Remember the days before HTML email? They're back. The latest release of Microsoft Outlook turns off graphics as the default setting. The user determines whether to view images in any HTML message not from a personally-approved sender.
We knew this was coming. Major free email providers and some other email clients planned or began the process during the past year. Until now, turned-off email images didn't reach a critical mass of recipients nor have a perceptible impact on open rate or response. Outlook 2003 will eventually have an impact on those metrics once consumers upgrade and competitors release upgrades with similar features.
When will that happen? Not overnight. Some 350 million PCs haven't yet upgraded to Office XP, which Microsoft released two years ago.
The Giant Stirs
Microsoft listened to some collective industry concerns and has built remedies into Outlook 2003.
Recipients can view images in a specific message. Outlook covers the standard missing-image box with a rollover phrase that begins, "Right click here to download pictures." Even the most novice email recipient should be able to follow that instruction. The rollover includes the URL to identify where the image is served from.
The next line in the rollover text may cause concern: "To help protect your privacy, Outlook has prevented automatic download of this image from the Internet." Fortunately, a link brings users to a privacy notice for automated image downloads. In plain language, it explains what a Web beacon is and how spammers use the technology to validate email addresses.
Safe Senders and Safe Recipients
The privacy document also discusses what Microsoft terms "Safe Senders" and "Safe Recipients." Safe Senders are addresses from which the user consents to receive full graphic messages.
Safe Recipients are "mailing lists or other subscription domain names and email addresses that you belong to and want to receive messages from." I've recommended emailers work to circumvent challenge-response systems by trying to get listed in recipients' address books. Most challenge-response systems are based on static sender address, but Outlook broadened the process to include domain names. E-mailers may still be able to use dynamically tracked sender addresses, yet remain "safe" for Outlook users and ensure their images are visible.
Approving email messages is easy for recipients. They right-click the "Junk E-mail" options tab and select from a list of options to approve or block the sender or a sender's domain.
If users wish to turn on all inbox images, they must navigated to the Tools > Options > Security menu. There, a "Download Pictures" tab changes the default setting to the standard, image-ready format. Users are also be prompted to change edit, forward, and reply options to include images. The default setting blocks images.
Marketing Above the Fold
It's long been common practice to include a text link to a Web page where HTML email can be viewed. Of 10 commercial email messages in my inbox, four have such a link. Three of these are in the header. Recipients are accustomed to seeing this. Outlook's new no-graphics default may increase CTR for this option, perhaps resulting in higher site traffic.
I haven't seen a formal study of the number of email users who habitually view their messages in a preview pane. The number is unquestionably a high one, and many marketers optimize for these users. It may be time for all emailers to do the same. Easy as that right-click may be, it's still one more step required for viewing an offer. That will undoubtedly decrease response.
"Junk E-mail" Correlation
I commend Microsoft for making Outlook's user interface simple, but I have a gripe on behalf of emailers. As recipients continually use the above options, they solidify a correlation between email that's not from a known source with "junk." Although ISPs and many users view spam as anything irrelevant or unwanted, correlating "email" and "junk" relentlessly drives the point home. Even if all industry groups and legislators were to agree on a definition of spam, it could be eclipsed by a view emphasized in a near-ubiquitous software application.
Do you think the new version of Outlook will have a dramatic effect on emailers? Send me your thoughts!
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Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.
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