Using HTML in emails without images

The solution to the HTML/TEXT email quandary that I have been blogging about of late is to use HTML email– since nearly every email client supports it nowadays– but not to rely heavily upon images, if you use any at all.  Instead, use HTML tags to create color borders, blocks of text, enlarged fonts, and colored fonts.  <ul> and <ol> tags are beneficial, especially since people like lists and it enforces some semblance of order to the email, and the bullet points especially have a graphical quality about them without being dependent upon image downloading.

If you must use images, use them sparingly and never use them to communicate content or the call to action.  It’s best if they are aligned along the right edge of the email and that width and height specifications are omitted; that way, if they don’t load, the empty image box is as unobtrusive as possible.

With these techniques you can arrive upon a visually attractive email that…

  • contains your content
  • still strikes interest and offers some color branding opportunities
  • doesn’t run the risk of looking broken when viewed by the majority of email users who have image downloading turned off

The HTML TEXT email compromise

I previously touched upon the dilemma facing email marketers when it comes time to decide whether to send their marketing emails as an HTML email or a TEXT email.  As a solution, many marketers have embraced the idea of asking the recipient which they prefer.  The marketing team usually poses this question at the same time they are soliciting a registration (name, email address, etc) from their website visitors.  And since space on the online registration form is often scarce,  the question is often posted in a barely intelligible way–looking as if a cat briefly danced across the keyboard instead of an actual question:  “HTML? TXT?”

Here’s the problem: Many people either don’t understand that question, or don’t know the answer to it.  Sure, for all of us reading blogs and getting our news from RSS feeds, the idea that someone might not know the answer to this might strike us as silly.  But at Outskirts Press, we can track without fail a statistical fact – the more questions we ask on a registration form, the lower our conversion rate is. Add a “hard” question into the mix, or one that requires the person to make a “choice” and the conversions plummet.  People know their names and email addresses, but beyond that, marketers have to weigh the advantages of knowing more information about the user against the disadvantage of a decreasing conversion ratio.

People simply don’t like being asked questions they don’t know the answers to. Additionally, many people still have an uncertainly about computers that leads them to the conclusion that offering no answer is better than offering an incorrect one.  So guess what the path of least resistance is for a potential new client who doesn’t know the answer?  They leave your website without registering and go somewhere else.

Another solution some marketers embrace is sending a text email which contains nothing more than a link to a website where the “real” content resides in all its glorious HTML beauty.   The email may try to contain a benefit statement or some other brief incentive to motivate the recipient to click on the link, but rarely is enough effort put forth into the email — no surprise — because all the effort has been put into the HTML webpage being linked to.   The problem is, this solution lacks the content of text emails and lacks the beauty of HTML emails.   In other words, ironically, the solution intended to work for everyone works for no one.

There isn’t a 100% effective solution, but there is solution that embraces a compromise and as a result, makes it the best overall tactic to address this email marketing problem, in my opinion. What is it? I’ll talk about that next…

HTML or TEXT based email?

This is one of the most oft-discussed topics among online marketers — which is “better” for email marketing?  Sending emails in normal text format or “sprucing” it up with HTML and images?

There are pros and cons to each choice.  Text emails are “boring” and run the risk of being ignored just because they look like too much work to read.   But they have a higher deliverability success rate and you can always be sure that your recipient is seeing your email exactly as you have designed it — since no design is necessary.  The only true hurdle with text-based email is keeping various monitor resolutions in mind when composing emails with “hard returns” to be sure that sentences either wrap automatically, or do not “split” mid-line.

HTML emails often rely on images to make a drastic, impressive first impression.  And when it works, it works well. HTML emails are just more “fun” to receive and read, for lack of a better word.  Here’s the downside, and it’s a biggie — many email users–I would wager the majority–don’t receive emails with images, even if they have HTML compliant email clients.   This is because for some reason, all major email clients, including Outlook, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, and others, load with email images turned “off.”  They say this is a security precaution.    The path of least resistance, therefore, is to leave images turned “off” which is what most people do, even if they are aware it is a “switch” they can toggle themselves in their settings.    Have you ever seen an HTML email that is 100% images with your images-setting turned “off?”  I’ll bet many of you have.  The email looks broken.   How much consideration did you take before deleting it? Probably none at all.

This is the dilemma for an email marketer.  How do you harness the benefit of HTML emails without accepting their disadvantages?  There are a number of options and I’ll discuss those in the near future…

Email marketing value

Speaking of email marketing, one of the main considerations is “value.”   While everyone likes a “bargain” it is equally important to include actual information in your email correspondence, and not just promotions.   In order to make the information valuable to the recipient, it has to be as specific to the reader as possible.

This means, you need to know enough about the recipient as possible so that you can tailor messages to them that they will find relevant.

And here you arrive upon the first Catch-22 of email marketing.    You must know enough about them without invading their privacy and without asking them too many personal questions.  Easier said than done, right?  Invading privacy is a no-no and asking too many questions will cause them to answer none.

Most “professional” websites learn something about their users in a variety of ways. Some do it with the users knowledge and some do it without.  Most websites, in fact, do both. Some non-personal but technical information may be collected by websites you visit in order for the developers to improve their user’s experience by knowing what platforms are most predominant, what browsers their users use, and what monitor resolutions their users use. 

Some of the more unscrupulous websites out there may even extract your contact information (your email address) without your consent.   If you are designing a website for your business or as a published author, you should compose a “Privacy Policy” that indicates the information you acquire from your visitors.   For example, at Outskirts Press, when individuals register on our site, we ask them for the answers to a small number of questions. This is as up-front as you can get.  Authors who divulge this information know they are providing us with personal information willingly. Our job, therefore, is to respect that information and provide the author with valuable information in exchange for their information. And we’ll talk more about that in a future post…

Getting emails through spam filters

At Outskirts Press we contact our authors quite often via email.  Many authors thank us for the motivational and inspirational emails we send when they are still writing their books.  Once authors begin publishing with us, we keep them up to date on their progress throughout the process via email.  And once our authors have published, Diamond and Pearl packages include 2 years of marketing follow-up via the Marketing C.O.A.C.H.

So, you could say that successful email communication is a cornerstone of our business.  And we’re not alone.  Email marketing is one of the most successful (from an ROI point of view) promotional tactics a business can adopt.  And nowadays, more companies are using email as a standard element of their customer service procedures as well.

But sending a “successful” email is not without its hurdles.  Frankly, I don’t even understand all the complications, but recently we did experience an interesting example of Yahoo’s spam algorithm that I would like to share.  This involved our recent email newsletter congratulating Irv Sternberg for his most recent book, The Persian Project, being recognized as our “Best Book” award winner.

The first paragraph of that email originally said this, and this is version that appeared on our blog and on our website:

“In December 2009, Outskirts Press announced a monthly promotion in which we were seeking the best manuscript to publish for the author without cost. Once published, the best book would receive a refund equal to 110% of the publishing fee. That’s right! Free publication and an “advance” of sorts, just like a traditional publishing contract (only with us, our authors still kept all their rights).

A lot of manuscripts were submitted and a lot of books were published. We reviewed the published books among all those December manuscripts and have decided upon what we feel is the best all-around publication.”

Those two paragraphs prevented the email newsletter from making it through Yahoo’s spam filter. In order to “get through” Yahoo’s spam filter, the content had to be changed to:

“In December 2009, Outskirts Press sought the best manuscript to publish for the one talented author without cost.  Once published, the author of the best book would receive a refund equal to his publishing package price, plus a bit extra.  That’s right! Outskirts Press picked up the publishing cost and paid an “advance” of sorts, just like a traditional publishing contract (only with us, our authors still kept all their rights).

A lot of manuscripts were submitted and a lot of books were published. We reviewed the published books among all those December manuscripts and have decided upon what we feel is the best.”

Notice the subtle differences:

  • Yahoo’s spam filter wouldn’t allow us to “announce a monthly promotion” so instead we “sought the best manuscript.”
  • The author couldn’t “receive a refund equal to 110% of the publishing fee” and instead he received “a refund equal to his publishing package price, plus a bit extra.”
  • Strangely, we couldn’t call it the “best all-around publication” and could only refer to it as “the best.”

In a later section of the same newsletter, we referred to Mr. Sternberg as a “consummate professional, the best selling author of four award-winning novels, and a tenacious marketer.”  However, in order to get through the spam filter, we had to change that summary to: “consummate professional and a tenacious marketer.”

Are there conclusions to draw from this? Certainly.  Yahoo’s algorithm frowns upon verbiage used commonly in spam, such as phrases like “best selling” and “monthly promotion” and almost any number that is followed by a percentage sign (%).

Another consideration of email marketing is the daunting task of delivering an HTML formatted email with images to an email population in which the majority–most unknowingly–have image downloading turned “off.”  But that’s a topic for another time…

Email marketing

Regardless of whether you are an author or a business owner, you should be comfortable with email marketing.  Its low cost combined with its performance makes for an appealing ROI (return on investment). In fact, the only marketing endeavor we have better success with at Outskirts Press is SEM (search engine marketing), or in other words, PPC (pay-per-click) marketing.

Email marketing is an ongoing effort, and one we spend a lot of time and energy on.  There are millions of articles on the Internet about how to do it right and how to do it wrong, so I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of CAN-SPAM regulations, opt-out best practices, opt-in mailing lists, or any of those things.

Instead,  over the next few postings, I’ll summarize some of the things we have learned — mostly through trial and error — over the past 8 years, that have helped us refine our current email marketing efforts.