Category Archives: 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.

Using Animated Gifs in Email

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

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

What’s My Motivation?

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

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

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

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

Hey! Look At Me!

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

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

The Above-the-Fold Advantage

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

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

So That’s How It Works!

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

Generating Buzz

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

Cinemagraphs

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

The First Frame Solution

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

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

Always Split Test

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

Creating Animated Gifs

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

Animated Gifs are a Spice

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

Gmail Insights: Designing Images for the Gmail Promotions Grid

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Grid View image

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

Needs grid view image

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

An actual email

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

Fixed for grid view

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

Grid View Images = Reader’s Digest

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

Needs work

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

Actual email contents

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

Fixed display

Imaging Text

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

text-based panel

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

whenonlymytesthasimage-rev

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

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

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

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

No image, just text

Size Matters

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

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

grid template

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

too wide

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

final panel

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

smaller image in place

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

Adjusted for size

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

More to Come…

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

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

 

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

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:

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

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):

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/EmailMessage">
   <div itemprop="publisher" itemscope 
      itemtype="http://schema.org/Organization">
      <meta itemprop="name" content="Company Name"/>
      <link itemprop="url" 
         href="http://www.companyname.com"/>
      <link itemprop="url/googlePlus" 
         href="https://plus.google.com/+CompanyName"/>
   </div>
  <div itemprop="about" itemscope 
       itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
     <link itemprop="image" 
        href="http://www.example.com/product_image.jpg"/>
     </div>
</div>

Since the image in this case is coming directly from the provided href URL, the chosen image is not required to appear in the email. You could use an entirely different image, or, more logically, a modified version of an image from the email that is better suited to the grid display. The most powerful feature of the Promotions Grid—for the marketers at least—is the ability to use images that are specifically designed for the grid display without affecting the layout of your email. This opens up a whole new aspect to email marketing that, if other email clients follow Google’s lead, may result in an important change in email design.

The Visual Hook

In the past, the subject line was always the most important first element in an email. If the subject line didn’t compel the recipient to open the email, then it didn’t matter how good the content was, it would go unread. Coming in a close second in terms of importance was the From address, which is displayed either above or to the left of the subject line in most email clients. In the list version of the Gmail promotional tab, reading left to right, the From address is first, followed by the subject, and, if there is any room left for it, a snippet from the email contents (see The Complete Preheaders and Snippets Tutorial for more information on snippets and how to control their display).

List view

When reading text, our eyes naturally travel from left to right. The From address and the Subject line are given the same weight, and thus the same value, but it is still the subject line that compels us. The From line may help us decide whether or not we want to open an email, but the Subject Line is still the hook. Now here is the same email in the grid view:

display version

It important to remember that this image was not made with the Gmail grid in mind (in fact, many of ThinkGeek’s emails are appearing in the Promotions tab without any images at all). Gmail looks for the largest image in the mailings and scales that image proportionally, then it displays the image from the top if the height is greater than the width, or centers it if the width is greater than the height. In this example, the height is greater than the width so the bottom of the image is cropped off. In spite of it, the image does a good job of imparting the most important information in the email. Reading from left to right is no longer an option, so the brain automatically categorizes the information, giving the elements the following levels of importance:

  1. Large image
  2. From address
  3. Google Plus profile picture
  4. Subject line

Technically, the Google Plus image and the From address are about the same weight visually, but your eye is still more likely to hit the From address first unless the Google Plus image is particularly striking (and if you haven’t verified your Google Plus page, now is a good time to do so). This means that the Subject line, which used to be the most important piece of introductory information in an email now resides in fourth place.

With the visual grid, in other words, the image is the hook, not the subject line. This is not to say that the subject line is no longer important, it is. It is still the hook in every other email client out there, and for anyone who opts out of the grid display in Gmail, but it does create something new for the email marketer to consider when putting together mailings. Since the grid view does not automatically expect the display image to be taken from the email’s contents, we recommend using this feature to create your own grid view images.

The Grid View Image

So why create a grid view image? After all, with a little care and forethought won’t your primary image serve the purpose? Yes, in some cases it can, but most of the time the images are there to serve a different purpose. In the first place, it is not always possible to assign the most useful image to the first position. Take this example from Dot & Bo:

grid view and email

The image that is displayed is in the most logical position in terms of the email content, but it does nothing for the grid view. In fact, nearly every other image in this email would have been better to get across the fact that Dot & Bo sells furniture for the home and apartment. Of course, Dot & Bo could have completely redesigned their email with the Gmail Grid View in mind, but why bother? A couple lines of code would have solved the problem.

Managing Grid View Images

You may not want to spend too much time working on images that will only appear in one email client, but if your email is either primarily text, or it does not contain specific images that lend themselves to promotion, you might want to consider creating an image specifically for the grid view. This is one of the biggest changes to hit the email marketing field in years, and you are going to want to take full advantage of this powerful new feature. You won’t want to miss our next article, where we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of grid view design, demonstrating examples with quick and effective makeovers of real world mailings.

Gmail Insights: What’s Behind Google’s Gmail Image Caching?

Google Gmail caching

Google certainly likes to tinker with Gmail. Last summer, they added tabs to the Gmail inbox, which some people predicted would lead to massive declines in opens and engagement and signal the eventual demise of email marketing, if not the entire western world. On this blog, we predicted that the fear of the Gmail tabs was overblown and that good, engaging subject lines and content would prevail. We’re happy to report that the statistics appear to bear this out. While some ESPs have reported slight drops in open rates, most, Goolara included, have seen little or no impact from the addition of tabs.

Then in December of 2013, Google threw another wrench into the works in the form of image caching. Now, any image in an email is served through Google’s own image proxy servers, and are transcoded before they are sent. So if your image URL in your email is this:

https://BusinessDoman.com/emailName/image.jpg

Gmail will replace it with a cached version of the image using a URL that looks something like this:

https://ci4.googleusercontent.com/proxy/v9mmAKvXPJRqZDvsFQYZvcnnM96a1DadPf3OB9Qmz5c-gNudNHYd8HGIxyTY34HrqZKiw3mLXVi608hMy1Vph5IR1_DNGybsE=s0-d-e1-ft#https://BusinessDoman.com/emailName/image.jpg

In other words, the images in that email are no longer coming from you—they are coming from Google. This isn’t anything new to email clients. Outlook.com and Yandex already cache images and have done so for a while. Given the response in the email marketing community to Google’s announcement, it is curious to see how little attention was paid when Outlook.com started caching images.

So how serious is this change? We’ve been testing emails with it over the past few weeks, and what we found did not make us happy. Here are our findings and conclusions.

Image Requests as a False Metric

At the same time that Google started caching images, they switched from a default of images turned off, to a default that displays images upon opening an email. As a result, the January stats for Gmail showed a marked uptick in the email client’s use. One source reported a 243% increase in Gmail opens. Of course, an email platform that opens images by default is going to return higher open rates than one that defaults to images turned off. The same source reported last summer that nearly two-thirds of all email was being opened on iPhones. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see there’s something wrong with that figure. Figures like this make email marketers happy, but it would be a mistake to put too much stock in them. Your Click Through Rate (CTR) is still a better metric for measuring actual engagement.

We were initially worried that Google’s new caching approach would create a situation where only the first open and the first link address would be recorded, but a test send revealed this not to be the case. If you send out three thousand emails, you’ll receive the correct number of opens. Where the metrics fall down is when it comes to the subsequent opens. These aren’t recorded, but reopens are notoriously misleading numbers when it comes to determining recipient engagement.

A bigger problem with Google’s caching approach is how it affects image replacement. In the past, if you sent an email with a problem image, you could replace that image on your server and any subsequent opens would see the new image. Now that Google is caching the images, this is no longer always true. Emails that were opened more than an hour after an image was replaced on the server fared okay, but emails that were opened within a few minutes after the image was replaced did not reflect the changes. Google does appear to replace modified images, but they do it in their own sweet time, which is bad news for marketers.

Where in World Are You?

One metric that is severely curtailed by Google’s image caching is the ability to geolocate a recipient based on the IP address. Any attempt to do so will return Google’s Mountain View headquarters. This is because it was Google, in fact, that requested the image. Our investigation shows that two separate and unrelated email addresses receive the same cached image and it is only on the first open that the image is requested from the sender’s server.

Information about the location of a user (based on their IP address), as well as information about the devices used to read the email (iPhone, tablet, desktop application, etc.) is rarely useful on an individual basis, but can be quite interesting in aggregate. Knowing that Sam Jones once used an iPhone to open an email while in Boston isn’t terribly useful, but knowing what percentage of users are opening with mobile devices is quite useful, and knowing where the bulk of your users are located around the world can help you determine how regional your content offers should be. Unfortunately, Google has now removed this information. It is still available for clickthroughs, as Google and others have not yet re-written these to go to Google’s proxy servers, but that’s not to say it won’t happen in the future.

Once is Enough

An aspect of Google’s new caching technique that has some email marketers up in arms is the fact that it completely eliminates any data on reopens. Once the image is on Google’s server, if an email is opened a second time, this fact is known only to Google. In truth, the value of the second open is questionable. Deleting adjacent emails and any accidental clicking of the email are treated as additional opens, but have little value in terms of engagement. The clickthrough rate is a more important number and fortunately for marketers everywhere, Google hasn’t found a way to take that away from the ESP metrics.

One interesting side effect we’ve noticed is that email senders with slow servers are getting a boost in content delivery thanks to Google’s Content Delivery Network (CDN). Retail senders such as Anne Taylor and Fab are showing noticeably faster image load times in Gmail than in our other email clients. On the other hand, companies that use third-party CDNs, such as Akami, CacheFly, and Amazon Web Services no longer have the speed advantage here when it comes to displaying images in Gmail. As to whether this is enough of an issue to affect the bottom lines at these CDNs, that remains to be seen, but it is doubtful. There are still plenty of other people out there using email viewing platforms other than Gmail.

All Your Data Are Belong to Us

So why is Google doing this? Google’s official explanation of the reason for this change is that “some senders try to use externally linked images in harmful ways.” They don’t explain exactly what they mean by this. They simply say it and assume we will nod in agreement. “Senders can’t use image loading to get information like your IP address or location,” which is true enough, but exactly why this is bad thing is not explained. They go on to say that this new approach will help avoid unwanted cookies, malware, and viruses.

“We’re just doing it to help you,” Google seems to be saying. “We have no other motive.” But let’s look at what Google had to do to get this up and running. With over 450 million active users, this isn’t a minor undertaking. First they had to set up proxy servers—many terabytes worth—to cache all these images. Then they had to devote time to coding the procedures that rewrite the URLs to send image requests to their servers, which normally means hours of testing, debugging, and retesting. That’s a lot of work. Clearly there has to be a benefit for Google.

It’s true that improving customer service is always good policy, but an important fact omitted from Google’s rationale is that data such as the IP addresses and the geolocations don’t magically disappear when Google caches the image. The sender may no longer get this data, but Google certainly does. What Google plans to do with this information remains to be seen. Google has already shown a tendency to take the long view on things, so we may not find out the reasons right away, but it would be naive to think that Google doesn’t plan to use this data.

Addendum: Perhaps in response to the complaints from ESPs about their new caching policy, Google quietly updated their Gmail system, allowing you to override the caching by including no-cache information in the image header:

Cache-Control: no-cache max-age=0

Some ESPs have already implemented this, and some have not. While this does help the ESPs track the number of opens a mailing will have, it doesn’t address the main downsides to Google’s new policy. The image request still comes from Google, not the recipient, so any information about recipient’s location or the device upon which the email was opened remains unknown to the sender. As far as anyone can tell, Google requested the image and it was sent to their servers in Mountain View. Whether Google will allow this information to be passed on to the ESPs at some future date remains to be seen. For now, that information belongs to Google and they’re not sharing it.

2013: The Year in Email

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

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

Alt Tag Fun

Ya’ got something against “T”s?

Alt tag goof

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

No alt tags

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

weak alt tags

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

Good alt tags

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

You’re using an image because…?

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

wordy alt tag

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

Delivery Problems

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

Text still rules

Bad image display

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

WOT the heck?

WOT effect on display

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

Subject Line & Sender Disasters

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

Call me dyslexic

This piece of email came from Digital Marketing News:

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

Who is ANSI_X3.4-1968 anyway?

ANSI text issue

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

We care, now go away!

Do Not Reply

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

The Linkin’ Logs

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

Look at this! Now try to find it!

Inaccurate links

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

No links

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

No links

Alignment Issues

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

Why did the web designer leave the restaurant?

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

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

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

Misalignment #1

Misalignment #2

Misalignment #3

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

Microsoft strikes again

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

Oversized empty window

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

With images displayed

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

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is

Practice what you preach.

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

Ending on a Good Note

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

Thanks for Subscribing

Thanks for subscribing

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

Beyond Mosaics

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

Valentine's Day

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

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

Happy Birthday!

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

animated gifNice work Pizza Express.

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

HAPPY NEW YEAR!