March 06, 2013
Case Study

Email Marketing: User-generated content helps drive 16% clickthrough rate


Marketing teams at marketing vendors and agencies face an interesting conundrum -- how to market to, and impress, people working within the industry. What about doubling that challenge by creating an email campaign for prospects who are engaged in email marketing?

Litmus, an email testing and email marketing analytics vendor, launched a new feature for its product and services offering with a single email to its subscriber list.

Read on to find out how the marketing team utilized an animated GIF, clever subject line and multiple calls-to-action to drive 233 free trials and a 31.21% open rate.

by David Kirkpatrick, Senior Reporter


Litmus, an email testing and email marketing analytics vendor, planned an email campaign to launch a new feature in its product and services mix.

Justine Jordan, Marketing Director, Litmus, said having a small team made keeping up with the company’s IT development difficult, but another pain point was "trying to figure out how to market to marketers."

She stated, "One of our biggest challenges is there is always a feeling that we need to be demonstrating the best techniques, or the most creative uses of email, since we are selling an email product to marketers."

This case study dives into how the team at Litmus met that marketing challenge head-on and developed a standalone product launch mail campaign, including user-generated content from Twitter, that led to an open rate of 31.21%, clickthrough rate of 16.78% and 233 sign-ups for a free trial of the new feature promoted in the campaign.


The email effort announcing Litmus' new product feature included three main goals:

  • Inform email subscribers of the new product launch

  • Raise awareness about the new product

  • Drive free trial sign-ups


Step #1. Beta test the new product with select customers before the launch

While still in development, the new product was shared with a hand-picked group of the most valuable and favorite Litmus customers. Over a couple of months, this group had access to the new tool, and Litmus collaborated with the beta testers in what Jordan described as a "private base camp project."

Litmus' development team was able to work directly with the beta test group and received software bug reports as well as feedback on the tool.

While the beta testers were helping the development team refine and improve the tool, those beta testers were also providing a benefit for the marketing team.

Utilize user-generated content

Jordan said those select customers went to their social networks and began tweeting about the still unreleased product saying the new tool was "blowing their minds." Jordan said she wanted to leverage that user-generated content in the form of product testimonials before the product was available in full release.

Jordon said this copy was interesting because it wasn't "marketing spin." She explained, "It's the truth. People were just tweeting and saying it was blowing their minds, so I am going to use that [user-generated content.]"

She added, "While we do retweet user-generated content often — most frequently we'll retweet praise or other positive commentary, effectively inserting testimonials into our Twitter stream — this is the first time we've used actual user tweets or content inside an email."

Step #2. Determine the main email content element

The key element in the email design was an animated GIF that served as a short demo of Litmus' new tool.

Jordan said there were several reasons for using a GIF, one being Litmus had never used animated GIFs in previous email campaigns. Other reasons went to the heart of what the team wanted to convey in the product launch email.

"How do I communicate the interactivity of this new feature in a static email?" Jordan asked herself. "Video email is not very well supported. [And,] I can't really show how this feature works very well without showing it in action. I can describe it with words, but as far as the visual goes, I need something that moves."

Step #3. Make the call-to-action a prominent email element

Jordan said an important part of the GIF itself was having a clickable call-to-action (CTA) to able to watch a full video on a landing page on the Litmus website.

The clickable CTA on the GIF was, "Go beyond screenshots."

The email included two additional clickable CTAs, one directly below the GIF and the second at the bottom of the email, below the fold. These two CTAs were the same, "Learn more & free trial."

Although the team did not do any testing on this email effort, Jordan said previous testing had found that a free offer CTA was successful for Litmus.

The email also featured screen captures of Twitter interaction from the beta testers showing testimonials about the new product.

Jordan said Litmus' Twitter followers were very active, with around two dozen tweets daily featuring Litmus content, offering feedback, or praising Litmus.

When she began noticing the tweets about the new tool being "mind blowing" during the beta test with Litmus customers, she favorited those tweets to use during the launch campaign.

"I wanted to use the copy, but then I thought, 'Well, I didn't come up that,'" Jordan explained. "'A,' you want to give credit to the people that said that in the first place, and, 'B,' these are mini testimonials of user-generated content."

She continued, "So, I went back to our favorites in Twitter and I grabbed screen shots and put them in the email."

Step #4. Address technology issues with the email design

Jordan said although animated GIFs were much better supported in email than video, there were still technology issues with some email applications.

In Outlook 2007 and 2010, only the first frame of the GIF animation would display instead of cycling through the entire animation.

To make sure email recipients using either of those email clients would get the CTA in the GIF itself, the first frame of the GIF featured the clickable call-to-action image and only displayed for about a quarter of a second. The full animation ended with the same clickable image.

Step #5. Grab attention with the subject line

Along with an arresting design element in the animated GIF, and multiple CTAs within the email itself, the team also included an attention-grabbing subject line: "TESTING: Now interactive."

Jordan said the idea was to play on the anecdotal stories of email marketers accidentally sending test emails to the entire subscriber list with the inadvertent email send going out with a subject line of, "TESTING: Subject line."

"Since this campaign was about interactive testing, why not try to be cheeky and use that phenomenon to our advantage," Jordan explained.

Step #6. Use an "invisible" coupon to complete the free trial offer

Each clickable CTA included a coupon code unique to the campaign, and invisible to the email recipient, for tracking free trial redemptions.

Jordan explained this coupon code also negated the need for credit card details from potential customers to access the free trial. She added that requiring a credit card number created too much friction and served as a barrier to prospects taking advantage of the free trial offer.

Clicking on a CTA with the invisible coupon code took email recipients to the landing page with a very short form asking only for an email address, password creation fields (choose the password and confirmation), and first and last name.

For many B2B companies, this registration form would also serve as a lead capture, but Litmus does not have a sales staff and operates on a more direct sale model.

"There is no one really following up on leads," Jordan said, "but a coupon redeemed for us is a potential paying customer."

Step #7. Optimize for mobile devices up front

Litmus tracks the millions of emails sent to its customer's subscribers and releases anonymized aggregate report based on analysis of this data. One of those reports looks at where recipients are opening email, and through its internal data, the team knew around 40% of people are opening email with mobile devices.

Jordan said the team, with its limited resources, takes a "mobile first" approach to email design. She added that doing responsive design where the email looks different on different form factors such as desktop or laptop computers, tablets and smartphones wasn't feasible at Litmus.

"Doing that type of responsive design takes a lot longer than just doing one version of the email and I didn't have that kind of time," she said.

The result of this approach is the team created one version of the email that looks good on a desktop, but also looks good on mobile devices. The idea was to take mobile users into consideration first, meet their design needs, and then ensure the resulting email also looked good on larger computers.

Jordan said this created email design with a number of elements:



  • Larger than normal — at least 14 pixel font size

  • Copy and content gets to the point quickly

  • Text areas are around four lines each

  • Clickable buttons are large enough for tapping on a smartphone

  • Email body is skinnier than normal and only a single column because more than one column becomes difficult to read on smartphones

Jordan added another benefit of the mobile-first approach to email design is it forced the team to get to the point quickly with the email design and content.


One reason for the subject line described as "cheeky" by Jordan was to appeal to email marketers thinking they received something they weren't supposed to see and driving higher open rates. Jordan said the campaign did produce the highest open rates of 2012, but the margin was not as high as she hoped for.

"I was hoping that we would get more feedback about the cheeky subject line. A few people mentioned it, but not a ton of people," said Jordan. "I guess the takeaway is you can be as cheeky or creative as you want and I think your most devoted customers are going to notice, but I think for the majority of people it's just another email in the mail box."

For the new product launch, Litmus tracked a number of metrics:

  • 31.21% open rate

  • 16.78% overall clickthrough rate

  • 233 coupons redeemed

The metrics also included unique clicks on each of the three calls-to-action:

  • 48.81% CTR on animated GIF

  • 22.51% CTR on button at top of email under the GIF

  • 14.93% CTR on button at bottom of email below the fold

This particular campaign was something of a rarity for Litmus being a standalone email for a product launch. Most of Litmus' email marketing is newsletters for content marketing and education.

This effort achieved the highest open and clickthrough rates for the three standalone product launch email campaigns Litmus has run. The average for all three campaigns is 29.58% open rate and 14.02% clickthrough rate.

These numbers compare to Litmus' average for newsletter email campaigns: 27.67% open rate and 25.99% clickthrough rate. Jordan pointed out the key difference is clickthrough for the newsletter email campaigns.

Even though the subject line did not get as large of a response in terms of feedback that Jordan was looking for, she said overall the team was very pleased with the campaign as a standalone email launching a new Litmus product feature.

Including the user-generated content in form of tweets was a first for Litmus, but Jordan said Twitter and user feedback heavily influences the content strategy at Litmus. She said the team tracks user concerns for content market topics.

She stated, "Chances are if our user are talking about [a topic] on Twitter, they'd also love to read about it on our blog. And then share that blog on Twitter."

Jordan added, "Social proof can be very powerful when used properly and effectively. We're lucky that our audience, and the email marketing and design community in general, is very active on Twitter. A tweet can inspire a blog post, an email, or be used as content itself when done tastefully and credit is given, of course.

"It's a win-win since people love to see their tweets being recognized — social capital — and it also helps us quickly create new content."

Jordan said one interesting result of the user-generated tweets embedded in the email send was that the screenshot of each tweet was linked to the original tweet so it was easy for email recipients already logged into Twitter to hit the "retweet" button and share that testimonial to their network from within the email.

Creative Samples



  1. Landing page

  2. Desktop email display

  3. Mobile email display

  4. Results report



Related Resources

Emotional Email Design and Copywriting: The Secret to Driving Engagement and Sales (via The Email Marketing Chronicles)

Simple Animated Gif in Email Lifts Conversions 49% - Test Results

Email Design How-to: 5 insights to improve open and clickthrough rates

Mobile Email Marketing: 53% higher clickthrough rate for mobile-optimized newsletter

Case Study: Creativity vs. clarity in email subject lines






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