Category Archives: 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.

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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.

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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.

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Gmail Insights: Designing Images for the Gmail Promotions Grid

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Grid View image

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

Needs grid view image

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

An actual email

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

Fixed for grid view

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

Grid View Images = Reader’s Digest

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

Needs work

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

Actual email contents

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

Fixed display

Imaging Text

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

text-based panel

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

whenonlymytesthasimage-rev

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

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

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

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

No image, just text

Size Matters

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

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

grid template

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

too wide

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

final panel

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

smaller image in place

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

Adjusted for size

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

More to Come…

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

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

 

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

Gmail Insights: The New Promotional Email Grid View

Gmail grid viewUpdate: As of April 17, 2015, Google has discontinued the Grid View in Gmail.

Google is currently beta testing a new visual interface for the Promotions tab in Gmail that could revolutionize the way people interact with promotional email. If it is implemented in its current configuration, it will offer savvy email marketers a whole new way to get their messages across. Right now, its most impressive feature remains untapped. In the next two articles, we’ll talk about how you can use this feature to ensure higher open rates and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Last summer, Google introduced tabs to Gmail, segregating promotional mailings from email updates, forum notices, and the emails sent by friends. This change did not sit well with marketers, and many have tried to get around it by asking their recipients to please move their mailings from the promotions tab to the primary tab in hopes that this improves the chances for their emails to be opened.

Then Google started caching every email image. Although you still get information on open rates, things like multiple opens, geolocation, and viewing times no longer track back to the recipient. We speculated that it was part of an effort to control more of the data that passes through their servers. While we still stand behind that assessment, it appears that Google had something even more elaborate in mind.

Promotions Grid View

It is currently in beta, but when the Promotions Grid View is turned on, you’ll see your email in a visual grid. An image from the email is chosen for display and is scaled to fit. Your Google Plus icon appears in a small square at the bottom right of the image. It is probably not coincidental that the view grid bears a strong resemblance to the Pinterest interface. They have also added a button in the upper right corner of the tab that lets you toggle back and forth between the old list view and the new grid view. Every element of the list view is displayed in the grid view, but it is rearranged and, in some cases, dramatically resized in relationship to the other elements.

With the introduction of the grid view, there are now advantages in having one’s mailings land in the Promotions tab. As Facebook and Pinterest have proven time and again, an enticing image can lead to clicks. Whether or not marketers use this new feature wisely remains to be seen. At some point, it’s inevitable that some fringe-dwelling marketer will start using pictures of kittens to promote their products.

Email or Ad?

When Google introduced the Tabs last summer, one of the first things people noticed was that the ads, which were previously segregated above the email content, were now included at the top of the email list in the Promotions tab. They are identified as ads, and they are given a light beige background, but the fact they are within the Promotions tab made some cry foul. For those people, the new grid view is only going to make them angrier.

Ad example

With the grid view, the ads are still placed as the first item in the list, they are still identified as ads in the upper left corner, and they still have a light beige background; but, as you can see from the image above, once you add images to the mix, these things get harder to distinguish, unless you know what you’re looking for. The first panel on the left is an ad. The middle panel is not an ad, but has been selected, which gives it a light yellow background. It is possible that once people get used to the interface, the ads will become more automatically identifiable and will be no longer considered duplicitous. It is also worth noting that the grid view always limits the ad display to one square, whereas the list view may contain more.

The Voodoo Grid

If an email that does not have an image specified for the grid display, Gmail will choose an image based on several variables. If it can’t find an image that matches the required variables, it will display either the alt text, or the first text in the mailing. According the specifications listed on the Google developer’s website, the grid prefers an image size of at least 580 × 400 pixels, but the grid display will accept anything down to 233 × 161 pixels. In some cases, if an image’s width is too much greater than its height (an image that is 750 × 161 pixels, for instance), the image won’t display even if both dimensions fall within the limits. If an image doesn’t have both width and height information for the image, Gmail may ignore it completely. There are several other idiosyncrasies that can affect an image’s display. Justin Khoo at FreshInbox has done a good job of cataloging these on his blog.

Choosing an Image

Fortunately, you don’t have to leave things up to chance. Google lets you choose which image to display in its Promo tab, and this is where things get interesting. To select an image for display, you can insert a bit of code into your email that tells Gmail where to find that image:

  

Insert this either before or after the email’s contents. If you prefer, you can use the longer version, which includes information about your company and your Google Plus address (more on this later):