E-Mail: Art or Science? Redux

My last column debated whether email marketing is more of an art or a science. What a debate it stirred! I received many wonderful comments and lots of passionate feedback. I want to keep the engaging conversations going by focusing today on one specific aspect of email marketing, the search box, and debating its form and function.

E-Mail Is a Science: The Case for Function

For many years, a number of clients and industry experts have pointed to search boxes and forms included within an email as the main area of interest and source of clicks. As much as 85 percent of the clicks seem to come from these areas. This clearly represents a scientific approach to email: test to find what works, then use it.

E-mail Is an Art: The Case for Form

Yes, search boxes are great inside an email. Usually they look nice. But given all the content filtering and code stripping ISPs do, these boxes and forms often don’t work. Yet companies still use them, claiming the presence of the box, even though only usable by part of the audience base, still drives significant traffic and outperforms email creative that doesn’t include it.

Checking in With the Experts

For some expert advice on the topic, I turned to deliverability and safe-content experts gurus Deirdre Baird and Michelle Eichner at deliverability provider Pivotal Veracity.

“In an effort to cut through mailbox clutter and improve response, many marketers seek to increase the appeal of their marketing messages by including interactive forms and scripts in their emails,” said Baird, Pivotal Veracity’s president and CEO. “Unfortunately, in today’s spam- and virus-laden email market, form tags and scripts can be a big no-no for email deliverability and rendering.”

“Our clients are able to assess the negative impact of these elements using our deliverability, filter scoring, and rendering tools and know that use of these elements may improve response at some ISPs but can also prove to be detrimental to delivery and rendering at others,” said Eichner, COO and VP of client services.

“Unfortunately, many marketers lack the appropriate tools for gauging their impact and continue to use them even though there are direct implications on delivery and brand perception,” said Baird.

Will use of form tags or scripts reduce your email communications’ effectiveness? As Pivotal Veracity’s chart below illustrates, it depends on which ISP your customer uses.

ISP E-Mail With Form Tags E-Mail With Scripts
Delivered
to
Form
Displays?
Form Works? Delivered to Script Active?
AOL Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No
AT&T Inbox Yes No, showed
an error notice
Inbox No
BellSouth Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No, showed
code instead
CompuServe Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No
Cablevision Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No
Charter Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No
Comcast Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No, showed a
virus error
Cox Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No, showed
code instead
EarthLink Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No, showed
code instead
Excite Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No, showed
code instead
Gmail Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No
Hotmail Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No
Lycos Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No, showed
code instead
Mail.com Inbox Yes Yes Missing
(not delivered)
No
MSN Inbox Yes No, the form
was inoperable
Inbox No
NetZero Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No
Road Runner Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No
USA Inbox Yes Yes Missing
(not delivered)
No
Verizon Inbox Yes Yes Inbox No
Yahoo Inbox Yes Yes, showed a
security warning
first
Inbox No, showed
code instead
Source: Pivotal Veracity, 2006

“In general, scripts are a no-no. We do not recommend including them as they appear to be a virus and in all cases we’ve seen do not work anyway,” said Baird. “Forms, however, present a different scenario, as their treatment varies from ISP to ISP. We recommend mailers develop different content strategies for different customer domains.

“In some cases, such as AOL, form tags do not impact delivery, display in the email and also work; it makes sense to use them for these ISPs,” she continued. “However, some ISPs, such as Yahoo, will show an error or a security notice where your form is. In this case, we believe there is a clear argument not to include the form tag, as it may appear to your customer that you are sending viruses with your email. Finally, you have the ISPs, such as MSN/Hotmail, that display the form but strip the underlying functionality that allows it to work. This is where the form-versus-function debate is most relevant, as a mailer must weight the aesthetic value (form) of including something like a search box against the brand implications of an email that doesn’t work (function).”

Baird and Eichner provide some great insight that add fuel to the debate. If someone asked you whether email is an art or a science and whether you’d use a form for creative or usability reasons, which side would you be on?

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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