Tag Archives: ASCII

The Past Year in Email

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

Dear your name here,

bad mail merge

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

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

bad mail merge #2

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

merge error

Aw Gee-Mail

Weather error

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

actual weather

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

Time’s a-Wastin’!

jumping the gun

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

Musicians Who are Pushing

snippet cutoff

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

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

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

It’s All Ελληνικά To Me

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

utf errors

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

thinkgeek

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

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

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

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

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

Email Tourette Syndrome

unwanted code

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

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

A Bad Case of Mono

monograms or monographs?

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

monograms

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

Give Me Some Room!

tanga on iphone

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

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

Responsible Responsive

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

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

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

But not so well for the iPad:

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

Unsubscribe? Fuggedaboutit!

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

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

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

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

tl;dr

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

Cinemagraphs

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time

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

Happy New Year!

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!