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Innovation Within Email Marketing: Fighting the Regression

/ Thoughts & Opinion

Alex reflects on email’s limitations, and what we can do to push the boundaries of email marketing.

I’m having the most peaceful and serene moment as I write this. I’m sitting on Amtrak’s Coastal Starlight long-distance train from Portland to Los Angeles, staring out the window at this huge sky as the sun sets. Not a cloud in sight, and beautiful mountains and trees can be seen as far as the eye can see. I’ve got some great music on, and I’m just enjoying the ambiance. It’s perfect, but do you know what’s plaguing my mind?


If you’ve read any of the first blog posts I did here at QueryClick, you’ll likely have realised I’m a big fan of email marketing. Having had a good chance to work on a number of campaigns from 50,000+ recipients down to just a handful, I feel somewhat frustrated with the state of the world of email right now (and indeed in years past).

Web browsers are constantly evolving. Pushing the limits of what’s possible with CSS3 animations, HTML5 elements, experimental additions to the browser rendering engines and lots of innovation in the shape of plugins and add-ons, tabs, speed and way more. Currently there’s an almost constant stream of updates for Firefox, Chrome, Safari and even poor old Internet Explorer. Microsoft have become wise to the onslaught of ie6 hatred and dropped support for ie6 in the last year or so and generally the state of browsers these days (aside from the poor people who can’t or refuse to upgrade) is pretty bright.

So with that in mind, why is it we’re still struggling along with all of our email clients? Why is it that Microsoft Outlook 2010, nor Windows Live Hotmail still don’t support the use of background images? Why is it that Gmail doesn’t support CSS positioning? Why don’t Microsoft Outlook 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2010 with their almost 30% market share support the use of empty table cells, opacity, box-shadows, text-shadows or CSS pseudo-selectors?

The number of email clients seems to be growing, but with every painful iteration it feels very much like we’re going backwards, as opposed to forwards.

Why is my email client regressing?

Let’s look at Microsoft Outlook as an example. Not a great example I should add – but one that a good number of people will be able to relate to.

Back in 2007, Outlook 2007 was launched and to much user dismay, instead of using a browser engine to render emails, Microsoft chose the almost completely incomprehensible choice of the Microsoft Word rendering engine. At the time, their 75%-80% share of the corporate email market was essentially stunted as they lost support for background images, nested table background colours, CSS floats and positioning and a horrendous box model.

Jump forward two and a half years (and countless browser updates) and we saw the launch of Microsoft Outlook 2010 Beta. Low and behold, once again Microsoft resort to the astonishingly un-changed Microsoft Word rendering engine. Their reason? They wanted to make sure their emails looked consistent between Outlook users, and that those lucky users benefitted from the MS Word tools when authoring emails.

So despite showing us that they were listening, Outlook didn’t really make any significant changes to the 2010 beta before it was launched, and so we’re still stuck with a four year old rendering engine on software that launched last year.

I should emphasise that it’s not just Microsoft failing here. Apple’s “Mail” continues to render small text extra-small, Gmail refuses to support any style declared in the head or body of the email altogether and despite being browser-based and browser-accessed, web apps like Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Hotmail are still struggling with any of the CSS pseudo selectors that are in fact supported by the browsers that you access the web apps with. I can’t get my head round that.

So my dilemma is thus:

I want to use email marketing to innovate. I want to use it to push boundaries, and really go to town on making emails exciting, engaging and somewhat consistent across email clients. The problem is that in this bonkers world of email marketing, it would seem that there’s a pretty serious cap on the amount that is possible.

So what do I do? Where do I innovate?

There are – I suppose – some options:

Innovate on Landing Pages

Use the landing page to host your lovely designs, code and innovation. Get people involved once they’ve clicked through. The problem with this though, is that it renders the notion of “innovation within email marketing” more or less redundant, and we’re still relying on subject lines and a call to action to get people to land on that page as before.

Cater for *Most* of Your Audience

Consider your recipient’s email client usage. Are most people actually using Apple Mail 4? Then why not sacrifice a small percentage of your users using a naff email client in favour of intorducing some exciting design and code in to those lucky enough to have a half-decent email client? The problem here is that for big lists you may not have a large enough percentage of your users on one client, or you may have a smaller list, meaning that although your alienating a smaller number, it’s a larger percentage of users, which you might not be keen to do.

Find a way to Innovate Outside of the Design and Build

A more obvious idea might be to continue to build emails like it’s 1995, but work on introducing innovation in some other way. Maybe you can use the loading of images from a server to trigger some sort of change or response. perhaps you detect the amount of times an image has been loaded in an email and deliver a different image each time. A countdown, or expiry date notification. This of course relies on loading external images, and then we’re on to the “how do you account for users who have email clients that don’t load images by default” issue.

Progressive Enhancement

It’s been a concept for some time with web design, where as new technology appears to allow you to do fancy things with your design, you just use it to enhance an already perfectly functional build. Let’s say you have a website with boxes. They work and function as boxes, but they’d look a bit classier with a dropshadow or some rounded corners (my old creative director is probably getting excited about this!) then hey presto, with your current iteration as a fall-back should the browser not support it, you can add the somewhat widely supported CSS3 properties to give things the rounded corners and shadow you desire. Simple. Those without the technology will just see the regular boxes, so they’re not losing functionality.

So can we do this in email? Yes. We can’t ensure that it’ll be as predictable, or whether as many people from your recipients list will be able to see it, but some may, so it might be worth exploring. Here are a couple of possibilities just off the top of my head (both of which are already being employed by some forward thinking email marketers).

Why not use gif animations to enhance an already nice looking graphic. Provided you don’t up the filesize of the email too much, you could add additional frames to your gifs, and have falling water instead of a still capture you could have a flag blowing in the wind, or a star rotating or changing colour for an offer sticker style graphic.

Why not try using HTML5 video technology with a static image fallback? Some email clients support the embedding of HTML5 video, and wouldn’t it be impressive for those who could view it, to be able to check out your product, showreel or company video from within their email? That’s sure to up your conversion rate.

I’ve really just skimmed the surface here, and I happen to know that email clients like Hotmal are already experimenting in small numbers with interactive emails that work like microsites, as well as some innovation within Google mail in the same way, but this document was really a call to arms. A prompt to give it some thought. I want to plant the seed within people, and hope that someone reading this will feel inspired to try something new and exciting with their email marketing. The more people that can do that, the better I think.

Pushing email forward is a test of your patience, and a measure of how far you’ll go to test, combined with your willingness to compromise. That said, it’s still something. That small, shiny possibility that somewhere down the line, perhaps in years to come, we’ll start to see some far more engaging exciting things in our dark bottomless inbox.

So as the sun dips below the horizon on my train journey, and the night sky starts to populate with tiny stars, I feel that perhaps there are options. There’s hope. A distant glimmer of the possibilities that lie within the realm of improving email marketing – but they still feel far away, almost unattainable. Let’s see if we can up our game somewhat and perhaps I’ll be able to quash my concern.

Do you use email marketing? Have you had some amazing emails, or do you have similar frustrations to me? Why not comment below and let me know.

This post was originally written for the QueryClick blog.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.

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