The Mysterious Underperforming AOL Email

The mystery continues.

Two columns ago, I posed the riddle of the underperforming AOL email. As you may recall, the marketing department of a large company sent out the same HTML version to users of AOL and to users of other HTML-capable email clients. The non-AOL HTML open rate was 56.9 percent, and the AOL open rate was 13.3 percent.

The company asked me if I had any idea what was going on. I didn’t, so I asked you all for suggestions.

Although an individual technical account manager at AOL was friendly enough to offer to help solve the puzzle, unfortunately, the company wouldn’t allow him to speak to the media without going through corporate communications — a process that didn’t occur before press time. Ugh.

However, I still have some potential solutions to the puzzle:

  • Older versions of the software. As I suggested in my previous column, many of the recipients could be using older versions of the AOL software. The AOL Web site notes that those who use AOL 5.0 or earlier can not read HTML emails. In fact, AOL 4.0 users can’t even receive rich text. It’s unclear how many recipients are using older versions of the software, but one reader wrote in to say that the “latest market intelligence suggests that the overall percentage of AOL users who can see HTML is still less than 50 percent.” Another reader suggested that AOL users tend to be Internet newbies and aren’t comfortable upgrading software. So it’s possible that a large chunk of this database joined up before 6.0 was released, haven’t upgraded, and can’t see HTML email at all. The solution? As one reader wrote, “Either force the opted-in list to upgrade or build the AOL email for the lowest common denominator, 5.0.”

  • Non-supported HTML objects. AOL’s client doesn’t support some HTML objects. Although the company in question did not use fancy code (Java, animation, etc.), it’s possible that another object is making the emails unreadable, in part or in whole. For a list of unsupported objects, please see the AOL Web site. The solution? OK, it’s fairly obvious — don’t include these objects.
  • Unreliable open rate data. I have to confess this never occurred to me. Thanks to the reader who pointed out this possibility. He wrote:

    Because many of the HTML code tags are not supported by the AOL client below version 6.0, the so-called ’clear gif’ or ’Web bug’ that is used to track open rates will not work, so reads cannot be collected. Since this dilemma is common, you need to consider this when you’re calculating percentages of messages read. This same issue exists with text versus HTML. Good point.

  • Spam or adult content triggers. This isn’t likely the case in this particular situation, but I’m noting for the sake of others who may have run into this problem. (I once had an editor send me an email message whose subject line had dollar signs in place of the s’es in the word “assignment,” and my ISP blocked the email. Fortunately for both of us, she figured it out and emailed me again!) But, even if this particular message didn’t trigger a spam filter, AOL users may have manually “filtered” the message. Wrote one reader, “These novice users fall victim to submitting their email addresses to too many free offers, resulting in large amounts of spam, particularly porn messages. I’ve talked to people who are reluctant to even open their email boxes because of all the smut they encounter.”
  • Pictures in the email. Does your email message to AOL users contain pictures? Then heed this warning: “As a former AOL employee (current at-home mom), I have some experience dealing with Conundrum #1. My personal belief is that the culprit is a ’Picture in Email Warning from Neighborhood Watch’ message, which pops up on AOL when users receive any email that contains pictures. The warning is important — it is designed to help protect children and other members from unsolicited email containing offensive material. But I think that many members get the warning, opt not to open the mail, and then delete it. Some members may do this because, as you note in your article, AOL members are often targeted for mass-marketing mailings, so they grow accustomed to deleting bulk emails. Many may do it out of fear or uncertainty generated by the warning.”

OK, that’s it for today. I hope this helps anyone who’s struggling with sending HTML email to AOL users. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this. I’ll let you know how the company I wrote about handles this problem and whether any of these issues apply. If I get an official response from AOL, I’ll be sure to include it in the next column.

E-Mail Newsletter Publishing Fundamentals: A ClickZ Guide to E-Mail Marketing— an in-depth walk-through on how to start your own email newsletter for profit

$129 PDF

Author and e-business expert Alexis Gutzman undertook the complex process of starting and publishing an email newsletter and details her experience in this briefing. “Publishing Your Own Newsletter” originated as a multipart series on This briefing is a compilation of Gutzman’s essential writings about the email newsletter publishing process. Along with tips, tricks, and advice on what works best and what pitfalls to watch for, this ClickZ Guide includes product evaluations, code for capturing user information, and sound advice on user privacy concerns before implementing some of the tools discussed.

Related reading