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Mar 25, 2008
Case Study

Quick Fix of Red X Email Images Lifts Revenue 379%

SUMMARY: ALT-text tags are a no-brainer for marketers looking to combat email images that are turned off. But there’s another solution so you can get more of your message seen.

See how an eretailer nearly doubled clickthroughs and increased revenue 379%. Includes A/B test results, easy-to-follow instructions and creative samples.
Last fall, Mark Kaiser, VP Marketing, Legendary Whitetails, was perusing email industry benchmarks for deliverability, open, clickthrough and conversion rates. Their stats weren’t bad, but he knew he and his team could do much better.

“We had been dialing in our audience’s sensibilities for 12 years and felt very good about our email list,” Kaiser says. “There was a reason we weren’t taking our performance [to a higher level]. We wanted to figure out what was getting in between our messages and our customers.”

Ultimately, they decided it was how they were putting their message together -- not the content -- that was disconnecting with email subscribers. With essentially all email systems not automatically rendering images, they also had a hunch their HTML-heavy campaigns were often getting the dreaded red “X.”

Kaiser and his team knew they could add more ALT-text tags to their emails so that descriptive words would show up along with the red X, but they wondered if another solution existed.

They dug out an “old-school” email design feature called a table cell. Table cells -- often referred to simply as tables -- can contain various types of information and can span multiple rows or columns.

Their inherent delivery advantage is in the idea that Web mail providers don’t strip their color or text, even if recipients’ images are turned off. It may not be a full-color picture, but it’s better than a big white box with a little red X in the corner.

Here’s how Kaiser and his team implemented the feature:

-> Stage #1. Set up an A/B split test

First, they took an already scheduled free-shipping campaign and created a second version for an A/B split test.

* Content similarities
The control and test group received the same content: a main text offer in relatively large, reverse Arial font stacked vertically in a red-brown color box that measured 441 pixels by 400 pixels (see creative samples below).

o “Limited Time Offer” (font size -- 49 pixels)
o “Free Shipping” (57 pixels)
o “Ends 10-31-07” (35 pixels)
o “Start Now” button (18 pixels)
o “Free Shipping available on orders over $99 to a single destination within the U.S.” (15 pixels)

Additionally, recipients viewed the same six product categories that let them click through to a different section of the site: Men’s, Women’s, Kids, Home, Gifts and Specials.

* Formatting difference
How the two samples differed on technical levels was of greater importance. Here’s how each sample appeared on the back end:

- For the control group, they used Legendary Whitetails’ regular template with six main vertical columns of HTML *strips* (e.g., design boxes). The columns helped construct the HTML-only coded image that pitched the key offer.

Six more HTML strips were at the bottom to showcase the product category buttons. For subscribers with images turned off, the 12 HTML strips appeared simply as red Xs when they opened their email.

- For the test group email, Kaiser and his team used five HTML strips: the header, two side ads and a pair of ads placed near the bottom. If subscribers had images turned off, these strips appeared as red Xs.

However, they used different HTML programming for the main offer, employing simple text and color code with an ad designed in a table cell. The reverse text was placed on top of a red-brown background inside the table cell, and the background and text were one piece (see creative samples below).

They used the same table-cell layout technique for the product categories at the bottom of the test email. Content in the table cells rendered even with images turned off.

Kaiser and his team knew going in that each email design had its drawbacks:
- For the control sample, the entire message would not render for recipients with images turned off.
- For the test sample: the large ad for the main offer was not one big hyperlink to their landing page, so they worried about a drop in clickthroughs. To go to the offer, recipients had to click on the “Start Now” button, which was underlined in blue.

-> Stage #2. Use ALT-text tags to identify brand

To get their brand name to show up in the HTML header when images were turned off, the team used ALT-text tags. Kaiser didn’t want recipients to be confused by who was pitching the promotion that was in the table-cell ad.

They added ALT-text tags by:
o Opening the image tag (IMG)
o Adding the ALT-text attribute: (img src="http://..." alt="XYZ")

-> Stage #3. Test various ISPs

Kaiser and his team pre-tested the images-off creative to make sure recipients using different email systems would see the same thing. They used the most popular addresses on their list of accounts for the following ISPs or email clients: Outlook, Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, MacMail and Yahoo!


Well, Kaiser was right with his hunch about the underperformance of their email list. The test results proved that focusing on your images-off crowd can pay big dividends:

o Deliverability was 10.1% higher
o Open rate rose 28.6%
o Clickthrough rate jumped 83.4%
o Revenue skyrocketed 379.3%

At the same time, Kaiser and his team’s worries about the clickthrough limitations of the test sample (i.e., the “Start Now” button) was unwarranted. Not surprisingly, they’ve been using the table cells --mixed in with their ALT-tags and HTML images -- ever since.

“I can say that the bump we’ve seen in clickthroughs has been matched by the lift we’ve seen in orders,” Kaiser says. “And for a reason we cannot put our finger on, we’ve been seeing a higher average order value since then as well.”

A key lesson learned: Don’t assume your customers have added you to their address books or permanently enabled your HTML images.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Legendary Whitetails’ email tests:

Past Sherpa article: How a Simple Newsletter Design Tweak Turned Red Xs Into an Asset

Sitebrand - helped with the template makeover:

Legendary Whitetails:

See Also:

Comments about this Case Study

Mar 25, 2008 - Ophir Prusak of says:
At the risk of sounding obvious, having the main message of an email be in an image is just bad practice. It valuable to read the quantitative difference this change made, but to be frank, I'm a bit surprised that companies are (were) still sending "you must have images on to read this email" type emails in 2007/8. - Ophir

Mar 25, 2008 - Chris Heine of MarketingSherpa says:
Thank you very much the comments, Ophir. Indeed, your last sentence underscores why we did this Case Study. Believe it or not, there are still name-brand marketers -- who work inside generously funded departments -- sending emails that do not render any of the major content parts in the message body at all if images are turned off. We'll not name names to protect the not-so-innocent, but we see them regularly in our Sherpa inboxes. Meanwhile, among marketers who are more in-the-know about the response cost of ignoring the images-off challenge, there are an increasing number of marketers employing the HTML old-school table cells. Therefore, we believe the timing of this Case Study is apt. Hopefully, it will get the word out to brands that are ignoring this design area and hurting their response rates.

Mar 26, 2008 - Daniel Foster of TechSmith says:
I didn't see any mention of it in the article, but it looks like the "Can't see this? Click here" link was also added as part of the redesign. Did they measure how many sales came via that link?

Mar 26, 2008 - Chris Heine of MarketingSherpa says:
Thanks for the inquiry, Daniel. While Legendary Whitetails hasn't analyzed how much adding the link to the design aided the big lift in revenue, it's still good to point out that providing such an avenue for recipients is a clear-cut email best practice. It certainly could not have hurt their cause in this before-and-after test.

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