Three Strategies Answer E-Mail’s New Challenges

Remember a few years back when some big-name online-technology gurus proclaimed e-mail was over, thanks to spam, fraud, RSS, Gmail, and recipient hatred? Throw in the latest hype over social networking, blogs, and podcasts, and you’d think the perfect storm that could sink e-mail marketing was just over the horizon.

Not quite. Two indicators point to e-mail’s continuing viability for both senders and recipients:

  • In the coming holiday season, e-mail marketers will invest more time, money, and effort in e-mail marketing than in other channels according to a recent WebTrends report, including print, broadcast, and search marketing.
  • E-mail providers are updating or rolling out new e-mail clients that provide users with more security and useful features. Users are checking messages not just on traditional desktops, but also laptops and Web-enabled devices, such as phones and PDAs.

What concerns me, though, is the intersection of these trends. Marketers are spending more than ever in the most critical quarter of the year, but it’s money down the drain if they don’t adjust their creative templates to respond to the new challenges these clients present.

Three Clients, Three Strategies

  • Windows Live Mail. This eventual successor to Hotmail became the “it” service of the moment when Microsoft announced plans to add an unsubscribe button to the user interface as a way to cut down on bogus spam complaints, but implementation is still uncertain. Hotmail users can sign up on a waiting list to receive an invitation.
  • Yahoo Mail Beta. This update of the industry-standard Yahoo Mail service combines the universal reach of the Web-based e-mail client with the features of a desktop client, like Outlook or Eudora. It’s been in beta longer than Live Mail, but is available only to users of the paid Mail Plus service who receive and respond to invitations.
  • Microsoft Outlook. Outlook was one of the first major e-mail clients to adopt widespread use of image blocking. Its latest feature is AutoPreview, which displays the first line of type in the preview pane.

How They Stack Up

  • Positives. Both Yahoo Mail and Live Mail give users extra storage space, which means fewer soft bounces due to overstuffed inboxes. Both also block images and use a preview pane by default, although it’s easier to turn off the features in Yahoo Mail. Both have made it easier for users to add your mailing address to their contact lists, essential for evading the junk folder. Live Mail allows users to set the preview pane either as a tall, skinny box to the right of the inbox or a wide, shallow box below the inbox.
  • Negatives. You can’t turn the default features of image blocking and preview panes, designed for the user’s security and convenience, into advantages, but you can optimize your own performance to minimize the damage. Outlook’s AutoPreview feature means text users see in their inboxes will have nothing to do with the meaning or value of your e-mail message if you use the standard, “Having trouble viewing this message?” as your first line. In a minor way, additional features such as calendars and RSS readers can take more time away from reading e-mail.

The Strategies

Although this column highlights changes to just three of the major e-mail clients, the three strategies outlined below can apply to virtually all standard e-mail clients now that formerly exotic features like HTML rendering and image blocking are nearly universal:

  • Put more value or impact in the first line of message copy. Instead of “Click here for the Web version,” tell readers what’s in it for them if they do click. “If you cannot properly view this e-mail to receive free shipping on your order, view the online version or enter promotional code ABCD1234 through September 30 to receive special savings.” Or, “Click the ‘show images’ button to read why you must redesign your e-mail messages to render correctly in new e-mail clients.” AutoPreview, image blocking and preview panes make that essential, but so does another worrying trend: less overall space for your message, even in full display, as ISPs such as AOL start adding advertising alongside and below each message.
  • Dump the single, large image now! We’ve been preaching that message for a year now. Your e-mail might look gorgeous when viewed correctly, but image blocking and preview panes work together to render it as a big, white blob for anyone who hasn’t changed his default settings or added you to their contact or safe-sender lists. It’s also become an even greater spam flag, because so much junk or fraudulent e-mail is now delivered inside a single, large HTML image in an attempt to fool spam filters.
  • Resurrect your text-message template or design a new one. Although virtually all e-mail clients now render HTML with more or less success, not all e-mail users want it. You still need to offer a text option, not just to meet reader preference but to give you a useful template for breaking news or other contingencies when HTML doesn’t work. There’s an art to creating a text message. You can’t, for example, just dump copy from your HTML message into a plain-text template and expect good results.

Next, I’ll cover the fine points of crafting a readable, compelling text message without the bells, whistles, and streaming media of HTML.

In the meantime, keep on deliverin’!

Meet Stefan at E-Mail Marketing, the first in the new ClickZ Specifics conference series, October 24-25 in New York City.

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

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