Adventures in Mobile Marketing

Peer Review: Images Off & Subject Line Testing

Thursday, 28. February 2008 by Anna Billstrom

My review of notes & takeaways continues, from the 2008 MarketingSherpa Email Summit. One of the most rewarding moments was seeing one of my client’s reactivation campaigns in a presentation- which was a surprise- as an example of good design, for taking into account image suppression, and as an example of an email in Windows Live. The talk was by Elias Haslanger of Dell. In the past, I’ve written about Dell emails with images off- here’s a sample of one, which excels in various ways.

From his talk, these are his recommendations on managing image suppression (full slide set here):
- Email template remains intact with images off
- Action-oriented alternative text with clickable images
- Include click-to-view link at top
- Creative should balance text and images
- No background images
- Use images with discretion
- Keep it under 70K
- Test on all ISPs (webmails, clients, etc.)

Things I would add:
- Simple layout: limited images, limited bullets as images, and spacer GIFs (blank images used for layout)
- Simple, direct alternative text (lately companies have been putting whole paragraphs in there!)
- Use of HTML colors and background colors to convey brand and design (instead of relying solely on images)
- And something I learned in this talk- putting two text-only offers in the header, to push sales even if images don’t load

I received two versions of the KodakGallery email campaign that Elias snipped for his presentation, in Gmail and Yahoo. Note the differences, and various strategies we’re using:

KodakGallery Gmail

KodakGallery in Gmail

KodakGallery in Yahoo BETA
KodakGallery in Yahoo

- We also have a “add to address book” and a “click to view HTML”- both of which are redundant with Gmail (currently – 02/08), but in the Yahoo version you see that it’s necessary.
- We have colored background boxes to set apart some of our layout.
- Branding, and relevant offer content all in the preview pane
- We make a choice either to put headlines in images for font control, or use text, and alternative text. We’re still grappling with balancing design and image suppression requirements
- We could improve- like Dell has- and remove the link underlining with CSS (text-decoration: none) and using ASCII marks for bullets (“-” or “<" or other interesting, available ASCII characters)
- With images off, it looks like we haven't created alternative text for that main banner image, and we could add a descriptive, but it is usually a landscape, or cityscape photo. Read on for Elias' comments on this piece.

In all, our preview pane content is broken up and shown in text, which conveys a teaser to our content and an intriguing reason to either approve our images or click through to view in a web site.

In the talk, Elias used our email to show how Windows LIVE displays a "safe/unsafe" mode to messages and the link to view in a web page, as well as "add to address book." Another, thing I've seen lately, in an eHarmony email (sorry I've deleted it!) is to target your customers by their domain and email them specifically asking to be added, and how to do it.

KodakGallery in WindowsLive

When our email went on the huge screen, I didn’t recognize it as one of ours, and instead was just focusing on those darned bullet GIFs. Then my colleague elbows me, a couple of times, and pointed at the screen. Finally I figured out it was one of our campaigns, and we were joking that through the segmentation we could tell Elias’ recent un-responsiveness to our email campaigns. After the talk, Elias mentioned that what stuck out for him in this campaign wasn’t the management of design and image suppression, but our subject line.

Small Victory: Subject Line Testing
Sometimes you have a good idea, and sometimes you just have to test. We setup this very low-cost campaign with recycled content, a newsletter, and then tested about 10 different subject lines on a sample set of the total drop. The highest performing was the one shown above “Is it something we said?” (My submission was, “Hello? Tap, tap, tap”… too subtle perhaps.) then we dropped the rest of the campaign with the winner. Elias said, “This subject line made waves- people were forwarding it around.” Better words couldn’t have been heard! We replied that we were pretty amazed at the metrics that we got back from this campaign, as we basically hadn’t been expecting much, and these segments were generally write-offs. So it just goes to show that the “long tail” can have big rewards.

EmailSummit: Hallway Conversations

Thursday, 28. February 2008 by Anna Billstrom

First: click over to Tamara Gielen’s photoset on Flickr of conference photos. It was very fun meeting Tamara and putting a face to an online presence! She does a round-up of conference blog posts on her blog, BeRelevant!, if you want to read more.

You know the best bits of conferences (MarketingSherpa’s Email Summit 2008) are the random conversations you have in the hallway or the connections you make accidentally- who is in line behind you at the coffee urn, or stranded with you at the baggage terminal. Here are some highlights, and interesting too in a social science element of “what people are talking about.”

- Lively discussion with Stefan Pollard, all-around expert and writer for ClickZ (great post he wrote, recently here), about that lovely conversation you have with clients sometimes about why transactional emails and segmentation work. We were chastised for talking “about work” by the other email marketers at the table, but I really enjoyed talking with him, someone who I have loved reading online.

- Another lively discussion (see a pattern?) with a fellow- who I exchanged business cards with but can’t remember!- about the implementation of CAN-SPAM and changes in the industry, as well as my favorite topic, the “anti-click” metric, when you can track folks who click through an email with images off, as in, no open record is associated with the click record.

- As I’m getting out of the plane, notice another attendant and we start talking about their RFP, big ESP vendors in the space, and others corporations that were shuffling around getting dinners out (winner of the prize of expensive dinners that trip was a $2,000 one, including $60/ounce Kobe steak. Wow. I was not the diner in that scenario, needless to say. The best deal I saw was Little Havana beer & empanadas for 3 for under $20.)

- Conversation with Dell email marketer and presenter Elias Haslanger about images off, working with creative groups on the delicate balance of managing suppression and having a great looking email, and retail email design challenges as compared to other companies at the talk. Also, of course very happy that he used KodakGallery’s emails as an example of successful examples of how to manage email suppression.

- Ongoing conversations with presenters, vendors and colleagues about managing AOL users, sender reputation, and challenges in approaching and communicating with that segment.

- The Question & Answer periods of most conferences were some of the best content, and I tried to capture them in my recaps. Sorry for blogging so late- expect a few more coming out today! I’m really glad my mom taught me to type fast enough to simultaneously transcribe, only problem now is reading my shorthand speak!

Manipulating Email Text to Leverage SEO

Friday, 04. January 2008 by Anna Billstrom

I’ve been getting renewed traffic to my article on Barack Obama’s text-only fundraising plea after his win in the Iowa Caucus. This morning, while reading Mark Brownlow’s update on the Email Standards Project today, Mark notes that even though we’ve got some ground with the ESP, images are still an issue.

One of the key elements of that fund-raising email was not that images weren’t there- it’s the extra dimensionality they chose to use with text. That email used SEO methodology. SEO is Search Engine Methodology. It’s understanding that your email will be seen in a web browser, probably by a mail provided by one of the major search engines that leverage keywords. So if your email says “Hilary this” and “Hilary that” you will get ads for Hilary Clinton on the right hand bar of your email. Instead, focus on a few key messages and reiterate them in different word choices- of course make your email as readable and succinct as possible- all of the usual good email marketing tips. But keep an attention to the fact that your text (not images) can be also re-purposed as search keyword criteria.

Rich Image Emails and Images-Off Compliance: It’s Possible.

Monday, 26. November 2007 by Anna Billstrom

I’ve noticed a trend of retailers actually maintaining image-rich emails with little or no compliance with images-off. That means, without images loaded, the email is blank (See two case studies here and here.) These are smart marketers with otherwise advanced internal systems and resources, so why are they ignoring this? I have a suspicion that folks think that it’s a one-way street to comply with images-off. That they’ll have to seriously reduce the richness of the email design to be visible to consumers that haven’t entirely trusted their brand and communiques.

Well, it’s not true. I’m going to take the email designs highlighted in this post by Lisa Harmon on Email Experience Blog, where she notes very beautiful product shots. I’m going to show how you can easily translate these designs to images-off, and thus increase click-throughs and opens. The reason to bring these potential consumers into the fold is just that- they are new customers to you. They either have newly subscribed, or just started receiving emails from a purchase. As anyone with CRM flow in mind will know, it’s critical to get these folks onboard early, and show them a professional, well-designed introduction to your company. Thanks to Mark Brownlow for querying just this issue in his post, “Is an Image Rich Email So Bad”:

I can’t be certain, but I’m sure all the highlighted emails look pretty uninspiring if images are blocked. Yet…I’m equally sure that the folk behind these campaigns are perfectly aware of image blocking issues.

To start, Sephora.


- I would focus on the preview pane area, which is this:


- This layout can be converted to HTML very easily, by simply creating HTML table and CSS inline font styles.
- The main graphic below this should have the coupon code, or a crafty teaser message “Reveal images to show your coupon offer!”

Second email: Williams Sonoma

I’ve written about them before, and their calendar needed some help, mostly because broken images all over the design made it look cluttered. In this example, which is similar to Red Envelope’s multiple product grid, a simple alt text describing each gift, would lend a lot of readability to those with images-off. I don’t actually doubt that Sonoma is doing this, since their compliance is usually quite good.

(Note, I did not receive these emails, I am basing my review on Harmon’s post.)


This could easily be converted to images-off compliance by again
- Focusing on the preview pane area
- Using HTML tables and inline CSS to reflect the design.
- Simple alt text that reiterates the tagline; “Six inspired ways to shop for everyone on your list” along with the brand and coupon or offer.

Third Case: Macy’s

I have been receiving Macy’s emails, which arrive every day. So my first comment is to limit the frequency, or they will fatigue the subscribes. As for images-off compliance, they are doing very little. I would recommend:

- Usually I don’t do this, but I would suggest having the creative folks sit down with some HTML engineers and go over the pros and cons of this kind of design, namely, having the images above the copy on the left hand side. I wonder if people are scrolling down past the preview pane to view it. I wonder if they have metrics to show clickthroughs on various asset pieces. They could probably work through a few compromises that please both sides, and allow for better rendering, images off compliance, and quicker adoption and conversion by new customers (with images suppressed).
- The font of the main copy block is very hard to read. Usual publishing technique is to use a serif font for the copy block, and nothing too distinct or fancy. This design violates that, and I believe it affects the readability. If you do go to a “normal” or user-determined font, that should be in HTML, not in an image. By freeing up this copy block, it becomes visible in images-off situation, which is prime. So why don’t more designers free the copy from the image? Because they lose layout control. So again, sit down with the HTML programmers and figure out a compromise.
- All of that preview pane branding could be HTML (it’s not currently). It would show the new customers brand immediately, and help with adoption of new subscribers
- Re-consolidate all of that preview pane branding. Macy’s, and Coach, are taking up critical real estate with white space and menus rendered with the wrong font size (too big). This could be more effectively redesigned (see Eddie Bauer’s change as documented by Chad White at RetailEmail blog).

Case: J Crew


This is a pretty simple design, which means images-off compliance should be easy.
- Focus on the preview pane
- Include company branding
- Alt text contains the main marketing message, with teaser to download “Very Merry Gift Shop- Holiday gift ideas!” or something similar.
- No need to break up this image, it’s fine as a single download.

Images Off: Case Study, Macy’s

Tuesday, 13. November 2007 by Anna Billstrom

The issues here are:
- It’s not a good idea to repeat the same alt-tag for each image. The user can see each of these repetitions, so it looks clumsy and ill-planned. Each image should be a different message and incentive to motivate the user to load images, as well as basically describe the image.
- Because of the messaging in the alt-text, which is essentially the subject line, they didn’t take this opportunity to leverage adwords, thus the SEO is off the mark. When loaded in Gmail, the ads are largely irrelevant. (See ads to the right here) Macy’s loses the extra acreage they could have controlled.
- This message is 100% image. I know retailers like to do heavy image emails, but I’m wondering if they know how this effects deliverability? Including more text messages and integrating that into the entire design of the email increases the chances of deliverability, as well as making the email more coherent to users that have images suppressed.

Images Off: Case Study, Toys R Us

Sunday, 11. November 2007 by Anna Billstrom


The problems here? No Alt text to describe the images if someone should want to download. There’s no leveraging SEO methodology so that webmail browsers show relevant links and ads to the right. The design is image-heavy, which not only is a spam trigger, but also shows nothing to image-off users above the preview pane.

Other relevant articles:
- Designing for Web Emails
- Images Off: Unfortunately, It’s the First Impression
- Images Off, other posts on image suppression

(This is going to be a series of case studies on how retailer and major corporations send emails with poor image suppression handling.)

Transactional Emails, Cinderellas of Marketing?

Tuesday, 07. August 2007 by Anna Billstrom

Small Amazon Confirmation

So above is an example of the Amazon confirmation I got earlier today. A couple of things rock about this email:

- It’s image-suppressed, but you wouldn’t know because it’s designed so well! Background table colors, one image that is broken, but it’s not predominant in any way. The blank spots are where I deleted personal information.

- The subtle credit card offer
Amazon Offer

- It’s transactional- I’m going to click and open this because I want to make sure my order is OK. In fact, I’m probably going to read this email in far more detail than any other email I received today. So it’s already captured my interest.

In my opinion transactional emails are the Cinderellas of Marketing departments. Since they’re behind-the-scenes and largely unglamorous, they rarely get talked about. Yet, their response rates, sometimes maxing 40-50%, are so far superior than usual holiday, or offer-based email campaigns. So these chug along making money, but rarely get the make-overs or attention that the stepsisters get. I think figuring out good behavioral points to propose quality offers in the consumer cycle is the going to be the future of good email marketing.

You need to respect that a predominant percentage of the message in this email is transactional and not promotional to comply with CAN-SPAM, and for general common sense. You don’t want to piss off the consumer by upselling without imparting the basic information. Also, Amazon didn’t check to see that I had this VISA, therefore it wasn’t as targeted as it could be.

10 Images Off- 2 Weeks Later

Tuesday, 31. July 2007 by Anna Billstrom

Revisiting the same retail/corporate emails that I profiled in “10 images off”. Have they cleaned up their act? Also, some surprises from top retailers. Eddie Bauer, Peets’, Red Envelope, Gap, Barnes & Noble, Fandango, Avis. Some new samples & surprises: Dell, Amazon, & Twitter. Note- Discovery isn’t covered because they haven’t sent me anything.

The top methods of managing Image Suppression in design:
- Less image dependence in the overall design (say it with words!)
- Good alt tag strategy- entice and describe, briefly
- Lift text to the top of the fold- make sure folks see your offer
- Use html tables with background text color and CSS inline text color
More posts on Image Suppression.

1. Coit Liquor
I removed them because the point I was making was evidenced this week by another company.

2. Eddie Bauer: the Good Got Better

Then: Great

Mixed Text and Image Sample

Now: Greater

Eddie now

I wasn’t sure they could improve- but they did! Nice HTML table, inline CSS font styling. Also, note the images that are off don’t dominate the message of the HTML. New font styling on the headline lends it more predominance.

3. Peets

Then: Great Mixed-Use


Now: OK

Peets now

Partially because my browser was stretched out larger, I couldn’t see the copy below the main promotional image. So they should probably tighten up that layout to let the text float higher. I think it would just cover more bases. I still really like the palate and use of HTML table colors.

4. Red Envelope: Different Approach- still Mediocre


Red Envelope


Red Envelope now

Before it had a mysterious subject line and mysterious alt-text. Now, they are more descriptive in their alt-text, but overall still very dependent on images in their design, and very little text comes through above the fold.

5. Avis: Worse

Then: So-So


Now: Less ALT Tags

Avis now
Before, I commented on their use of spacer GIFs, and muddled multiple offers. This time, they changed their template, to remove alt-text from the main promotional image.

6. Gap: Still Struggling

Then: Behind


Now: Slightly Better

Gap Now

Still the alt-text is in all caps, but at least with the image on the right they mixed it up a little. Also very image dependent, and no text or offer information. All image menu header, though using alt-text, looks cluttered with images suppressed.

7. Fandango: Worse

Fandango Sample

Fandango Now

Got a little worse. In the first email they knew my name. In the second they stopped personalization with a simple “Hello!”. I do still like the bulleted text above the fold and the colored HTML tables.

8. Barnes & Noble: Staying Strong
Then: Strong
Barnes & Noble

Now: Still Strong
Barnes and Noble Now

My impression- and leave a comment if you disagree- is that their template is really quite good.

New Samples & Surprises

6. Dell: Innovative
Dell Now

What a great creative way to sell using HTML and colored text. It’s really great.

6. Amazon: Missed the Boat
Amazon final

Not so great. Their usual emails are far better, but this one-off promotional one that I got today doesn’t use alt tags, and relies far too heavily on images.

8. Twitter: Alternative
Twitter Now

Interesting some of the companies that decide to email just in text. I wonder if someone can do a metrics tests showing a 50% split on text versus HTML in the current climate of image suppression, and also with segmentation on the user’s email account- yahoo, gmail, etc. I wonder if the click % would be the same. The common rule is that text emails just don’t get the kind of clickthrough that HTML emails experience, but maybe times are changing, especially for certain verticals?

Email HTML Calendars

Thursday, 26. July 2007 by Anna Billstrom

In my inbox today I got two very different companies sending the same kind of email: Williams-Sonoma and Ticketmaster both included an HTML calendar in their newsletter. For Williams-Sonoma, culinary sessions in their downtown SF store, Ticketmaster showing me nearby band dates. I love the calendar- it’s great for people who like information in diagrams, and personalizing to my regional area is very appreciated, but the technical design technique Williams-Sonoma used was all wrong.

In Gmail, Ticketmaster’s rendered so well I had to keep checking that it was Gmail. The most restricted webmail out there, yet Ticketmaster really embraced the challenge and created a great-looking calendar.

In Yahoo Beta, Williams-Sonoma didn’t render so well with all of thsoe broken images in each day of the calendar. Are images really necessary in a calendar? Are there going to be pictures of a chicken leg for the chicken preparation class?

Williams-Sonoma: Yahoo Beta! Sample with images blocked.
Williams-Sonoma, images blocked

Ticketmaster: Gmail, with images blocked.
TicketMaster calendar images blocked

Designing for Web Emails: Outlook Web Access

Wednesday, 25. July 2007 by Anna Billstrom

(continuation of article here: “Designing for Web Emails”) Outlook Access for Web (OWA) merited a completely new post, as it behaves differently on PCs than Macs. I took three screen shots of the same, consistent template sent to the same account, accessed by PC and Mac, and via Firefox and IE 6.0.

Mac & Firefox
Mac OS X and Firefox 2

Images blocked:
Outlook Blocked

Images loaded:
Outlook rendered

On Firefox & the Mac, the images are blocked and CSS blocked. When loaded into the email post window, the CSS is still blocked and does not render. Note: the user can link out to a web page to view the rendered message perfectly. I believe this is a way of “securing insecure content”. See below for how this works on a PC and in a more native environment.


Outlook Web Access (OWA) loaded

On the PC, there is a pop-up box asking if “secure and insecure content” should be loaded. When accepted, the entire message renders well (limited CSS in TD tags, a table, and an external image).

Status on Outlook Compatibilities with HTML and CSS
In January it was all over the news about Microsoft regressing and using Word’s inferior HTML rendering engine The list of incompatibilities, lifted from this SitePoint article by Kevin Yank, are:

* no support for background images (HTML or CSS)
* no support for forms
* no support for Flash, or other plugins
* no support for CSS floats
* no support for replacing bullets with images in unordered lists
* no support for CSS positioning
* no support for animated GIFs

My template doesn’t use any of those elements, so it has proven its durability with OWA. The key to having a template work across all of the webmail browsers is to use the lowest common denominator- and at this point, I believe Gmail has beat out Outlook significantly.

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