E-MAIL CREATIVE: What Works and What Doesn’t

Aug 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

Imagine creating and sending a print mail piece only to find out that before delivering it, the U.S. Postal Service stripped out the graphics and put little symbols where pictures used to be.

Infuriating? You bet. And thanks to spammers, this is increasingly the case with e-mail. Inbox providers such as AOL and Google have been forced to block images by default, to prevent pornographic photos from assaulting unsuspecting subscribers and to stymie spammers’ efforts to determine if the addresses they hit are real.

Morgan Stewart, director of strategic service for Indianapolis-based e-mail service provider ExactTarget, estimates that 10%-20% of e-mail images are not “rendering.” Image blocking is causing such havoc that the phrase “e-mail creative” might be considered an oxymoron. After all, if the inbox providers are blocking images, what can possibly be creative about it? Turns out, quite a bit.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes merchants make in electronic mail creative is simply repurposing their print direct mail creative for e-mail. The main reason, according to Jay Schwedelson, corporate vice president of Boca Raton, FL-based list concern Worldata: Getting all the necessary sign-offs is considered too much of a pain to warrant designing an e-mail campaign from scratch. “People are saying ‘I already got that through; I don’t want to go through that again,’” he says. “The let’s-just-get-it-out mentality is rampant.”

But some say that if you’re simply going to repurpose print direct mail for e-mail, you might as well not send the campaigns at all.

“In the direct mail environment, you have the outer envelope, and on the inside you can further explain yourself,” says Schwedelson. “But when you repurpose that and you have the top of your e-mail being the outer envelope of a mail piece, and then further down, it explains itself, it doesn’t work. You’re not getting the same level of interaction that you get with a direct mail piece.”

Elaine O’Gorman, vice president of strategy for Atlanta-based e-mail service provider Silverpop, says repurposing print or other creative for e-mail also poses another risk: The single, large graphic gets blocked, and the entire image gets broken. “And in certain e-mail [inboxes], when an image breaks, it breaks into nothingness,” says O’Gorman. “And guess what gets pulled up to the top of your message? Your unsubscribe. So basically you just sent your entire list a massive invitation to unsubscribe.”

Aim for instant recognition

Beyond trying to get recipients to add senders to their address books or to click on the “always display images from this mailer” link, there isn’t a whole lot marketers can do to prevent images from being broken. As a result, O’Gorman recommends designing e-mails to communicate even with broken graphics.

“You need to make sure that even in the absence of images, your e-mail makes sense,” says O’Gorman. “You must make certain the recipient can tell who it’s from, what the call to action is, and that they can unsubscribe. You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen.”

Also, calls to action should be text links rather than HTML so that recipients can always read them. “They must be able to get the point of the message and take action on the message even without being able to see the images,” says O’Gorman.

Still, no one recommends that marketers abandon using HTML images in their outbound efforts.

“I have yet to see a study, but I would bet a decent amount of money that HTML is still driving superior [response rates] to plain-text e-mail,” O’Gorman says. “The only people who prefer plain-text e-mail are those who are reading it on their BlackBerrys, and they’re a really small subset of the population. If people know you, they’ll turn on the images, but that’s only if they can figure out if it’s from you.”

And that reiterates the importance of brand recognition in e-mail open and response rates. “Depending on which study you read, you have between 1.5 and 6 seconds for someone to look at your e-mail, recognize that it’s from your company, and make a decision on whether or not they want to hear from your company,” says O’Gorman. “Having consistent elements, especially in the upper left-hand corner [where people generally start to read], so that you can achieve that recognition as soon as possible, is absolutely key.”

Moreover, the e-mail must achieve “100% recognition in the preview pane,” she says. “If your logo or whatever the person knows you by is outside the preview pane, that’s bad.”

Though many inboxes don’t employ preview panes, the actual viewing area of some e-mail services is about the size of a Microsoft preview pane. As a result, e-mail creative designed to garner recognition and drive response in an area the size of a preview pane also ensures that the important elements are immediately visible to people opening e-mail using services such as Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL.

Words’ worth

Obviously good copywriting is increasingly important on a medium where graphics are unreliable. But “good copy” and “lengthy copy” are not synonymous.

“E-mail copy needs to be short and to the point,” says O’Gorman. “There are some exceptions, such as with loyalty mailings, but if we’re talking about a promotional e-mail that is designed to get somebody to take an action — click, buy, call — then shorter is better.”

Adds ExactTarget’s Stewart: “The stronger your brand, the less copy you need.”

Should the e-mail aim to close the sale or simply drive traffic to a landing page? It depends. Timothy Ryan, director of creative services for Lexington, MA-based e-mail service provider e-Dialog, contends that when a sale can be closed inside the e-mail — if it’s a product that doesn’t require a lot of information or consideration, for instance — it should. “If we know who [the recipients] are and we have not overstepped our bounds as far as knowing who they are, I think we should try and push them through to purchase right from the e-mail,” he explains.

ExactTarget’s Stewart has a bit of a different take: “The job of the e-mail is to get them to the site and to sell them on the landing page. More often than not, you can’t add to the cart in an e-mail.” Also, people often click through e-mails offering one product and end up buying another, he says.

In any case, Stewart adds: “Get to the point as early on as possible and be as straightforward as you can. Get your core message up in the top left-hand corner and tell them what you want.”

Brush up on the subject line

Possibly the most important — and the most overlooked and misunderstood — element of a commercial e-mail is the subject line.

Most mailers believe that spam filters block e-mails with subject lines containing “forbidden” words such as “free.” Indeed, subject lines containing “FREE!!!!” or, for that matter, “Super Bowl XXXVI” would probably get caught in spam filters: The all-capital letters and multiple exclamation points in the former and the triple Xs in the latter would serve as triggers.

But the word “free” in and of itself would likely not get you blocked. “There is nothing wrong with trying a subject-line test using the word ‘free,’” says O’Gorman. “Now, if you’re in the mortgage financing business and you use the subject line ‘Free Quote for Mortgage Refinancing,’ you’re going to get blocked.” The mortgage refinancing industry has a terrible reputation among inbox providers because refinancers have so many affiliates spamming on their behalf.

Including words such as “free” isn’t the only way to create an enticing subject line. ExactTarget’s Stewart says that putting a deadline in the subject line tends to boost response rates. “If you can make it time sensitive — like ‘20% off this week only’ — you’re going to see the results go up.”

E-mail creative dos and don’ts

  • Do keep copy short and to the point.
  • Don’t simply repurpose print mail copy.
  • Do design e-mails to communicate even with broken graphics in case an image gets blocked and make the calls to action text links rather than HTML so recipients can always read them n Don’t abandon using HTML images in outbound e-mail efforts altogether, as experts say HTML outpulls text e-mail.
  • Do make sure that your logo or other recognizable elements of your brand appear inside the e-mail preview pane or viewing area.
  • Don’t shy away from enticing words such as “free” in subject lines when appropriate, though you should test them first.
  • Do consider using spam-scoring technology that will scan the entire e-mail and tell you how likely it is to be blocked by filters.
  • Don’t forget to put a deadline in the subject line — this can drive up response rates.