DM News' Essential Guide to E-Mail Marketing: Consumers Want Picture Perfect E-Mail

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It began allegedly as a security and privacy measure. To protect customers from unsavory images in e-mail, AOL began suppressing all images - a policy that was adopted by heavy hitters such as Microsoft Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail. Each now suppresses external images by default and requires individual users to take proactive steps, such as clicking on a link, to see the full visual content of a message.

With no way to tell whether recipients have images turned on or off, direct marketers often are left with only a vague idea of whether their HTML is rendering correctly or appearing as a mottled checkerboard of blocked images and blank space.

Though image suppression may have begun as a protective measure, a new study by Lyris suggests that this policy may be out of step with what consumers want. Of 298 regular e-mail users, 75 percent said their e-mail programs are set to display all images, while another 18 percent said they choose to view some, but not all, images.

Only 4 percent said they have opted to block all visual content outright, even though several major e-mail clients are set to do this by default. This figure contrasts with the 30 percent of e-mail users who said they made manual adjustments to their e-mail program so they can see all images, which suggests that consumers view visual content as an enhancement to their e-mail experience, not a detractor.

As further evidence of consumers' image-friendly stance, only 13 percent said they were concerned about receiving inappropriate or offensive images via e-mail. This may be because of the increasing accuracy and sophistication of spam filtering. Or it may suggest that Internet service provider response to the whole image question may have had more to do with cutting bandwidth costs than protecting customers in the first place.

Whatever the reason, consumers clearly want and expect to see images in their e-mails. Images may even help them sort the good e-mail from the bad. A full 81 percent of respondents said they preferred an HTML e-mail to a plain text one - a distinct reversal from years past.

Ironically, this may have something to do with the pervasiveness of phishing scams sent via e-mail, many of which are plain text or badly formatted messages. It seems that the high production values and more professional appearance of a carefully crafted HTML e-mail may serve as a cue to consumers that the sender is trustworthy, a trend that works in favor of legitimate marketers who take the time to produce attractive, interesting content.

Of course, DMers are still well advised to optimize how messages will appear with no images. The good news is that the majority of consumers are going out of their way to view them, particularly when they find the images to be of real interest and value.

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