AOL Turns Off Images in Web-Based Mail

AOL yesterday reconfigured its Web-based e-mail services available at AIM.com and AOL.com to disable images by default.

The change, which wasn’t announced in advance to e-mail marketers and other bulk senders, comes as part of an interface redesign for the Web mail service. AOL’s hosted mail service joins major e-mail clients like Gmail, Windows Live Hotmail and Outlook, which began screening images some time ago.

AOL’s desktop client already disabled images in e-mail received from unknown senders, a spokesperson said. “AOL originally introduced this feature in 2004 to fight spam, and it has since become a standard practice in the industry, utlized by several e-mail providers,” she said.

The recent change was observed and reported late yesterday by e-mail deliverability firm Pivotal Veracity and the E-Mail Experience Council (EEC).

Images can be enabled in AOL.com and AIM.com mail by a number of means. They will appear if a sender is included on AOL’s Enhanced Whitelist, if an e-mail user adds the sender to her address book, or if a user manually changes the default images setting to “on.”

Deirdre Baird, CEO of Pivotal Veracity, noted Yahoo also recently disabled images in its beta service. She expects mailers reliant on images will see a drop in open rates and click rates this year as AOL and Yahoo implement their new images policies on a large scale.

“Folks have started to understand that images being turned off is a big deal,” she said. “They haven’t seen a big hit in their click rates or open rates, because services like Gmail and Hotmail have had images off a long time.”

The implications of image disablement for marketers range from the blocking of banner ads within HTML newsletters to problems tracking open rates, as the .GIF files commonly used to track e-mail interactions aren’t delivered. Product images and other graphics in direct-to-consumer marketing communications are also blocked.

In a recent review of 1,000 e-mail messages from B2B and B2C marketers, EEC found 21 percent of messages appeared blank when images were turned off inside a range of e-mail clients and Web-based services. An additional 28 percent displayed copy but lacked functioning links.

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