How rich media can bring your emails to life

People digest visual information 60,000 times faster than text alone, and many state that visual email content is their preferred format. How can marketers take advantage of this by incorporating rich media into their email campaigns?

Date published
September 26, 2017 Categories

Digital marketing is an industry in constant flux, but email marketing is one comforting constant. However, marketers need to update their strategies to gain attention in a very crowded market. How can rich media help them achieve this?

In the early days of email marketing, it was not uncommon to achieve an open rate of greater than 75%. Of course, marketers soon caught wind of this exciting and successful new way to reach customers and the market became saturated over time.

Although open rates typically hover between 20% and 25% nowadays, email marketing still delivers a positive ROI for B2B and B2C marketers. The medium survives and thrives based on new and more inventive ways of sustaining a customer’s attention. Otherwise, it becomes stagnant and those open rates dwindle further still. Every tactic has a shelf life.

We all love to have some best practices to hand, even if these are just a few simple rules of thumb to guide our efforts. These rules abound for email (Tuesday is routinely found to be the best day to send messages), but in reality we need to focus on what happens when the email is opened.

That’s where rich media comes in.

People digest visual information 60,000 times faster than text alone, and they even state that visual email content is their preferred format.

(Source: Hubspot)

Email can therefore be the perfect platform to craft personalized messages for a large audience base, powered by novel and arresting media formats.

So, which types of rich media can be sent via email?

Static image

The capability to send images within the body content of an email is nothing particularly new, but it remains an impactful way to communicate.

Nonetheless, image-based emails should be approached with caution. If overdone, this approach can cause emails to load very slowly and can increase the probability of alerting the spam filter. As such, marketers should avoid sending image-only emails.

For those in industries such as retail or travel, the opportunities to showcase products are self-evident. Even still, care should be taken to select the images that will resonate with your target audience segments. This should ensure a higher click-through rate than a pure text email, and use your email marketing platform to run A/B tests.

There are numerous examples of brands using image-based emails in innovative ways, often by blending this media format with text.

The example below is indicative of Uber’s approach, which showcases the best of creative copywriting and simple imagery, all employed for a clear and direct purpose.

There is a lesson for all marketers here: if elements of your email campaign do not contribute to your business objectives, they should be stripped out.


GIFs (Graphic Interchange Format) work by displaying a sequential series of images. They can be a great way to convey a visual message and the New York Times estimated  in a 2016 study that over 5 million of them are shared each day over Facebook Messenger alone.

GIFs can be a powerful tool for communicating a brand message, too. This rich media format allows brands to say a lot in a small amount of space, while having the benefit of being significantly cheaper to create than videos.

Their use extends from product showcases to how-to demonstrations, providing a quick and easy way to capture consumer attention.

The example below, from menswear retailer Bonobos, showcases a great use of GIFs in an email to get a core brand message across.

This is an excellent way to use this media format, as it is inherently tied to the core brand message. The retailer has launched a new range of summer prints and GIFs are used to promote a number of these, while encouraging the recipient to click to find out more.

Marketers should be aware of some pitfalls, however. Used with abandon, GIFs can take on gimmick status and provide a negative user experience. They play on an endless loop too, so they can become a bit irritating.

Furthermore, GIFs should be compressed to reduce the file size and they are not guaranteed to be displayed as intended by all email providers. For example, some versions of Microsoft Outlook will only display the first image in the sequence.


Cinemagraphs are an increasingly popular component of email marketing campaigns. Part of an image is frozen, while another section moves in a continuous loop, creating the sense of a video while focusing the user’s attention on particular parts of the image.

Once more, they are cheaper to make than videos (tools like Pictoreo and Echograph provide good solutions), and they go beyond the visual impact of text and image alone.

They work best when a brand has a particular feature that they would like to showcase, which can work very well to promote retail products or restaurants, for example.

This example from Shoemint works well because of its simplicity. There can be no doubt about the product in focus, and the use of a cinemagraph increases the effectiveness of the message.

The reverse can work equally well. In the example below, from Mr Porter, the focus is placed on an item the brand is not wishing to promote. And yet, paradoxically, this draws our attention to the clothing by evoking certain lifestyle associations. With a cinemagraph, the onus should therefore always be on the interplay between static and moving elements.

As with all media formats, consumers will grow accustomed to cinemagraphs soon and their impact will be reduced. In the meantime, they provide plentiful room for experimentation and fare well in A/B tests against flat images.

Some of the warnings about GIFs apply equally here, however. Some Outlook packages will not display the moving elements, for example, and they will significantly increase the file size. Additionally, moderation and subtlety are key; small moving parts will catch a user’s eye, but overdo it and they will be less likely to stay engaged.


Marketers are very much attuned to the power of video, and its march towards online media dominance shows no sign of relenting.

Video is still under-utilized in email marketing, but its use is increasing as email providers start to support embedded videos.

This opens a range of new avenues to tell a brand story to an already engaged audience. Compared with the other rich media formats we have discussed, videos provide the scope to tell a story in much more detail and to convey some brand personality.

Popular solutions like MailChimp contain video embed functionality too, so it is easier than ever to add this type of rich media to an email. Marketers can make videos autoplay when a subscriber opens an email, although it is best to keep the sound off if this option is selected. People don’t often expect sound when they open an email.

As a result, video and email marketing seem like a match made in digital heaven. Email continues to deliver a healthy ROI, while video is very much in vogue and delivers on a range of marketing KPI’s.

Once more, there are some points to consider before launching into a video email marketing campaign. They lead to the heaviest file sizes of all the options we have discussed in this article. HTML5 videos are also incompatible with some email providers, so it is worth assessing the impact this will have based on the preferences of your target audience.

To avoid the lengthy loading times video can bring, marketers can of course link out to another page that hosts the media. However, this only adds another step in the journey and, all marketers know, at each step there will be a drop-off in customers. As such, it is best either to embed the video in the email or to use one of the lighter formats listed above.

Embedded social media

Sometimes, the simplest solutions really are the best. Humans are social animals, and we are more likely to buy a product if we know other people have tried and enjoyed it. This herding effect is often known as ‘social proof’ in our industry and it functions on exactly that premise. We take the positive opinions of others as proof that something is worth our attention.

Grammarly used this knowledge to great effect in an email marketing campaign to increase subscriptions to their premium product.

Including a Tweet from a customer adds some personality and enhances the sense that, although they are here to sell a product, it is at least a valuable one. The additions of a 60% off discount and a countdown to the May 3 deadline combine with the tweet to tick off a number of items on the Best Practice Email Marketing Campaign list.

In summary

We can see from the above that brands do not need to invest significant financial resources into an email campaign. The beauty of this medium is that it rewards ingenuity, no matter the size of the brand.

Once customers opt in to an email subscription list, a company has carte blanche to communicate with them in a variety of ways. That requires intellectual resources, but not necessarily a huge budget.

This provides the ultimate marketing test, in essence. Fail to hit the mark and customers will simply unsubscribe. Deliver something valuable, insightful, humorous, or aesthetically pleasing, and you can nurture long-term relationships from acquisition through to retention and loyalty. Rich media provide novel ways to do this, but only if applied in thoughtful and relevant contexts.

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