Email – where should we go from here?

Is it me or are there two camps forming in Email Marketing at the moment?

Since the birth of email marketing, email designers and developers have had to hack their way around HTML code, using archaic HTML development techniques in order produce emails that just work.

With time, ISPs have been improving. Slowly. Allowing us in the industry to innovate and use some newer CSS and HTML techniques to enhance our emails for our users.

Progressive enhancement has been the name of the game. That is, progressively enhancing your emails by using new techniques but having solid a fallback in place for those uglier email providers. *cough* Gmail *cough*

There are many of those working in email today that are taking progressive enhancement to new levels. Not content with including web fonts and a little bit of CSS3 animation, email developers are including interactive content, carousels and hamburger menus in their emails. After all, we’re using Which is truly astonishing. I’ve not witnessed this amount of development in such a short amount of time within email marketing.

If websites can do it, email should too right?

Should we be striving to accomplish what web designers and developers have been able to do on websites for years? Or should we instead remember that email is a different domain to a website with a different set of requirements and needs?

It’s no lie that I don’t instantly want to try these new techniques the email community are pushing out there. And I did. Followed by the biggest amount of regret.

Excitedly I put together an experimental email with a hamburger menu. Read and understood the code. Implemented it in the email and was ridiculously proud of myself as I saw the menu in action. Then came that aforementioned regret.

Why did I need to have this hamburger menu in the email? Was it really necessary? I’m one of the first people to want to hide navigation in emails after a certain break point. There just isn’t enough real estate in emails to warrant having navigation bars at some points. Why was I putting all this hacky code in my email in order to leave something in that I really don’t believe needs to be in emails?

This little exercise was an eye opener for me. While it was a great learning experience, I began wondering whether this sort of interactivity is even important. It’s definitely a great way to perhaps bring up engagement and the time a customer spends reading/interacting with an email. But a lot of these techniques require a certain browser or device. So you’re catering to a small audience already. (Unless you already know that your entire customer base exclusively uses an iPhone.) Sure the email community still remembers that B&Q email but has the consumer?

I know that’s not the point

All these brand new techniques are being conjured up from some fantastic minds as a way of problem solving. Not to mention a fabulous way to demonstrate to ISPs what is possible if they just let us.

I’d like to think that the end-user would be more impressed and engaged when opening an email that contains totally personalised and relevant content. Content that will surprise and delight them because it’s exactly what they’ve been looking for and it’s seemingly been plucked out of the air.

At the start of writing this, I felt sure which side I was on. Now at the end of writing this, I’m not sure. I definitely think that carousels, hamburger menus and the likes aren’t necessities in emails. This sort of interactivity works on the web but that doesn’t mean it’s got a purpose in email as well. Email is a whole different ball game. Though at the same time, without these innovations we wouldn’t be able to show what could be capable in email if ISPs just let us. And so remind them that they need to move forward with the times too.

I’m going to have to say it, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you have to. Instead ask yourself why am I doing this.

17 thoughts on “Email – where should we go from here?”

  1. Brilliant thinking, Jaina.

    It’s important that this these experiments are done. It gives us something to study and learn from. But ultimately we have to decide if the time+effort spent building something makes business sense. (I also wonder if that B&Q email paid off.)

    In his TEDC14 talk, Kevin Mandeville described his audience as “internet-savvy Apple Mail users”. I’m glad people like him push email forward like this. I’m also glad there are so many cool CodePens, even if they never see production. I’m glad there are fake app designs on dribbble that never get built.

    It gets the rest of us thinking. It shows us what’s possible. Even if we never ship an email with a hamburger tab menu and animated alt text!

    1. It would be so sad if we were, as a community, content with just doing what we knew would work. There are so many “what if” people that’s pushed our knowledge, collectively. And that they all share their findings – it’s amazing! Though I’m definitely going to be one to take everything in before thinking about implementing some techniques we’re seeing be produced today. You’ve got such a short amount of time to get the users attention and get them to engage, will that carousel that you spent hours creating be worth it?

      Thanks for commenting, Ted!

  2. Interesting point of view, which I agree with. There is no point to overload your email with funky stuff when you have less than 5 seconds to grab an attention of majority of openers.
    Simply, it isn’t efficient enough and ISPs need to work on their rendering engines harder. Having a fallback of a fallback of a fallback isn’t the best way to spend your life 😉

    1. Very much so! I can understand if you’re perhaps doing a very targeted email and you can employ some brilliant techniques to bring your email to life. But even then, like you said, your email’s time in front of a user is SO short. If you don’t grab them in that amount of time, your time is almost wasted. It feels like a terrible way to think about it!

      1. Yep. It is terrible, but it’s true. That’s why I’m leaning towards eBay/Amazon email where targeting is, well, acceptable, rather than Pizza Express and their funky builds 🙂 I think it’s a waste of time.
        But it’s only my opinion 🙂

  3. You really hit the nail on the head. I’ve experimented with all of these things before, but I came to the same conclusions, especially with navigation and hamburger navs. My thought is that navigation in an email is not navigation. They are just secondary calls to action. You don’t use them to navigate, you click on them to leave the email and enter the website, at which point the website takes over. So why hide a call to action? Why are these secondary calls to action placed above the main cta in the email hierarchy? Probably because we’re used to seeing it there, and that’s fine. But on mobile, hierarchy and real estate are a lot more important. I try to style a redundant nav at the bottom of emails on mobile, and hide them from the top. A hamburger nav is wrong on so many levels. The nav is still at the top, the ctas are hidden, and it’s not well supported.

    1. A great point – hiding calls to action in an email, where invariably someone will be looking at click-through rates as a measurement of success alone, feels like a very foolish thing to do. From my own experience, navigations are often left in emails as is to bolster click-through rates. But then if you have so much in your navigation that you have to have it all and then simultaneously hide it for mobile? Hmm, something’s not quite right there!

      I’m hoping, that if I was working freelance and a client did ask me for something like this in an email, I’d be able to educate them well enough to make them understand why such things aren’t always a great thing in emails.

  4. “ Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you have to do it” – I couldn’t agree more, Jaina. As I keep saying, it’s really about putting the #SubscriberFirst. That’s the reason why I’ve focused on typography so much, because I know it will benefit the person reading the email. That said, I do believe in pushing the envelope in regards to email, though you’ll find that the best innovations are born out of necessity rather than the need to follow the latest trend.

    1. The #SubscriberFirst mentality is what email should be all about. Whether it’s to do with the content, design, build – you’ve got to put yourself in their place.

      The best innovations are born out of necessity, you’re totally right. And I think with email, we’re still trying to figure out some of the necessities. Though those variables change so much from campaign to campaign. The best necessities I like at the moment are things like the ghost column hack and bulletproof buttons.

  5. Great post Jaina! Totally agree. We were discussing it at AR the other day: pushing the boundaries of what we can do — within the boundaries of context. A difficult concept to synthesise!

    Look forward to reading more.

    1. Cheers, Mike!

      pushing the boundaries of what we can do — within the boundaries of context

      This is exactly it. As long as we can get this right, I see no harm in pushing email to the limits of what its capable of.

  6. Great article, I think you have a lot of good points but want to make a quick case in favour of these progressive emails (and save my job).

    As you say there is a very short time to capture the users attention. Well designed eye catching CSS animation can draw the user in, then interactive content can further engage them.

    Traditional emails generally follow the user journey;
    “Click here to go to the site” -> “Get content, interact etc.”
    If you can cut out that first step cleanly then it’s a much better UX to do everything in the email and very much with the #SubscriberFirst mentality.

    It takes A LOT of time to build and more importantly test this code.
    It’s very easy to get carried away and put stuff in “just ‘cos”.

    Well considered, well built, well tested enhancements lead to a better experience for the subscriber and better results for the sender.

    As Wham! once said “If you’re gonna do it, do it right”

    1. Gotta give you some kudos for getting a Wham! lyric in your comment 😉

      Cutting out that first step in getting your customer to make that step and click through is definitely where I see progressive enhancement working. You’re right – if I were to see something that catches my eye with some subtle animation I may be more inclined to be engaged and click. However, these days, I’ve noticed that I get more drawn into emails with personalised and relevant content. They speak more to me. It could be that I’m growing weary of emails (What with the hundreds I’m subscribed to.), and every customer is different after all.

      When new things are introduced it’s definitely very easy to get carried away. It’s our jobs and duties to our customers to sit back and ask ourselves why. Why and what’s the benefit. If there are valid reasons, I say go ahead with your carousel fly swatting game! (I really do love that!)

      1. With Mark on this one (also trying to save my job).

        Is there any reason you couldn’t have an interactive carousel of products, with good personalisation and relevance. There’s nothing that holds back dynamic content within more progressive designs.

        Also the more these are built, the quicker the build process. It only takes time initially… Once you’ve built a slider or a carousel a few times they fly out 😉

        1. Of course, you can combine the two. My big concern is that we can often get wrapped up in things that aren’t as important as getting the basics right. Getting the ground work done in terms of basic email marketing like ensuring the message is right or we’ve communicated as best we can in the best way for the customers.

          Also, the way email clients up and change these days, one other concern would be one day all those carousels you’ve lovingly built over the course of time will all of a sudden not work, without notice! :O

  7. Hey Jaina,

    Very thoughtful article! Meant to chime in earlier but the other folks have beat me to some of what I wanted to say 🙂 For me these email “tricks” as you’ve pointed out, serve more to demonstrate to the ISPs and developers (since they influence client development somewhat) that email is no longer 1999 and we can do some really cool stuff without Javascript.

    However I know tricks by themselves do not add value to the sender or recipients. And hence I was especially glad to see practical implementations by Jerry “Hamburger” Martinez and the BnQ emails. Going forward IF interactivity in emails take hold, there would be two new camps – those that advocate for the click and those that advocate for the engagement.

    Right now the goal of a lot of campaigns is to get the recipient’s interest and have them click to the site which would be better optimized for the conversion. However with an enhanced email experience, some of the priming could happen within the email itself.

    Obviously I’m rooting for the later camp 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Justin!

      I actually find it hard to really figure out which camp I sit in, regarding this. I flip flop almost on the daily. Like you, I think it’s great pushing forward and pushing what’s really possible within email clients. And that email is more than just inline styles and tables.

      It’s funny that you mention two new camps forming – advocate for clicks vs. engagement. One is an easier sell to stakeholders while one’s the slightly harder slog. Both come down to capturing the customer’s attention and if your customer needs or wants that extra bit of oomph in their email, then it’s our job to provide.

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