March 25, 2010
How To

Email Design Tactics for Blocked Images: 3 Options

SUMMARY: It’s hard to believe that some email marketers still send HTML messages that make no provision for viewing/readability when images are blocked.

Yet, when a poorly designed message landed in our inbox this week, we realized it was time to reinforce simple tactics that let you convey your message even when recipients block your images. Includes advice on when to use text-only emails, writing ALT-text tags, and the benefits of table cells.
Earlier this week, we received an email from a major brand promising a "special limited-time offer" in the subject line. We opened the message -- and saw nothing but a couple of small red X’s and one line of text encouraging us to add the sender to our white list. (See the email in question, with the sender’s information obscured, in the Useful Links section)

Out of curiosity and surprise, we downloaded the images. As expected, it was a postcard-style campaign that contained the offer and the call-to-action all in one HTML image. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the campaign’s audience likely never saw the offer at all. Only 33% of email users say they have images turned on by default in their email clients, according to MarketingSherpa’s 2010 Email Marketing Benchmark Report.

We realized it was time for a reminder about the importance of designing emails to work around image suppression. Here are three options to consider before you send your next HTML campaign:

Option #1. Consider a text-only email instead

Most marketers prefer HTML email because it gives them more design flexibility (layout, colors, images, buttons, etc.) and potentially more impact than just text.

But these design elements are not always necessary. Before creating an email for a specific campaign, ask yourself if the message really needs images and color, or if plain text might achieve your goal just as effectively.

For example, special requests like event or survey invitations often benefit from appearing less like a typical marketing promotion and more like a personal appeal to the recipient.

Dave Wieneke, Director, Digital Marketing, Sokolove Law, described how his team changed their tactics for email survey invitations by sending a personalized, text-only note from a company leader. The simple copy emphasized reasons to participate and the quick nature of the survey, achieving a 30% response rate, compared to their average survey response rate of 5%-10%.

Option #2. Make the most of ALT-text tags

It’s essential to use ALT-text for any HTML email message you send. This simple coding technique allows you to add a text description of an image in the space where that image would otherwise appear.

But don’t just give your ALT-text tags generic descriptions, like "logo" or "banner" or "click here." Use the text to explain:
o What the blocked image is showing
o Where the link leads
o What the offer is

For example, the team at HomeAway, a vacation rental site, designed the ALT-text tags in their email newsletter to provide calls-to-action for readers who could not see images. Pictures of featured destinations, such as Lake Tahoe and Portland, Ore. used the following tags:
o View HomeAway’s Lake Tahoe vacation rentals
o View HomeAway’s Portland, Ore. vacation rentals

Had the marketer who sent us the blank email this week used ALT-text tags, we at least might have seen text telling us there was a 35% discount offer waiting for us.

Option #3. Consider using table cells

If you feel that ALT-text tags aren’t giving you enough impact, you can create messages using a design tactic called table cells, or tables. These tables allow your message to retain the basic structure of your HTML messages, including columns and image sizes. And they also allow you to show some color and images within the table -- even if the recipient has images turned off.

The team at hunting outfitter Legendary White Tails tested the table cell format against a standard HTML message for a postcard-style email promotion:

- In the center of the table, they placed a large, two-color image of an advertisement promoting limited-time free shipping, surrounded by a standard header, right and left columns, and a footer.

- Recipients with images turned off still saw the red-and-white free-shipping offer and call-to-action, "start now."

- The table cell design vastly outperformed the basic HTML message, which only showed ALT-text tags to recipients with images turned off. The table cell message achieved:
o 28.6% higher open rate
o 83.4% higher CTR
o 379.3% more revenue

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples for image blocking design tactics:

Dave Wieneke’s survey invitation example: Customize Email to Engage Subscribers and Improve Results: 5 Tactics

HTML vs. Text Email: Which Works Better in a Short Conversion Cycle?

Legendary White Tails Case Study: Quick Fix of Red X Email Images Lifts Revenue 379%

How a Simple Newsletter Design Tweak Turned Red Xs Into an Asset

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