihood, emails stopped because the mailing’s been greylisted. In one sense, this is a good thing because it means the email will eventually reach the recipients, but it can also be a very bad thing if that particular mailing is time sensitive. A one-day only, Fourth of July sales announcement won’t do anyone much good if it doesn’t reach the Inbox until July fifth. Be especially careful if you’re planning on time-zone specific emails to arrive exactly when desired. You may want all the email delivered at 10:00, but it’s unlikely to happen.

Caution is always the best approach. Either send it out a little early, or make sure you have a policy in place if the mailing gets delayed. Even this might not help, though. While most ISPs throttle back the delivery of sudden, unexpected sending spikes, some ISPs will block a mailing completely if they feel the sudden spike is suspicious.

No Sudden Moves

Spreading the mailings out over a few days can also help avoid problems associated with a sudden spike in mailings. Then over time, if you keep your mailings on a regular schedule, you can consolidate these mailings into once mass mailing without difficulty. The window for most ISPs is about a month, but even monthly volume spikes will cause problems. A weekly spike has a better chance of getting through. Likewise, a regular pattern, such as every Tuesday, will work better than mailing spikes at random intervals.

You Don’t Have the Last Word

You can get as angry at the mailbox providers as you like, but if they decide to throttle back your time-sensitive emails, there’s not a lot you can do about it. Yelling at your email marketing software provider (ESP) and insisting that they must deliver your mailing when you want them delivered is placing the blame in the wrong place. The mailbox providers hold all the cards, so if they decide to greylist your mailing, there’s not much your ESP can do about it beyond verifying the reasons for the delivery problems. Any changes in tactics will have to come from your side of the equation.

The realities of deliverability cannot be overlooked, they require you to plan your promotional marketing scheduling carefully. If you are not the one in charge of the mailing schedule, you’ll want to make sure that the person who is in charge fully understands the factors involved in deliverability and how to best use the email marketing channel. Would there be a loss if a monthly newsletter was delivered over several days, or split into 25% a week? If not, then you might want to consider parsing the mailings out over a longer period of time, or, if you’ve decided to send more email on a regular basis, ramp up the sending over time.

Large volume mailing without encountering deliverability problems is easily achieved, but it might require you and the management to change your mindset on how you send email. Email clients aren’t going to change the way they do things just for you. You have to change to keep in sync with the way they do things. Make sure you’re consistent above all. If that’s not possible, try spreading out a large send over several hours. This gives the ISPs a chance to verify that your mailing is legit and will help ensure the mailing won’t run into major stoppages.

Design, Personalization, Trends

Coupon Techniques for Email

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

What is a coupon?

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

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

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

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

Online Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-Store Only

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

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

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

The BOPIS Approach

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

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

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

Covering All Bases With BISBO

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

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

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

As Always, It Depends…

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

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

Cloud, Email marketing, Legislation, On-premise, Trends

Privacy, ESPs, Protecting Your Data, and the Law

Who's watching your data?The NSA revelations of last year, the enactment of the Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL) in June, and recent European Commission meetings have brought issues of privacy and national data control to the forefront of the minds of IT professionals and technology users around the world. Although many countries, such as Egypt, UAE, and Malaysia, still have no data privacy laws, most industrialized nations are looking to beef up their data protection regulations as soon as possible. In some cases, this is the result of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA. Brazil didn’t worry much about its data protection policies until President Dilma Rousseff found out that the NSA was tapping her phone. Then the Brazilian Internet Law (Marco Civil da Internet) was quickly passed.

Another trend we’re seeing is the shift in data policies and country borders. In Russia, for instance, a new law was passed by the Duma requiring that the “systematization, accumulation, storage, updating and retrieval of personal data of citizens of the Russian Federation, [must be] held on databases located in the territory of the Russian Federation.” This law takes effect in 2016. Even countries, such as Germany, that already have stricter than average data privacy laws, continue to tighten their laws with new legislation.

International privacy laws

Where’s My Data?

Where once there was very little legislation governing things such as email lists and opt-in verification, countries and states are looking to get tough on data breaches and information mis-use, but this gets a lot harder to do when you don’t know where the data resides.

As anti-spam laws become more stringent, countries such as Canada require that businesses keep subscriber records secure, well-verified, and up-to-date. Recent trends indicate that, if anything, this trend toward great accountability is growing. New York Times Business Correspondent Danny Hakim recently observed that the words “cloud computing” did not appear in the European Commission’s general data protection regulation when it was introduced in 2012, but they do now. “The European Union wants to regulate the cloud even if that makes its use more complicated,” Mr. Hakim wrote. Not everyone in the European Commission supports these regulations, but it demonstrates the extent to which governments are willing to become involved if businesses don’t do a better job of securing their data.

For this reason, a stronger emphasis is being placed on the use of location specific data sources. After all, it’s hard to comply with the laws when you don’t know exactly where your files reside. Armed with this information, country and state authorities can better determine where the problems in the information chain occur, and companies can avoid potential problems by keeping control over the information, rather than turning it over to third parties.

Hopping Off the Cloud

One side effect of this is a decreased interest in cloud-based solutions. In Germany, for instance, cloud grew only three percent in 2013, compared with nine percent the previous year. Oracle, a company that relies heavily on cloud-based solutions, saw a dip in its orders between 2013 and 2014 everywhere except the Americas. In an NPR report, Cisco senior vice president of security Christopher Young acknowledged that this was an issue, especially outside the U.S. “[Y]ou can go to Latin America, you can go to Europe, to Asia, and there’s many examples of customers asking those questions.”

This is quite a change from two years ago, when all the chatter on Internet was about doing things “in the cloud.” Companies bent over backwards to promote their “cloud-based” solutions. Now, we are seeing a shift away from this everything-in-the-cloud approach to a more thoughtful approach. For the low security needs, people still use cloud solutions, but when data security and national laws enter the picture, on-premise (“on-prem”) platforms clearly have an edge.

Keeping the Borders Closed

As Symantec pointed out in a recent article on their site, “[a benefit of] an on-premises delivery model, particularly for organizations with regulatory requirements, would be the twin needs of identifying and securing an organization’s sensitive information. On-premise deployment of these technologies offers capabilities that meet the needs of finding sensitive information where it lives and allowing appropriate access to authorized users. …[On-premise email solutions] permit complete control over the custody of data. … This is a critical consideration in a variety of situations.”

Locked Countries

Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud

On the Journal of International Law and Politics New York Forum (JILP), an Australian author explaining why Australians should use Australian-based cloud system inadvertently explains exactly why people are opting for on-premise systems: “[W]hen you take advantage of locally (in an international sense) based service here in Australia, you’re getting an extra layer of protection. [These] solutions will be governed by Australian law (and not the laws of some other nation)….You’ll never be at the mercy of a foreign government or foreign agent or the changing winds of their security policies – and as an Australian citizen using Australian-based cloud solutions you’ll have a voice in the rules, regulations, and laws governing the security and protection (as well as the enforcement of) those policies moving forward.”

While the JILP author is correct that a cloud-based system within a country’s borders affords that extra layer of state protection, it doesn’t address the problem that comes with any cloud-based system, and that is, you never really know where it is. The service might say it is local, but it could be anywhere. If asked where you data is, the best you can do is wave your hand and say, “It’s out there somewhere.” On-premise has no such limitations. When asked where your data is, you can point directly at your servers and say, “It’s right there.” This kind of locality is hard to beat.

spies in the cloud

Compliance is Not Negotiable

The key here is compliance, legal compliance, that is, and in email marketing, compliance is non-negotiable. As Bill Claybrook points out on TechTarget: “Compliance is viewed as a big obstacle toward widespread cloud adoption, and rightly so. It is driven by law and legislation so there is no choice but to comply.” He also points out that “Some regulations stipulate where sensitive information can and cannot reside.” If that information must reside in the country of origin, then an on-premise email marketing system will settle the matter.

At Goolara we offer both solutions—hosted and on-premise—so we don’t have a dog in this fight. We see the advantages of each system for different purposes. For many companies, particularly those with minimal or shaky IT departments, a hosted solution is usually a better choice, but a company with a strong IT Department and tight security is better keeping things in-house. If you are not sure which solution is best for you, give us a call. We can assess your needs quickly and accurately and give you our recommendation based on your individual business factors.

Design, Email marketing, Trends

Using Animated Gifs in Email

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

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

What’s My Motivation?

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

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

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

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

Hey! Look At Me!

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

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

The Above-the-Fold Advantage

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

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

So That’s How It Works!

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

Generating Buzz

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

Cinemagraphs

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

The First Frame Solution

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

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

Always Split Test

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

Creating Animated Gifs

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

Animated Gifs are a Spice

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